In 1968 I graduated from my American high school which I had attended for a year as an exchange student and then went on a bus tour from the Midwest culminating in Washington DC with 39 other exchange students from 23 different countries. I then returned to England by sea from New York to Southampton. After spending time with my family and friends after my long absence, in October of that year I went up to New College, Oxford for my first term where I read Jurisprudence. [i]
About that time the Hong Kong flu epidemic broke out and over the course of the next few months it was to kill around 80,000 people in the UK, nearly double the number that have so far died from Covid-19. But despite the fact that I read the newspapers every day and watched a daily programme of television news I have very little recollection of any reaction to this flu by the politicians, the media or the public.
In my blog 1968,
which I published in November 2018[ii]
to commemorate the 50th
anniversary of that graduation, I described the extraordinary list of events that took place in that year. I won’t repeat them all but here’s just a few:”In the USA the year marked a turn in the Civil Rights movement, an intensification of the Vietnam War and an explosive General Election Campaign. Back in Europe there was the Prague Spring, the Paris riots and the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union. It seemed there was violent upheaval everywhere.”
But in that blog I made no mention of Hong Kong flu. Despite its deadly toll it doesn’t seem to have been regarded as a major event. Did anyone change their behaviour? No. The schools didn’t close. The shops didn’t close. The businesses didn’t stop. People weren’t asked to stay at home, except for essential outings or to go to work. There was no lockdown. Noone at New College gave any instruction about any change of behaviour at all. My friend Miles Young, who is the current Warden of New College, told me last week that the college had one early case of Covid-19 back in March and promptly closed its schools and the college to all but a few of the overseas students who now have to cater for themselves as the kitchens are closed. Miles himself gets up every day at 5 o’clock and after a hurried self-prepared breakfast is working constantly throughout the day until the evening, except perhaps when he can take the dog for a walk. He is exhausted.
Why has it been so different this time? This blog is not intended to focus on the shambolic handling of the coronavirus pandemic by the British government because we can see similar problems all over the world. Indeed those countries that appear to have handled it best like New Zealand, South Korea, Taiwan and Germany all did take very early measures which they are now starting to unwind because of the successful management of the crisis. I think there is another reason and that is the behaviour of the media.
Back in 1968 there were just three television channels and no one ran the nightmarish 24-hour news coverage which leaves little time for reflection and too much time to fill up with speculation and quite often highly inaccurate reporting of dubious statistics. Instead the BBC and the ITV news programmes were relatively short, usually half an hour, and in that year of very high profile major events around the world there was little room for coverage even of a pandemic. The previous pandemic had been in 1957 with a lower rate of death and it may be that those people, the majority who remembered that one, were simply not that afraid of this one. But nor were they really being hammered with information about it. I remember it but I do not remember incessant TV coverage.
Similarly, the newspapers, which then had much higher circulations, were on the whole much more measured and balanced in their reporting. Apart perhaps from one or two Sunday newspapers there were no tabloids with their screaming and impatient headlines.
Neither did broadcast and print media have teams of reporters running around all the major cities in the world showing pictures of overrun hospitals or deserted streets. Of course, they still showed political bias and those left-leaning newspapers were trying to somehow justify some of the mess that Harold Wilson’s government was making with the economy, he had devalued the pound towards the end of the previous year, while the right-leaning newspapers were clearly on the case but not to the point of daily criticism of how Wilson was managing the epidemic, if indeed he was.
Back in 1968 there was, of course, no Internet with its capacity to spread fake news, disinformation, conspiracy stories, and other sources of fear and upset. There were no social media from which far too many people today get their main source of information, even though this information has come from ignorant and prejudiced individuals rather than having gone through the process of careful editing and sub- editing.
In my first blog on this health crisis back in March[iii]
I warned of the danger of an overreaction led by the media. I accept that there has been a considerable number of excess deaths. In a recent Financial Times analysis the UK was ranking second in the world, behind only Spain, in the number of excess deaths per head of population. But excess deaths not only mean deaths caused by Covid-19. They also include deaths that would otherwise have come later, perhaps considerably later, because the NHS’ focus on the coronavirus has meant that important treatments for cancer and other diseases are being delayed. More people are dying at home from heart attacks and strokes and other conditions that should normally have been seen either by their GP or in hospital but many are simply taking the instruction to stay at home too literally.