Resilience Forgotten: Hong Kong Flu Pandemic of 1968

Resilience Forgotten: Hong Kong Flu Pandemic of 1968

Resilience Forgotten: Hong Kong Flu Pandemic of 1968

Those of us who are of a certain age remember the Hong Kong flu pandemic of 1968-69. Rather, we sort of remember it. That’s because we didn’t panic, didn’t shut down the economy, and maintained a resilience that seems to be missing during the COVID-19 pandemic. What has happened to us as a nation?

I’m old enough to remember hearing about the Hong Kong flu, but I was more interested in school and rock music. As for my husband, who is a few years older than me, he believes he caught the HK flu and became sick for about two weeks. The aftereffects, he recalls, were a lingering cough and annoying voice breaks which lasted about a month. But go to the doctor? Nah.

The 1968 Hong Kong flu pandemic remains one of the five worst flu epidemics of recent history. Unlike the coronavirus, or SarsCoV-2, that virus was H3N2, which evolved from the 1957 Asian flu outbreak. In Hong Kong, where it originated, H3N2 infected 500,000 people — 15% of that city’s population — before it traveled worldwide. The Hong Kong flu’s final butcher’s bill came to 1 million persons dead across the globe. The virus was so contagious that even three killer whales at Sea World in San Diego became infected.

Hong Kong flu still circulates today and surfaces in mutated forms, so today’s flu vaccines include strains of H3N2.

While the flu first popped up in HK in July, 1968, it didn’t reach American shores until December of that year, arriving in California via soldiers returning from Vietnam. Eventually the flu swept across the country, killing about 100,000 people, mostly aged 65 and over.


American soldiers in Vietnam. Credit: US Army/public domain.

However, unlike America during today’s COVID-19, America during the 1968 Hong Kong flu pandemic demonstrated greater moral resilience to illness. We didn’t shut down businesses, or demand that healthy people stay in their homes. Nor did we hear daily news conferences about “flattening the curve,” or endless sappy TV spots reminding us that “we’re all in this together.” Plus the only people who wore surgical masks were . . well, surgeons! No one wore them on the streets.

And people went to work, ignoring the virus. As one office worker from Los Angeles recalled:

“Other than my coworkers bringing their own alcohol to wipe down their desks and wipe down pencils and not use pencils that clients had used, we didn’t do anything.”

Schools didn’t close, either. Neither did sports events or concerts; in fact, one California attorney remembers going to a Grateful Dead concert at the University of Southern California.

And speaking of music, the reggae group “The Ethiopians” recorded a song in 1969 called “Hong Kong Flu.”

“Some say it’s dengue fever
I know it’s Hong Kong flu
You watch this dengue fever
I know what it will do”

Some might say that those living 50 years ago were tougher than today’s generation; perhaps that’s true. After all, we didn’t have access to measles, mumps, or chickenpox vaccines, since they didn’t exist. Instead, most of us caught those highly contagious diseases. We rode in cars without seat belts and rode our bikes without helmets. We climbed on monkey bars that had nothing below except concrete. Well, I’ll take that back. My school had gravel underneath its playground equipment, although it wasn’t the smooth tiny pebbles you might see on today’s playgrounds. No, our gravel consisted of gray limestone rocks, most likely from a quarry in nearby Chicago. That also led to a lot of bloody hands and knees if you fell.

Millennials can snicker at boomers all they want, but we developed a certain resilience that so many of them lack.

We who lived through the Hong Kong flu pandemic didn’t have 24/7 news broadcasts, either. You couldn’t turn on a news channel and watch the president and his medical team drone on and on about flattening curves and social distancing. There were no gaggles of doctors eager to get TV face time by discussing coronavirus. Plus, there were no personal computers, no electronic devices, no social media commentary to belch forth dreck from internet fools.

So why does it seem that our national resilience is gone?

As a nation, we no longer seem to seek out the God of our forefathers, be they Christian or Jewish. Instead, we worship science — the irony here is that the science surrounding the coronavirus models has been so, so wrong. Or we worship government as the source of the good things in our lives — ignoring the fact that our so-called “representatives” are more worried about their next election than they are about their constituents. Far be it from them to go against the grain of the media and “science,” which demand that we continue the lockdown. But that makes Americans more dependent upon government largesse, so it’s a win for the DC political elites.

We were far better off when we prayed to God and relied upon ourselves to make our own best decisions. That’s the sort of resilience we need now, and what we are sadly lacking.


Featured image: Model of influenza virus at Smithsonian Museum of Natural History/Tim Evanson/flickr/cropped/CC BY-SA 2.0.

