24 February 2021

Hong Kong Flu vs. Covid: Descent into Hysteria

[We’re working on our next big piece; today's is in response to a reader request.]


Any of our ancestors who lived through the Spanish Flu would have likely qualified the worldwide reaction to Covid-19 last year  as a ‘mass hysteria.’


The 1918-19 pandemic touched one third of humanity and felled millions in the prime of their life—its peak mortality age was 28. 


CoronaVirus Disease 2019, a.k.a Covid 19, however, is its mirror image: it kills almost exclusively the very old or the very obese. Yet due to this virus whose under-70 fatality rate is .05% (that’s one-twentieth of one percent),  the entire Western world simply shut down its societies wholesale.


Not only cinemas and stadiums, but shops, schools, factories, construction sites: all shuttered. In France, one could no longer volunteer at an animal shelter or give blood. All non-GPs—dentists, gynecologists, dermatologists—were forced to close. Courts ceased to function. Airports shut down. Parliament went virtual.

Piazza del Duomo, Milan, 2020

No one had seen anything like it in the whole of human history--not even in wartime.

One may look back at our forebears in 1918 with awe: The young people who managed to avoid being massacred in the grisliest war in human history then dropped like flies in the ensuing worldwide pandemic, whilst the older generation survived unscathed. Has humanity ever seen such an immense killing field of its youngest and strongest in such a short span of time?

And yet the world still turned. While large public gatherings were discouraged, the word ‘lockdown’ was never pronounced or even imagined. Farming, factories, trade, construction, commerce all buzzed along as they always had. Schools and hair salons and parks remained open. The hecatomb of the Spanish Flu is barely remembered today.

‘Indeed,’ you may argue, ‘but of course one has to go back a hundred years to find a people hardy enough to weather a viral pandemic with equanimity.’


As it happens, one does not.


While Covid raged throughout 2020, curious French researchers snuck a peek into the medical archives. They were astonished at what they found: Only 50 years ago, in 1969, a Covid-like flu had swept through the Western world-- but in newspapers of the time it barely merited a mention. There was no state of emergency, no daily death count, no mass shutdowns. 

No panic.


The gravity of the enigmatic ‘Hong Kong Flu’ had entirely escaped French historians because at the time, no statistical agency (of which France had many) thought to tally up its deaths. It took until 2005 and researchers inspired by SARS for the French authorities to even remember that there had been an epidemic in 1969. 

Covid re-awakened our taste for all things pandemical, and last year led historians to fine-tune the numbers even more. 

That’s when they realized that at 2020 population levels, the Hong Kong Flu would have been nearly as deadly as Covid-19.


So how could the outcome of such a virus have gone from ‘blip on the radar’ to ‘planet-wide pants-soiling’ in the space of just fifty short years? A French documentary crew from LCP  News Channel aimed to find out. 

We share their discoveries with you here.



So take a walk with us down memory lane, to a time, within living memory, when an epidemic virus could tear through a first-world country and earn barely a shrug in response. Visit the less-feminized world of our recent forebears, and marvel at how our society has in the space of two generations become hystericized to the point of total paralysis.


Accompagnez-nous into another world.