Pandemics then and now

I lived through the Asian Flu pandemic in 1957. Like covid-19, it was a new virus from China that no one in Europe had any immunity to. Everyone caught it sooner or later. It went through the schools like wildfire.

Some strong, healthy young people died of Asian Flu, but most did not. They got better, though sometimes with a relapse and a second bout of fever before they finally recovered. My own infection followed that pattern.

I was one of the last in my class to get it. By that time everyone else was back in school and lessons were roaring ahead to make up for all the lost time. I remember being furious for missing out.

Thousands of people died (millions worldwide), but most of them were old and many had what are now called pre-existing conditions. Their death certificates usually said “Pneumonia” because that was what killed them in the end. Obviously they were mourned by their families but I don’t remember any great outrage or surprise at what was happening. Maybe that was because there were no daily statistics of how many were dying. Why would any government have wanted to put out such figures? All they could possibly do was to spread fear and despondency. In fact, I remember very little panic, precisely because nobody knew the death toll and nobody wanted to know.

In those days, old people were expected to die. It was what you got old for: to prepare for death. Most men never saw seventy and many died soon after receiving the traditional gold watch on retirement at sixty five. A woman was lucky if she lived beyond eighty. If you didn’t die, you would probably go senile. Nowadays that’s called dementia but then it was seen as a normal and often inevitable part of old age rather than an illness. No wonder pneumonia was called “ the old man’s friend”.

So old people who developed breathing difficulties as a result of Asian Flu were not rushed into hospital and put on ventilators. Instead relatives were told that their mother or father was dying and that it was time to say their goodbyes. The idea that the whole country should be shut down and millions put out of work to prevent even a quite large number of old people from dying would have seemed absurd to most of us.

Nor was there any question of the NHS being overwhelmed by the pandemic. The NHS in those days existed primarily to treat people of working age and their children for conditions such as broken bones, bacterial infections, and early stage cancer (where surgical removal of the primary tumour would buy you a couple of extra years before the secondaries killed you). The basic idea behind the NHS was not that every single sick person should be treated, but rather that people would not be allowed to die simply because they were poor. In any case, intensive care was in its infancy, though I think there were already “iron lungs” for polio victims.

Strangely enough though, I don’t remember the kind of venom directed at the old which is so much a feature of young people’s online presence today. Probably that was because the old didn’t hang around long enough to arouse it. The generation that had lived through two world wars were stoical to a fault and knew when it was their time to “bugger off quietly”

Everybody got Asian Flu sooner or later. A lot of people died. A much greater number got better. And then we went on with business as usual.
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