Written by

Kim is a pint-sized patriot who packs some big contradictions. She is a Baby Boomer who never became a hippie, an active Republican who first registered as a Democrat (okay, it was to help a sorority sister's father in his run for sheriff), and a devout Lutheran who practices yoga. Growing up in small-town Indiana, now living in the Kansas City metro, Kim is a conservative Midwestern gal whose heart is also in the Seattle area, where her eldest daughter, son-in-law, and grandson live. Kim is a working speech pathologist who left school system employment behind to subcontract to an agency, and has never looked back. She describes her conservatism as falling in the mold of Russell Kirk's Ten Conservative Principles. Don't know what they are? Google them!

  • Ampleforth says:

    I don’t remember the Hong Kong Flu. I recall my parents talking about it, and there was some suspicion that it nearly killed me when I was two years old. I have vague memories of being in the hospital but no recollection of the illness.That’s probably the only reason I heard about it.

    Were people tougher in 1968. I don’t know. I know that while I was never as athletic as my children I was instilled with a certain physical toughness from the way my neighbors and I played games. We played rough. I played rough with my kids, but the children with whom they were raised didn’t play rough. In fact, their friends didn’t come out of the house very much. When my son was 12 a pediatrician did a resistance test on my son’s arms. He was happy to see that my son had great strength in his arms. The doctor then said that most 12 year old boys don’t have any strength in a certain set of muscles (I can’t remember). The discussion led to him condemning too much time playing video games.

    I feel pretty confident that my generation is much more mentally tough than the ones making decisions today. My neighborhood mates and I never had our parents solving our problems. They let us boys slug it out if we were mad at each other. They never intervened if we’re playing too rough. If one of us got hurt, we were physically helped (usually with merthiolate c.s.) but not molly-coddled about it. Risk was accepted. Parents had a definite “suck it up” sort of attitude.

    This afternoon I was behind a car with a license plate honoring people who suffer from Alzheimer’s Disease. A little bit of the money for that plate goes to some charity, but I don’t think people get those kinds of license plates because of the financial benefit to charities. They get them as a badge. I promise I’m not trying to be critical. I do not get personalized tags or any of the many recognizing everything from Autism to Breast Cancer.

    My parents instilled into my siblings and I a sense of quietly contributing and quietly honoring. Honor God. Well, God is missing from most people’s lives these days, so that void is filled with license plates and stickers, etc., showing that they care. They don’t know to pray to God to multiply their contribution to charity or relief.

    I’m not even trying to argue that quietly giving is some sort of indulgence being paid into Tetzel’s purse. There was a confidence in an individual knowing what they did without recognition. My wife was raised the same way.

    I believe there is a massive amount of hubris in our response to the Covid-19 virus. It’s not unlike the Tower of Babel. We believe that we’re gods and can stop a disease from killing people. Foolishness. It’s going to take lives slowly or quickly depending on how we handle it. It will continue to take lives until our immune systems adjust to it or we develop a vaccine for it (not much success with corona vaccines). So, we’re going to compound the problem by weakening our immunities by hunkering in our houses, convincing ourselves that we’re somehow saving lives. Somehow we have turned ourselves into the Domicile of Babel. We’re just adjusting death’s timeline. Our society has the absolute arrogance to believe that death can be stopped.

    Death is hard to stop in this mortal world. I’ve held the hands of three loved ones as they gurgled away their lives (from other diseases). I held the hand of a man who laid wounded in the median of an interstate. A state trooper and I tried to keep him with us. We failed.

    We might be able to slow down Covid deaths, but we’re not going to stop them by hunkering in our houses. We are going to exacerbate deaths from depression, suicide, alcohol abuse, domestic violence, drug abuse as the economy and economic systems collapse around us.

  • GWB says:

    We were far better off when we prayed to God and relied upon ourselves to make our own best decisions.
    And we were better off when we remembered we were going to die some day, and lived our lives without inordinate fear of it.

  • DAVE says:

    It is of interest to note that during both the Hong Kong flu epidemic and the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic WARS were being fought! We are facing DEATH (per NYS Governor Cuomo) if we so much as stick our noses into a pizza shop ( BUT the petrie dish NYC subway is ok…) — notice the difference? In order to develop resilience, one must be meaningfully challenged in a realistic manner and the participation trophy mentality does not foster that view… The next step is a faulty drug fix from the preferred vendor (Gilead) and a partially effective vaccine.

  • Sean says:

    Maybe it’s just that the HK flu and this new Cov virus are two different viruses that cause different diseases and reactions in people and have very different rates of contagion/transmissibility and therefore require different approaches? Although sure, I guess maybe it could be that we rode in cars without seatbelts in 1968.

    • Scott says:

      Two different CORONA viruses, yes, very similar in transmission rates, etc YES (except that the HK flu was far deadlier)

  • Thanks for sharing.

    the media elite wants people to forget this flu ever happened, because they would question these social distancing measures!

  • Felix robles says:

    Best article to date. So true! I caught the Hong Flu in 1969 at 19 years of age laid me out went to sleep for 16 hours woke up cough lingered for several weeks But got up and went along my business of school and work. In those days you did not have time to get sick. You also didn’t go to the doctor. Those days are no longer here.

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