I recently read an article that reported that Woodstock occurred during the Hong Kong flu pandemic. That pandemic killed over 112,000 Americans but the country did not close businesses or schools, nor was there mandated social distancing.
The author speculated that the press coverage has stoked great fear over the coronavirus, and projections of deaths resulted in government mandates that have resulted in unnecessary damage to the country’s economy. He suggests that the coronavirus could and should have been managed as we did with the Hong Kong flu pandemic.
This dovetails with the beliefs of protesters who want to return to life as it was before, and as rapidly as possible. The author was 5 years old in 1969, and most of the protesters had not yet been born. I was a first-year resident in a major, regional medical center at the time.
Fifty years ago the pandemic in the U.S. started in December 1968 and was gone by May 1969. It returned that fall of 1969 and winter. In the U.S., most deaths occurred in the first wave, but in Europe it was the opposite.
But more to the point, let’s look at medicine in 1969. The concept of intensive care units (ICUs) was just beginning to take hold. The concept of a cardiac ICU was still on the drawing board. There were no nurses trained in critical care.
There were no intensivists, pulmonary physicians, or respiratory therapists. And as for blood results, there were no computer-operated blood analysis systems churning out results in minutes. There were just lab techs who manually analyzed specimens that took over an hour for each sample.
The public was not ordered to wear masks, or mandated to practice social distancing, or close schools (although absenteeism sometimes reached 50 percent), or close businesses. With the state of medicine in 1969-70 and the way the country responded to the pandemic, we had only 112,000 deaths.
COVID-19 is a highly contagious and more lethal virus. Today we have all the advanced technologies that were not available in 1969 — and we still will have over 80,000 deaths and climbing.
Protesters to mandated mitigation measures have pointed to Sweden, where the country refused to impose a lockdown. The Swedish ambassador to the United States recently explained his country’s decision. The goals are the same: reduce the speed of the virus’ spread and flatten the curve so as to not overwhelm the health care system.
The government there banned visits to nursing homes, changed the social security system to make it easier for symptomatic people to take sick leave, banned public gatherings of more than 50 people, encouraged people to work from home, and ordered secondary schools, colleges and universities to move to online instruction. Sound familiar?
In Sweden, schools remained open, and citizens were not forced to remain at home. Businesses were not ordered to close, although some businesses and restaurants were ordered to operate with social distancing rules.
Why does it work in Sweden? The ambassador points out there is a high level of interpersonal trust between Swedes, and there is a high level of trust in public authorities, unlike our polarized country.
Is Sweden’s plan working? At this point in the pandemic, here are some crude figures. The U.S. has had 1 death per 3,870 population (85,000 deaths per 329 million). Sweden has had 1 death per 2,857 population (3,500 deaths per 10 million). But the pandemic is not yet over, and both countries are continuing to reassess their situations.
In the U.S. we want to get back to “normal.” Under the guise of personal freedoms, many seem to defy common sense.
In Sweden, the ambassador states that life is not normal. Most people are staying home voluntarily; domestic train travel has fallen dramatically; almost all domestic flights have been canceled; unemployment is rising dramatically; many businesses have closed; the government had approved measures to mitigate the financial impact. Again, sound familiar?
When this pandemic is finally over, each country can realistically assess the effectiveness and cost of its response, identify its errors in response, and note what measures seemed to work most effectively.
Rational preparation by the entire country will be necessary for the next pandemic, or else we will just reinvent the wheel again.
Matt Farina is a retired pediatric cardiologist who lives in Southern Pines.