WuFlu vs. Hong Kong flu

Remember the Hong Kong flu of 1968? That horrific pandemic that killed 100,000 Americans and triggered mass panic, economic devastation and harsh “non-pharmaceutical interventions” designed to stop people from socializing for nearly a year?

If you are like most Americans, you’ve never heard of the Hong Kong flu. And, of course, you’ve never heard about the panic, lockdowns, etc. etc., because they didn’t happen.

Let’s do some back-of-the-envelope calculations (all numbers refer to the US).

  • 1968 pandemic (H3N2 virus) death toll: ~100,000
  • 1968 population: 200.7 million
  • H3N2 deaths per 100,000 people: 49.8
  • WuFlu death toll (as of Dec. 26): 329,592
  • 2020 population: 331,002,651
  • WuFlu deaths per 100,000 people: 99.6

Ergo, WuFlu is about twice as deadly, per capita, as H3N2. Sounds bad, but not catastrophically so.

But wait! This analysis overlooks a few crucial issues. First, the US population today is much older than in 1968, so naturally we would expect a higher per capita death rate from a flu of equal severity. I am not enough of a statistician to know how to adjust the figures according to age structure (not am I able to easily find the relevant numbers), but suffice it to say the median age of the population in 1970 was 28.1, and in 2019 it was 38.4—a full decade older.

Moreover, in 1968 there were 7,187,000 people aged 75 and older*; and in 2019, there were an estimated 22,574,830 aged 75 and older.** So, there were triple the number of people from the highly vulnerable 75+ age group in 2019 vs. 1968.

Another factor to consider is the health of the population. Americans in 2020 are, obviously, far less healthy and far more obese than their 1968 counterparts. So that would also lead to a higher per capita death rate from a flu of equal severity. Again, I have no idea how to adjust for this variable, but it seems huge to me. Thus, it might be more productive to ask why Americans are so unhealthy today, and what can be done about that, than to shriek about a virus which seems to be killing mostly those unhealthy people (along with the old).

Finally, there is the ambient question of whether the reported WuFlu death toll is juiced. I say it most likely is. According to an analysis by statistician William Briggs, “excess” deaths in 2020 will come to about 250,000, of which some fraction will be caused by the effects of the panic/lockdowns rather than WuFlu. If that is true, then the actual WuFlu death rate is no more than 75.5 per 100,000—just 50% more than the H3N2 death rate, and that is before adjusting for age structure, etc.

Therefore, I conclude that WuFlu is roughly as severe as the 1968 Hong Kong flu.

*Source (PDF)

**Source (CSV)

2 thoughts on “WuFlu vs. Hong Kong flu

  1. It is about the same for Americans, but globally the 1968 flu still killed more people when you adjust for population size.

    This probably supports the claim about health. A large number of people have been pulled out of poverty globally since 1968. There will be better health outcomes associated with this. Perhaps, at least when it comes to health, wealth has a bell curve affect. Beyond a certain point being super wealthy, in a global sense, may start to have adverse affects on your health, as anecdotally observed in America.

    • Indeed. Paradoxically, wealth seems to generate both obesity and large numbers of elderly people, which would tend to increase the per capita death toll from COVID. You could say that we are victims of our own success. Young populations (e.g. in Africa) don’t seem to be suffering many deaths at all, though that could be partly due to under-reporting.

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