The Covid19 originated in Asia, spread to an unprecedented speed and has transformed our daily lives without our wise almost understand what was happening to us. However, the attitude with which our civilization has faced this pandemic contrasts curiously with the indifference with which the two previous comparable cases were received, the last one just 50 years ago. Both of them wreaked considerable havoc, and yet today nobody remembers them. How can it be that in the space of so few years the same event triggers such different reactions?
In February 1957, the “Asian flu” (H2N2) was first detected in China, then spread throughout the world, killing between one and four million people in two years. Ten years later, between 1968 and the early 1970s it was the turn of the “Hong Kong flu” (H3N2) that left a balance of victims similar to the previous one. The detail is that, unlike what happens in our globalized world, no one thought about quarantines or restrictions of any kind and, except for those who fell ill, life continued without major changes.
The two great waves of influenza each caused up to four million deaths
These two epidemics, now forgotten, also had tangible repercussions at the time: in 1968 in Berlin, corpses had to be stored in the subway tunnels, in the early 1970s in England there were more than 2,800 deaths per week, hospitals were saturated to the point if they could not receive more patients or, as the Times testifies, some had to close part of their pavilions due to the casualties among the health personnel, who were themselves ill with the flu.
The newspapers of the time show that there were no ministries or politicians who focused on managing the crisis or, at least, mitigating its effects. It was the doctors and hospitals who weathered the storm according to their good understanding and possibilities.
If in recent months Covid19 and its consequences have monopolized the media, what powerfully attracts attention for the two previous pandemics is the very little space that the press devoted to them. The information was scarce, superficial and very exceptionally it was on the front page.
In some countries, the newspapers were more explicit than in others, for example, while in France in January 1958 only a few lines were devoted to explaining that the arrival of the second wave of Asian flu was expected, was benign and that there was no reason To worry, a couple of years later they attributed the flu to just over 30,000 additional deaths in 1957 compared to the previous year.
In 1968 Berlin had to enable subway tunnels to store corpses, but public opinion was more aware of other things.
It is obvious that in some cases, in order not to alarm the population, what was happening may have been deliberately concealed or minimized or that other events such as the Apollo missions, the struggles for human rights in the United States or the French May 68, have grabbed the attention. It is also obvious that the current information media and especially social networks did not exist and that the news had no chance of circulating and finding an audience like now.
In any case, the contrast between the media coverage that the epidemics had then and today is blatant. And if we understand that newspapers reflect society and its concerns, we conclude that just a few decades ago, these epidemics were far from generating anxiety or concern comparable to that produced by Covid-19.
This is even more remarkable if we consider that many of the people who lived in 1957, would have known in first person the devastation caused by the influenza epidemic that between 1918 and 1919, just after the First World War, took about 50 million of lives. Weren’t those people concerned about the possibility of a pandemic? The least that can be said is that, certainly not as much as now or, at least, not in the same way.
In the mid-20th century, after the setbacks caused by the Second World War, the states still did not intervene much in health issues, health problems were solved mainly between the patient and the family doctor. It is precisely at that time that the World Health Organization was founded (1948) and public health institutions in European countries were created or began to be promoted.
The waves of the disease did not determine the political agenda as it has happened with Covid-19
In the following decades, the changes were multiple and vertiginous. On the one hand, the progress in the scientific and technological fields was palpable: vaccines were discovered, smallpox was eliminated, or cancer gradually went from representing a certain death sentence to having ample chance of cure or remission.
More specifically with regard to the state and health, this new technological capacity to detect and establish treatments led to the need for significant investments in equipment, centralizing information, coordinating protocols, and in a certain way bureaucratizing medicine: throughout this process, the state took an increasingly active role.
In short, medicine has reinvented itself in the last 60 years with regard to diagnoses, treatments, the relationship between doctors and patients, or the role of the state in this area.
But at the same time, societies – and the states that represented them – became increasingly involved in limiting mortality, policies to prevent road accidents began to be put in place, or the first vehicle seat belts appeared.
In the last 60 years, the population has become more aware of health and lifestyle.
In the 1980s, research opened new fronts for public health: physical activity, a balanced diet, the damage caused by tobacco, environmental pollution were concerns that settled in society and became many other battles which was faced with mass dissemination campaigns to modify behaviours. As a result, this awareness of physical activity, for example, has become a social phenomenon.
As on the other hand, we have become very aware of the miracles produced by early diagnoses and the possibilities of medicine, we have let ourselves be won by the conviction, somewhat naive, that it is in our hands to have good health and long life . In this way, many of us are dedicated to improving our lifestyle and issues such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol, which would not have been among the priorities of our ancestors, represent legitimate causes of daily concern in our days.
Today medicine understands us and helps us to live better than ever. At the same time, we were never more aware and, therefore, more fearful of our health.
If the pandemics of 1957 and 1968 had a little echo in their time and were later forgotten, the Covid-19 is highly unlikely to be forgotten. Our newly acquired perception of illness and death led the public authorities, contrary to what happened in the previous ones, to take charge of the situation and impose the measures that we know of and that had not taken place at the time.
Society has radically changed its relationship with health and death compared to the mid-20th century
In other words, in the last 60 years, our way of thinking about illness and death has radically changed, a familiar and relativized notion for European society that came out of the Second World War and has become the object of one of our most intimate and deep anxieties.
In this sense, the contrast between the way in which our societies have received and coped with previous epidemics and Covid19 is a powerful indicator of how society, culture, medicine and public policies have interwoven, related and influenced each other. After all, Covid19 has only brought out our weaknesses in the light of day.
Originally written by Claudia Contente, historian, Pompeu Fabra University