On May 1 2020, the American Institute for Economic Research reported that Woodstock was held during a pandemic — information which, in a vacuum, could pass for a charming piece of late 1960s nostalgia.
But this information does not exist in a vacuum. In”Woodstock Occurred in the Middle of a Pandemic,” AIER (side note: the “E” is for “economics,” not for “epidemiology”) claimed:
In my lifetime, there was another deadly flu epidemic in the United States. The flu spread from Hong Kong to the United States, arriving December 1968 and peaking a year later. It ultimately killed 100,000 people in the U.S., mostly over the age of 65, and one million worldwide.
Lifespan in the US in those days was 70 whereas it is 78 today. Population was 200 million as compared with 328 million today. It was also a healthier population with low obesity. If it would be possible to extrapolate the death data based on population and demographics, we might be looking at a quarter million deaths today from this virus. So in terms of lethality, it was as deadly and scary as COVID-19 if not more so, though we shall have to wait to see.
“In 1968/69,” says Nathaniel L. Moir in National Interest, “the H3N2 pandemic killed more individuals in the U.S. than the combined total number of American fatalities during both the Vietnam and Korean Wars.”
The item’s author quickly tied the claim about Woodstock taking place during a pandemic to the COVID-19 pandemic, continuing:
Nothing closed. Schools stayed open. All businesses did too. You could go to the movies. You could go to bars and restaurants. John Fund has a friend who reports having attended a Grateful Dead concert. In fact, people have no memory or awareness that the famous Woodstock concert of August 1969 actually occurred during a deadly American flu pandemic that only peaked six months later.
Immediately thereafter, AIER followed with a bracketed note indicating schools did in fact close.
[*Note: an earlier version said no schools closed. But a reader pointed me to an academic article that says “23 [states] faced school and college closures” but implies that this was due to absenteeism. This further underscores how aware people were at the time of the disease; the stay-open practice was a deliberate choice.]
The paragraph was changed above and beyond the note, but we transcribed it in its original form — “nothing closed,” and “schools stayed open,” statements which by the author’s admission were not accurate. Right after the note, another paragraph was subtly altered — below is the original (A), then the amended version (B):
(A) Stock markets didn’t crash because of the flu. Congress passed no legislation. The Federal Reserve did nothing. Not a single governor acted to enforce social distancing, curve flattening (even though hundreds of thousands of people were hospitalized), or banning of crowds. No mothers were arrested for taking their kids to other homes. No surfers were arrested. No daycares were shut even though there were more infant deaths with this virus than the one we are experiencing now. There were no suicides, no unemployment, no drug overdoses attributable to flu.
(B) Stock markets didn’t crash. Congress passed no legislation. The Federal Reserve did nothing. Not a single governor acted to enforce social distancing, curve flattening (even though hundreds of thousands of people were hospitalized), or banning of crowds. No mothers were arrested for taking their kids to other homes. No surfers were arrested. No daycares were shut even though there were more infant deaths with this virus than the one we are experiencing now. There were no suicides, no unemployment, no drug overdoses.
Overall, the article left a distinct impression little to no research went into the think piece before it was unleashed to be shared by science deniers.
The story itself was one of a series of posts by AIER which could only be described as having the shared theme of “COVID-19 isn’t really that bad,” such as:
- “Lord Sumption: The Lockdown Is Without Doubt the Greatest Interference with Personal Liberty in Our History”;
- “Local Charity Is the Best Charity in the Time of COVID”;
- “Lockdowns Have Deeply Harmed the Most Vulnerable Among Us”;
- “Elvis Was King, Ike Was President, and 116,000 Americans Died in a Pandemic”;
- “The Crisis Experts are Themselves the Crisis”;
- “Beware a Second-Wave Attack on Liberty”;
- “Imperial College Model Applied to Sweden Yields Preposterous Results.”
AIER clearly opposed social distancing, quarantine, and other COVID-19 suppression strategies, and therefore predictably criticized the March 16 2020 Imperial College London report recommending suppression:
Those details were important in the context of the item’s framing — AIER demonstrated a consistent and repeated editorial tendency to downplay COVID-19, which perhaps provided fodder for others to do the same.
