March 13, 2020
Surrounded by amulets of the coronavirus crisis, I stare out my window at a city that may or may not be on the verge of disaster. To my right is a case of canned pasta. To my left are cartons of corned-beef hash from New Jersey and bottled water from Maine. I’m ready for whatever comes.
Except, I’m not ready. In fact, even at my advanced 80-something age, I find the whole COVID-19 panic to be strange and troubling. I’ve lived through epidemics before, but they didn’t crash the stock market, wreck a booming economy, and shut down international travel. They didn’t stop the St. Patrick’s Day parade or the NCAA basketball tournament, and they didn’t drop the curtain on Broadway shows. Will these extreme measures have any real effect on the spread of COVID-19 in New York, or America? We’re about to find out.
My first encounter with a global pandemic came in October 1957, when I spent a week in my college infirmary with a case of the H2N2 virus, known at the time by the politically incorrect name of “Asian flu.” My fever spiked to 105, and I was sicker than I’d ever been. The infirmary quickly filled with other cases, though some ailing students toughed it out in their dorm rooms with aspirin and orange juice. The college itself did not close, and the surrounding town did not impose restrictions on public gatherings. The day that I was discharged from the infirmary, I played in an intercollegiate soccer game, which drew a big crowd.
It’s not that Asian flu—the second influenza pandemic of the twentieth century—wasn’t a serious disease. Worldwide, this flu strain killed somewhere between 1 and 2 million people. More than 100,000 died in the U.S. alone. And yet, to the best of my knowledge, governors did not call out the National Guard, and political panic-mongers did not blame it all on President Eisenhower. College sports events were not cancelled, planes and trains continued to run, and Americans did not regard one another with fear and suspicion, touching elbows instead of hands. We took the Asian flu in stride. We said our prayers and took our chances.
Today, I look back and wonder if an oblivious America faced the 1957 plague with a kind of clueless folly. Why weren’t we more active in fighting this contagion? Could stricter quarantine procedures have reduced the rate of infection and lowered the death toll? In short, why weren’t we more afraid?
It’s hard to answer that question without explaining what it was like to grow up in an age of infectious illness. My mother once showed me a list of the contagious diseases she survived before the age of 20. On the list were the usual childhood illnesses, along with deadly afflictions like typhoid fever, pneumonia, diphtheria (it killed her older brother), scarlet fever, and the lethal 1918–19 Spanish flu, which took more than 50 million lives around the world.
For those who grew up in the 1930s and 1940s, there was nothing unusual about finding yourself threatened by contagious disease. Mumps, measles, chicken pox, and German measles swept through entire schools and towns; I had all four. Polio took a heavy annual toll, leaving thousands of people (mostly children) paralyzed or dead. There were no vaccines. Growing up meant running an unavoidable gauntlet of infectious disease. For college students in 1957, the Asian flu was a familiar hurdle on the road to adulthood. For everyone older, the flu was a familiar foe. There was no possibility of working at home. You had to go out and face the danger.
Today, thanks to vaccines, fewer and fewer people remember what it was like to survive a succession of childhood diseases. Is the unfamiliar threat of serious sickness making us more afraid of COVID-19 than we need to be? Does a society that relies more on politics than faith now find itself in an uncomfortable bind, unable to lecture, browbeat, intimidate, or evade the incorrect behavior of a dangerous microbe?
When the coronavirus finally runs its course, one of the most important tasks for health-care officials will be to determine whether the preventive measures we’re taking today were effective. Did deploying the National Guard save lives, or did it simply expose the soldiers to an infection that, in the end, could not be stopped? Did we pay too high a price for tanking our economy and disrupting our society?
Or did we get it right, acting quickly and decisively to slow the virus, shutting down possible pathways of infection? By comparing the 2020 data with information from 1957, we’ll also be able to find out if the strange people who lived in that distant year—and I remember them well—could have done more to reduce the death toll of the Asian flu. The more answers we get, and the sooner we get them, the better it will be for everyone. When the curtain goes up on Broadway again, somewhere in a faraway continent to be named later, we can be sure that new viruses will be waiting in the wings.
J.Dallas Winegarden Jr. says
Most Intellectual snobs are blind to science ,blind to proactive action and act accordingly,
To Little to Late . This is not the olden day’s, Trump should have reacted 11 Days Ago .
But ignored the risk, failed to warn of the danger, and will go down in history (along with
51 Senators who should have remove him ) As A President who allowed people to die
Rather than follow Doctors Orders. What a Genius !??
Matt Crehan says
US Cases: 1,215
US Deaths: 36
Panic Level: Mass Hysteria
US Cases: 60.8 Million
US Deaths: 12,469
Panic Level: None Reported
Since the impeachment charade failed, the culprits have devised a new phony scare.
J.Dallas Winegarden Jr. says
NONSENSE ! H1N1 Not the same in Duration ,Intensity ,and contagious propensity .
Protecting the People is not mass hysteria!
Another Trump Lackey ,Takes the stage in Ballenger land!
I’m done talking ,Let’s Beat these Idiots at the Polls in November .
Regardless of your party color religion or creed we can save this country
By Voting These TRUMPERS out of office!
Lee Gonzales says
Bill: Kudos for including this very insightful viewpoint by Clark Whelton. Mr. Whelton’s experience with the Asian flu in 1957 and his family’s experiences with contagions are reminders of the frailty of human life, both then and NOW. This is not a time for political hyperbole as our state and nation must contain this COVID-19 pandemic for the sake of all families. Our children have constantly been checking up on my wife and me (evidently we are over 60!). It’s a two-way street — my wife Brenda and I have been communicating frequently with our children (& grandchildren) here in Fenton and Birmingham, MI. Brenda has monitored her Mom in Grand Blanc and her sister Maggie in the Boston area, and I’ve been comparing notes with my cousin in Floresville Texas near San Antonio to see how my relatives are doing. We’ve been checking up on our friends. My neighbor called us too. It’s definitely time to pull together. All things considered, I support the efforts of President Trump’s Administration and the U.S House & Senate during this worldwide CV pandemic — and support wholly Governor Whitmer’s Administration and MI House & Senate actions as well. I appreciated the historical comparison Mr. Whelton provided, plus his excellent point re what we do with lessons learned by our healthcare professionals and our federal and state government leaders.
People are more comfortable with the demon they know. By 1957, influenza was a familiar demon. In 1918 it was a new kind of plague. Everyone knew that a lot of people would die, just as lots of people die in automobile accidents, but everyone knew the odds and what little there was to do to improve their chances. They knew, for example, that the 1957 flu was not cholera which would not only spread widely but kill many.
SARS and MERS were quickly contained, but COVID was not. It was a new demon that spread more widely and quickly, often via asymptomatic carriers, and it was more likely to kill than influenza. There were perfectly good reasons for treating it with caution. Once the threat was validated, China came down on it like a ton of bricks. COVID is easy to model, and, again and again, we see the model validated. The sooner and more complete the response, the fewer cases, the less medical intervention needed, the fewer deaths.
COVID is not going to be wiped off the face of the earth like smallpox, at least not in the short run, but it is going to become a demon we know. Cases will be recognized quickly and individuals will be treated and isolated as needed to stop the spread. Maybe it will become something like influenza or AIDS, something that people can catch and be killed by, but something that can be controlled.
P.S. COVID has also revealed that our airlines don’t have, what they call in Silicon Valley, a business model. Every ten years or so they need a government bailout. It might be a result of securities fraud, a terrorist attack or a new disease, and there they are with their hands out.