Avoiding Panic During Pandemic
With the stock market gyrations of late, the accompanying danger of a recession, and the future of the Summer Olympics still an open question, coronavirus has the earmarks of another worldwide pandemic instilling fear in the hearts of billions.
The fallout affected two friends who had been scheduled to make trips to China this month. One was cancelled, the other postponed indefinitely.
An alternative trip to Africa one friend had planned to make also got postponed for at least a month.
Still, a pause may be in order. Like the friend last week who posted on his Facebook page:
“Flu update: 2020 stats: 4,800 deaths, 84,000-plus hospitalized. Coronavirus update: 9 deaths. #CalmDown.”
Now, I understand the nature of the threat makes this a most serious situation. But looking back at history can also help calm jittery nerves.
Pandemic Panic of the Past
More than 50 years ago the Hong Kong flu—named for the city where the outbreak originated—came to America’s shores.
Until I started working recently on the memoir of a retired businessman, I had almost forgotten the widespread impact of that outbreak.
Known technically as influenza A subtype H3N2, this strain of flu was highly contagious. It infected 500,000 residents of Hong Kong, or about 15 percent of its population.
Worldwide, it caused more than a million deaths. In the U.S. it claimed close to 34,000 lives, or almost as many of our soldiers who had died during the first 13 years of the Vietnam War.
It was particularly bad in the San Francisco Bay Area and neighboring San Jose, where this businessman was then living.
When this man’s wife contracted a mysterious illness at the seven-month point of her pregnancy in the summer of 1969, they were quite worried.
She checked into San Jose Hospital with classic symptoms of this brand of flu: upper respiratory problems, chills, fever, muscle pain, and weakness.
She arrived in the middle of a chaotic scene. There were so many victims that soon after she was admitted, new arrivals were often stuck in the hallways. The hospital was filled beyond capacity.
Some arrivals died before space came available, with panic and disorder common.
It was not unusual to hear one nurse call out, “Another person just died!” and before long, a different nurse yelling, “I need a doctor with this person before she dies!”
While the symptoms of Hong Kong flu typically persisted for four to six days, my client’s wife was hospitalized for more than a week.
She spent most of her time in an oxygen tent; at one point her temperature skyrocketed past 107 degrees (before this, I didn’t know a reading could go that high).
After taking a lot of medicine, she finally recovered. During her stay, she became friends with another woman suffering from the same illness. Unfortunately, that woman died.
Steeling Our Nerves
This story has a happy ending. Two months later when their son was born, he checked in at a healthy nine pounds and five ounces, and with no health problems.
After his son’s birth, the businessman discovered that that one of the doctors at the hospital had feared his wife’s bout with the flu might have impacted their son in the womb.
Fortunately, it didn’t, which was cause for rejoicing in this man’s family and extended family.
My point is not that everyone who might be affected by a coronavirus is going to come through the crisis unscathed.
But remembering that we as a nation have faced serious calamities in the past and survived can steady our nerves as we contemplate what might lie ahead.