Pandemic Among Social Upheaval

Social perceptions of the Pandemic

Compared to the 1918 and 1957 pandemics, the 1968 pandemic seems to have faded from memory. The pandemic arrived in the U.S. amongst massive social change. Political demonstrations against the Vietnam War and social justice activism on behalf of people of color and women occurred alongside a turbulent political scene. NASA’s pioneering space race dominated science news, along with medical achievements, such as the first successful heart and bone marrow transplants.

While these events dominated the news, the 1968 pandemic gained some press during the fall and winter of 1968. As the virus spread throughout the U.S. in the fall and winter of 1968, newspaper articles noted widespread college closures, as well as slowdowns in business and industry. As the winter holidays drew near, articles in prominent newspapers commented that the pandemic may delay Christmas mail deliveries. After a second less severe wave of pandemic influenza in 1969-1970, most newspapers were content to follow larger stories.

Politically Motivated Sign, 1968

Photograph by Bettmann, courtesy of Getty Images

Stigmatizing Names for the Pandemic

Huang Mong-hua, a Hong Kong city counselor, denounced the name “Hong Kong Flu,” stating that the name stigmatized Hong Kong.

Just as with the 1957 pandemic, the 1968 pandemic was named based on where the outbreak was first reported. The term “Hong Kong Flu,” as well as other names, such as “Mao Flu” was used by the public and media. Some U.S. media sources used the pandemic to make racial and political comments about China and Southeast Asia. The billboard proclaims that “Hong Kong Flu is UnAmerican!” expressing a politically motivated message to passersby.

Today, influenza viruses are no longer named after the country in which an outbreak is first reported.

The 1968 Influenza Pandemic
Pandemic Among Social Upheaval