A Century of Pandemics

Al Jacobs

Just so you’ll know, not a single word of the next several paragraphs are mine. The purpose of this article is to put the current Coronavirus epidemic into perspective with the other epidemics over the prior 100 years.

The 1918 influenza pandemic. This was the most severe pandemic in recent history. It was caused by an H1N1 virus with genes of avian origin and estimated that about 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population became infected with this virus. The number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide with about 675,000 occurring in the United States. Mortality was high in people younger than 5 years old, 20-40 years old, and 65 years and older. The high mortality in healthy people, including those in the 20-40 year age group, was a unique feature of this pandemic.

While the 1918 H1N1 virus has been synthesized and evaluated, the properties that made it so devastating are not well understood. With no vaccine to protect against influenza infection and no antibiotics to treat the secondary bacterial infections that can be associated with the ravages, control efforts worldwide were limited to non-pharmaceutical interventions such as isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants, and limitations of public gatherings, which were applied unevenly.

1957 flu pandemic. Known as the Asian flu of 1957, this outbreak was first identified in February 1957 in East Asia and that subsequently spread to countries worldwide. The 1957 flu pandemic was the second major influenza pandemic to occur in the 20th century. The 1957 flu outbreak caused an estimated one million to two million deaths worldwide and is generally considered to have been the least severe of the three major pandemics of the 20th century.

1968 Flu pandemic. The first record of the outbreak in Hong Kong appeared on 13 July 1968. By the end of July 1968, extensive outbreaks were reported in Vietnam and Singapore. By September 1968, the virus entered California from returning Vietnam War troops but did not become widespread in the United States until December 1968. Worldwide deaths from this virus peaked much later, in December 1968 and January 1969. In comparison to other pandemics, the Hong Kong flu yielded a low death rate, with a case-fatality ratio below 0.5% making it a category 2 disease on the Pandemic Severity Index. The pandemic infected an estimated 500,000 Hong Kong residents, 15% of the population.

The same virus returned the following years: a year later, in late 1969 and early 1970, and in 1972. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) currently estimates that, in total, the virus killed 1 million people worldwide and around 100,000 people in the U.S. Fewer people in the U.S. died during this pandemic than in previous pandemics for various reasons: Some immunity against the N2 flu virus may have been retained in populations struck by the Asian Flu strains which had been circulating since 1957. The pandemic did not gain momentum until near the winter school holidays, thus limiting the infection spreading; improved medical care gave vital support to the very ill; the availability of antibiotics that were more effective against secondary bacterial infections.

2009 Flu pandemic. It’s been a little over a decade since the world experienced its last pandemic, the 2009 H1N1 swine flu. Between the spring of 2009 and the spring of 2010, the virus infected as many as 1.4 billion people across the globe and killed between 151,700 and 575,400 people, according to the CDC. The CDC estimates that swine flu infected nearly 61 million people in the United States and caused 12,469 deaths. Worldwide, up to 575,400 people died from pandemic swine flu.

Influenza 2019. U.S. flu still elevated but dropping; deaths as high as 57,000. Levels of influenza-like illness in the United States remain elevated for the 21st consecutive week – the longest season in years – but the disease is on the decline, the CDC said today in its weekly update. Still, the agency says influenza has caused up to 57,300 deaths and sickened up to 41.3 million people, according to new estimates.

The 21 straight weeks of elevated outpatient activity is more than any of the past five seasons, including last year, which was particularly severe. From 2013-14 to 2017-18, above-baseline activity stretched for 11 to 20 weeks (in 2014-15), with an average of 16 weeks. The proportion of outpatient visits last week was 2.4%, down from 2.8% the week before but still above the baseline of 2.2% Seven of 10 US regions reported at or above their region-specific baselines.

In its latest estimates on flu impact today, the CDC said the disease has sickened from 36 million to 41.3 million people this season through April 13 [2019], of whom 16.7 million to 19.4 million sought medical care. In addition, the disease has hospitalized 502,000 to 610,000 patients and killed 34,400 to 57,300.

The CDC bases its estimates on its weekly surveillance reports, which summarize key flu activity indicators. The estimates of hospitalizations places this season in the same range as the 2012-13, 2014-15, and 2016-17 seasons, all of which were fairly severe. Last season’s year-end estimates neared 1 million flu-related hospitalizations.

The overall hospitalization rate again climbed last week, from 59.9 per 100,000 population the week before to 62.3 per 100,000. The rate among people 65 and older rose from 195.9 per 100,000 to 206.5 per 100,000. The groups with the next-highest rates were adults 50 to 64 years (77.8 per 100,000) and children under 5 years old (71.0 per 100,000).

2020 – Coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19). Now, the world is in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, caused by a novel coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2. As of March 28, 2020, approximately 85,350 cases have been reported in the United States since its appearance two months earlier. The case numbers are expected to keep rising, in part because the disease continues to spread and, particularly because broader access to testing is revealing previously active cases, but only now becoming known.

By March 27, 2020, there have been some 990 deaths related to COVID-19 in the United States, or only slightly greater than 1% of the number of reported cases. It must be acknowledged, however, that because of the shortage of testing devices, the number of actual cases may be many times the number reported. Thus far, 2020’s Coronavirus rate and mortality appear to be the mildest in many years.


Now a word from me. After reviewing the various pandemics over the past 100 years, I conclude that people fall ill and die. The Spanish flu killed many; our current Coronavirus seems comparatively innocuous. There’s a fair chance its mortality rate will drop well below a tenth of a percent. And for this reason, it should be permitted to play its way out with little more than general oversight by government.

Under no circumstances must it continue as the focus of major political or economic action. The nation should not be twisted as it currently is, for the cure is becoming far worse than the ailment. United States citizens deserve to continue living a rational existence. To literally bankrupt America while throwing around untold trillions of dollars of government funds on projects, which will benefit no one in particular, is not a solution.

The millions of middle and low wage employees whose jobs disappear will not cause a single life to be saved. Neither will confining unemployed persons to their homes as their already paltry nest eggs evaporate. In short, it’s well past time to end the lunacy and permit America to function once again as it did during prior pandemics. The insanity should terminate.

Al Jacobs, a professional investor for nearly a half-century, issues weekly financial articles in which he shares his financial knowledge and experience. Al can be contacted at al@abjacobs.com



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