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.