Cyr column: Life and disease - and fear
Columns share an author’s personal perspective.
The media COVID-19 focus continues, even as we begin to reopen and return to a more normal existence. To provide context, media talking heads often mention the devastating Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918.
The reference ignores health challenges over the intervening decades. This is strikingly similar to superficial discussion of the international financial crisis of 2007-2008, often described as the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
In both the economic crash of a decade ago and the current public health challenges, descriptions of the past often ignore important developments between the earlier time cited and the present. That is revealing.
Consider the decades between the onset of the Great Depression and the financial crash early in the current century, which resulted from casino-capitalism style speculation. In the 1970s, a destructive threat faced the international economy - stagflation, meaning high inflation combined with high unemployment. Earlier, professional economists especially in the academic world had confidently predicted this devastating combination could not occur.
A belief based on the Phillips Curve, which indicated historically there was a direct tradeoff between inflation and unemployment, turned out to be mistaken regarding future developments. Once again, as through history, collective human behavior undermined assumptions based on selective evidence drawn from the relatively recent past.
During the 1960s, rapidly escalating U.S. federal spending and fiscal deficits brought on the curse of relentlessly rising prices, and the OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) oil embargo and extreme price increases of 1973 and 1979 fueled the financial flames. High and rising unemployment failed to provide the sort of relief expected by acolytes of the Phillips Curve.
High oil costs rapidly spread through other parts of the economies of industrialized nations generally, and growth stagnated. This continued through the decade. Paul Volcker, nominated by President Jimmy Carter to head the Federal Reserve Board, finally broke the back of the inflation beast with restrictive monetary policy and high interest rates. Significant strong economic growth followed.
Before the stagflation decade, flu pandemics plagued the United States and many other nations.
During 1957-1958, the Asian Flu was a major public health problem. The pandemic originated in China, as the misnamed Spanish Flu of 1918 probably did as well.
The Hong Kong flu came to the United States in September 1968 and spread rapidly. Troops returning home from service in the Vietnam War in Southeast Asia introduced the virus.
President Lyndon B. Johnson was among the many who became severely ill as a result.
Approximately 100,000 Americans and an estimated one million people worldwide died from the Hong Kong flu. This was far less than the estimated 675,000 Americans and 50 million people worldwide who perished from the 1918 flu.
The 1968-1969 U.S. flu illness and death rates were roughly comparable to what is occurring now. Mercifully, young people appear to be relatively immune to COVID-19. That was not the case with these earlier pandemics.
Yet there were no mass isolations, government restrictions or media obsessions. People generally viewed disease as a part of life. The scourge of polio, which devastated children, was only defeated in 1955 with the Salk vaccine. The last case of smallpox in the U.S. was in 1949.
The good news is collectively we are so secure that anything less is a shock. The bad news is that we are extremely vulnerable to fear.
Fear can kill an individual, institutions and eventually a society.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Macmillan). Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.