The 1968 pandemic was the first spread by mass air travel on its way to a toll of 1 million dead. Yet somehow it has been largely ignored by history, even if its lessons raise many questions for the COVID-19 world.
The insidious path of COVID-19 across the planet is a blunt reminder of how small the world has become. For the coming weeks, Worldcrunch will be delivering daily updates on this crisis from the best, most trusted international news sources — regardless of language or geography. To receive the daily Coronavirus Global Brief in your inbox,sign up here.
SPOTLIGHT: WHY DON'T WE EVER TALK ABOUT THE HONG KONG FLU
The most cited historical comparison for COVID-19 dates back just over a century ago: the Spanish flu. The 1918 pandemic, which killed up to 50 million people worldwide, is mostly viewed today to as a testament to our improved ability to fight the spread of disease and limit loss of life. Yet there is a more recent, and strangely overlooked, example that may be much more worthy of our reflection, with points of comparison that say much about where we are today.
The Hong Kong flu emerged on the Asian island nation in July 1968, and within two weeks had already infected some 500,000 people. Fueled by what was then a recent boom in air traffic, the virus spread swiftly throughout Southeast Asia, and on to the United States through soldiers returning from Vietnam. By the spring of 1970 it had extended worldwide, and killed one million people.
Unlike both the current coronavirus spread and the Spanish flu, the Hong Kong flu didn't seem to attract the attention it deserved. Just a few examples we dug up: In Sweden, this front page of daily newspaper Epressen read "Stockholmers Have To Learn To Walk," referring to infrequent tram traffic due to hospitalized conductors; in France, reporters from weekly Paris Match weren't sent to visit the city's overcrowded hospitals, but a movie set where actress Marina Vlady was found laying in bed — "she doesn't have the Hong Kong flu," quipped the magazine, " she's just shooting a movie;" The Minnesota Star-Tribunerecently noted that the only reference to the Hong Kong flu in the local press was an Associated Press report on Dec. 27, 1968: "Deaths attributed to the Hong Kong flu more than doubled across the nation in the third week of December. ... Official figures for the week showed roughly 500 more ‘pneumonia-influenced" deaths recorded in 122 cities." The story ran on page 24.
The global response to today's crisis couldn't stand in starker contrast, and the questions abound: How can we understand the nature of an elusive new virus? What must be done to mitigate its spread and lethality? What will it mean for the future? Indeed, the other great point of contrast with the Hong Kong flu, where no major quarantines were implemented, are the decisions being taken today in countries around the world to do everything possible to limit loss of life, including bringing the entire economy to a halt. That naturally leads to the very complicated question: How do we measure saving every human life against the longer term effects of a possible once-in-a-generation economic meltdown?
For now, it seems most of the world has agreed to prioritize the former at all cost. But as lockdowns are extended around the world and resources dwindle, we should expect that question to grow louder.
— Carl-Johan Karlsson
THE SITUATION: 7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW
Toll: Global death toll nears 100,000. The state of New York registers some 162,000 cases, outpacing any single country, while New York City is now using mass burial sites on Hart Island. In Spain, the number of deaths is down to 607 in the past 24 hours, the lowest in 17 days.
Online Easter: Christians are invited to stay at home for Good Friday celebrations, as several churches around the world are broadcasting services online on Easter Sunday.
Better Boris: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson moved out of intensive care.
European Union agrees on €500 billion rescue package to help its worst-hit member states.
North Koreans meet: As other countries around the world suspend all political gatherings, Pyongyang will hold its annual Supreme People's Assembly in person this Friday, with its 687 deputies. COVID-19 is believed to be spreading in the country, though reliable statistics are unavailable.
New risk: First case confirmed in war-torn Yemen where virus spread could have "catastrophic" consequences.
Shelter in Space: Two Russian cosmonauts and one U.S. astronaut arrived safely at the International Space Station, probably the "safest place on Earth".
"Expanded isolation" reads Mexican local daily Diario de Yucatan"s front page, as the death toll in the Yucatan state reaches 18.
FRANCE'S HYDROXYCHLOROQUINE GURU: The name on everybody's masked lips for the past month in France is getting renewed international attention: Professor Didier Raoult received a special guest yesterday at his medical offices in Marseille, as French President Emmanuel Macron visited the controversial microbiologist advocating the use of hydroxychloroquine, a well-known anti-malaria drug, to treat COVID-19.
No press was allowed to attend the surprise presidential visit, and no comment was made afterwards, but Macron's move was quickly criticized as "fueling the hype" surrounding Raoult. It has also prompted comparisons with U.S. President Donald Trump, who has touted hydroxychloroquine as a "game-changer" cure, despite very mixed opinions in the medical community. So who exactly is the colorful infectious disease specialist, and why should we care about him making the rounds? Here are 5 things to know about Raoult:
Doctor strange: With his long white hair, goatee, biker-like skull rings, Didier Raoult looks more like General Custer than your typical epidemiologist, daily Ouest France writes. Born in Senegal in 1952, he has specialized in the study of obscure diseases, throughout a career mired in controversy. For instance, the vast number of scientific publications (3,000) he has co-authored, Mediapart points out, has raised eyebrows from his peers. Raoult's anti-establishment attitude is no doubt partly responsible for his strong following on Twitter, Facebook, and the 70,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel that boasts 7 million views total — leading public radio station France Inter to call him a bonafide "star du web."
"Molécule miracle": Despite scant hard evidence that the drug is effective, more than 469,000 people have already signed a petition to make it more widely available. Still, for many in France, the prospect of prescribing a "miracle drug" without due validation protocol from health authorities brings back memories of the Mediator pharmaceutical scandal, after a pill prescribed to overweight diabetics is believed to have killed more than 2,000 people between 1970s-2000s.
Trial questions: A key criticism leveled at Raoult is that the hydroxychloroquine treatment for coronavirus has not been properly tested.Science magazine writes that "the popular faith" in hydroxychloroquine is only matched by the weakness of the data. Raoult's own "conclusive" studies have either been conducted with very few patients or without control group, while several other studies have highlighted significant side effects to the use of the antimalarial drug — including heart dysfunctions. Raoult, Science points out, has responded to those criticisms by complaining about the "dictatorship of the methodologists."
Weirder science: The 68-year-old is also a self-confessed climate change skeptic who once told Le Point magazine that "the Earth has generally stopped warming since 1998."
Conspiracy theories: The hopes raised by Raoult's constant advertising of his treatment have in turn fueled suspicions concerning the pharmaceutical industry, particularly from the far-right end of the political spectrum: "If such a cure exists, why then is it not extended to the whole country — nay, the whole world?"
WHY INDIA'S QUARANTINE IS DIFFERENT: The conventional wisdom right now is to reinforce, and extend, the lockdowns in place in dozens of countries around the world, in response to COVID-19. Yet Satya Mohanty, the former Secretary of India's Ministry of Human Resource Development, notes that not all nations are the same when weighing risks and benefits of halting the spread of the virus compared to the human impact of a hard economic shutdown.
"Whatever is good for richer countries, may not be good for us," Mohanty writes for the New Delhi-based The Wire. "They have 70% to 80% workforce in the organized sector with social benefits and can continue with a lockdown for a longer period of time. The same luxury is not available to India."
The so-called "informal economy" comes with no safety net, in a country where some 70 million people live in extreme poverty. A shutdown of economic activity comes with risks for just about everyone. But not all risks are the same either — for some it is a matter of life and death.