According to most politicians and the mainstream media, the Covid-19 pandemic is one of the worst outbreaks in modern history—and it’s been well-managed. But a recent article by Niall Ferguson in the Wall Street Journal refutes both notions by comparing today’s pandemic to one that most people have forgotten about: the 1957 Asian flu outbreak. (People have forgotten about it because it was well-managed, and as a result, its overall impact on Americans’ health and livelihoods was comparatively minimal.)
When seeking historical analogies for Covid-19, commentators have referred more often to the catastrophic 1918-19 “Spanish influenza” than to the flu pandemic of 1957-58. Yet the later episode deserves to be much better known, not just because the public health threat was a closer match to [Covid-19] but because American society at the time was better prepared—culturally, institutionally and politically—to deal with it.
The Asian flu was worse than Covid in some ways and less bad in others. Overall, Covid has caused more deaths in the U.S. as a percentage of the population, but this is very likely because mandatory lockdowns and other government restrictions have made Covid more deadly than it otherwise would have been. (Not to mention the staggering increases in suicides, depression, drug usage, etc. as a result of year-long lockdowns and millions of destroyed careers.)
Americans in 1957 were faced with a novel flu virus that disproportionately infected (and killed) people between the ages of 15 and 24. And the Asian flu wasn’t the only dangerous disease that mid-century Americans were contending with: measles, mumps, German measles, chicken pox, and polio were all still serious threats at the time.
And yet, people at the time—politicians included—showed a dramatically higher tolerance for risk than we do today:
The policy response of President Dwight Eisenhower could hardly have been more different from the response of 2020. Eisenhower did not declare a state of emergency. There were no state lockdowns and, despite the first wave of teenage illness, no school closures. Sick students simply stayed at home, as they usually did. Work continued more or less uninterrupted.
With workplaces open, the Eisenhower administration saw no need to borrow to the hilt to fund transfers and loans to citizens and businesses. The president asked Congress for a mere $2.5 million ($23 million in today’s inflation-adjusted terms) to provide additional support to the Public Health Service. There was a recession that year, but it had little if anything to do with the pandemic. The Congressional Budget Office has described the Asian flu as an event that “might not be distinguishable from the normal variation in economic activity.”
President Eisenhower’s decision to keep the country open in 1957-58 was based on expert advice. When the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO) concluded in August 1957 that “there is no practical advantage in the closing of schools or the curtailment of public gatherings as it relates to the spread of this disease,” Eisenhower listened. As a CDC official later recalled: “Measures were generally not taken to close schools, restrict travel, close borders or recommend wearing masks….ASTHO encouraged home care for uncomplicated influenza cases to reduce the hospital burden and recommended limitations on hospital admissions to the sickest patients….Most were advised simply to stay home, rest and drink plenty of water and fruit juices.”
In other words, Americans took the 1957 pandemic in stride and refused to live in fear. They acknowledged the threat posed by the virus, but they also acknowledged the threats posed by mass unemployment, excessive government spending, and blatant violations of their rights—and they decided that the latter threats were worse. A vaccine for the Asian flu was developed and distributed (almost entirely by the private sector) within four months of the virus reaching America. Although roughly 116,000 Americans were killed by the Asian flu, common-sense precautions got it under control quickly, and life didn’t come to a grinding halt.
In the case of Covid-19, we should have followed in our ancestors’ footsteps.
If you have a Wall Street Journal subscription, I encourage you to read Mr. Ferguson’s excellent article in its entirety. As always, I welcome your thoughtful comments.