Patti Mulhearn Lydon, 68, doesn’t have rose-colored memories of attending Woodstock in August 1969. The rock festival, which took place over four days in Bethel, NY, mostly reminds her of being covered in mud and daydreaming about a hot shower.
She was a 17-year-old high-school student from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, when she made the trek to Max Yasgur’s farm with her boyfriend Rod. For three nights, she shared an outdoor bedroom with 300,000 other rock fans from around the country, most of whom were probably not washing their hands for the length of “Happy Birthday” — or at all.
“There was no food or water, but one of our guys cut an apple into twenty-seven slices and we all shared it,” she said. At some point, a garden hose from one of the farm’s neighbors was passed around and strangers used it as a communal source for bathing and drinking, she said.
And all of this happened during a global pandemic in which over one million people died.
H3N2 (or the “Hong Kong flu,” as it was more popularly known) was an influenza strain that the New York Times described as “one of the worst in the nation’s history.” The first case of H3N2, which evolved from the H2N2 influenza strain that caused the 1957 pandemic, was reported in mid-July 1968 in Hong Kong. By September, it had infected Marines returning to the States from the Vietnam War. By mid-December, the Hong Kong flu had arrived in all fifty states.
But schools were not shut down nationwide, other than a few dozen because of too many sick teachers. Face masks weren’t required or even common. Though Woodstock was not held during the peak months of the H3N2 pandemic (the first wave ended by early March 1969, and it didn’t flare up again until November of that year), the festival went ahead when the virus was still active and had no known cure.
“I wish they had social distancing at Woodstock,” jokes Lydon, who now lives in Delray Beach, Florida, and works as a purchasing manager for MDVIP, a network of primary care doctors. “You had to climb over people to get anywhere.”
I wish they had social distancing at Woodstock.
– Patti Lydon, who attended the festival in 1969
“Life continued as normal,” said Jeffrey Tucker, the editorial director for the American Institute for Economic Research. “But as with now, no one knew for certain how deadly [the pandemic] would turn out to be. Regardless, people went on with their lives.”
Which, he said, isn’t all that surprising. “That generation approached viruses with calm, rationality and intelligence,” he said. “We left disease mitigation to medical professionals, individuals and families, rather than politics, politicians and government.”
While it’s way too soon to compare the numbers, H3N2 has so far proved deadlier than COVID-19. Between 1968 and 1970, the Hong Kong flu killed between an estimated one and four million, according to the CDC and Encyclopaedia Britannica, with US deaths exceeding 100,000. As of this writing, COVID-19 has killed more than 295,000 globally and around 83,000 in the United States, according to Johns Hopkins University. But by all projections, the coronavirus will surpass H3N2’s body count even with a global shutdown.
Aside from the different reactions to H3N2 and COVID-19, the similarities between them are striking. Both viruses spread quickly and cause upper respiratory symptoms including fever, cough and shortness of breath. They infect mostly adults over 65 or those with underlying medical conditions, but could strike people of any age.
Both pandemics didn’t spare the rich and famous — Hitchcock actress Tallulah Bankhead and former CIA director Allen Dulles succumbed to H3N2, while COVID-19 has taken the lives of singer-songwriter John Prine and playwright Terrence McNally, among others. President Lyndon Johnson and Vice President Humphrey both fell ill from H3N2 and recovered, as did UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson from COVID-19 last month.