AIER noted that it referenced the 1969-1970 H3N2 pandemic, which killed around 100,000 Americans in total and around a million people worldwide. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
The 1968 pandemic was caused by an influenza A (H3N2) virus comprised of two genes from an avian influenza A virus, including a new H3 hemagglutinin, but also contained the N2 neuraminidase from the 1957 H2N2 virus. It was first noted in the United States in September 1968. The estimated number of deaths was 1 million worldwide and about 100,000 in the United States. Most excess deaths were in people 65 years and older. The H3N2 virus continues to circulate worldwide as a seasonal influenza A virus. Seasonal H3N2 viruses, which are associated with severe illness in older people, undergo regular antigenic drift.
Chronologically, it is true that H3N2 was present in the United States when Woodstock was held in August 1969. So why wasn’t everyone practicing social distancing? It’s true that versions of physical or social distancing date back centuries:
Modern coordination of such measures on a larger level (versus the regional forms mentioned in our article above) are more novel:
Susan Craddock, a professor at the Institute for Global Studies of the University of Minnesota told the WSJ that mortality rates for the 1968 pandemic were much lower than current mortality rates from COVID-19.
Social distancing was also not an idea among public health officials at the time. “That concept was developed in the 2000s when there was concern about another avian influenza outbreak,” Arnold Monto, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan, told USA TODAY.
“However, officials decided during the 2009 avian flu outbreak that the virus wasn’t severe enough to necessitate those measures. This time is very different,” he said.
The practice of keeping social distance during pandemics and outbreaks of novel sickness and Monto’s statement aligned directly with AIER’s correction — some schools closed, and some social distance was kept. It was just less coordinated.
Another factor was that the comparison wasn’t truly direct. COVID-19 was a novel coronavirus, not the first or only coronavirus to infect humans or jump species, but novel nonetheless. H3N2 (which is popularly called the Hong Kong flu) was a notably severe strain of influenza, remembered primarily for being deadlier than most seasonal flu, but not as deadly as the pandemic of 1918-1919:
H3N2 spread quickly, but resulted in “comparatively few deaths” worldwide:
The outbreak was the third influenza pandemic to occur in the 20th century; it followed the 1957 flu pandemic and the influenza pandemic of 1918–19. The 1968 flu pandemic resulted in an estimated one million to four million deaths, far fewer than the 1918–19 pandemic, which caused between 25 million and 50 million deaths …
… Although the 1968 flu outbreak was associated with comparatively few deaths worldwide, the virus was highly contagious, a factor that facilitated its rapid global dissemination.
An April 2020 BioSpace.com comparison of H3N2 and COVID-19 (“The 1968 Pandemic Strain [H3N2] Persists. Will COVID-19?”) began:
1968 was a bad year for flu but, as pandemics go, it was pretty mild. Scientists called the flu strain that hit the world H3N2. It’s still around. Globally, about one million people died until the outbreak faded during the winter of 1969-70. In the U.S., the death toll was approximately 100,000 – three or four times the average annual death toll for flu since 2010, according to CDC figures. Most of those deaths were among people age 65 or older.
That piece went on to address a highly relevant element when comparing the 1968 pandemic with COVID-19 in 2020 — vaccines were still relatively novel at the time of that pandemic, and the trajectory of the earlier outbreak was far more sporadic:
Edwin D. Kilbourne, (since deceased) professor of microbiology and immunology at New York Medical College, in a 2006 article comparing the influenza pandemics of the 20th century, found that outbreaks in Japan were small and scattered. Western Europe, including the United Kingdom, experienced increased illnesses but no increased death rates during the first year of the pandemic. The U.S., however, experienced high illness and death rates the first year, beginning on the West Coast where the virus was first introduced.
“Researchers speculated that (H3N2’s) more sporadic and variable impact in different regions of the world were mediated by differences in prior N2 immunity. Therefore, the 1968 pandemic has been aptly characterized as ‘smoldering,’” Kilbourne wrote. Emphasizing that point, vaccination by Air Force cadets with the H2N2 vaccine reduced H3N2 infections by 54%.
In the 1960s, vaccines were evolving. The 1968 H3N2 pandemic triggered the development of trivalent vaccines and of subunit vaccines, which decreased adverse reactions. About the same time, the U.S. began recommending annual flu vaccination for high risk individuals.
In direct relation to AIER’s viral post on Woodstock’s conjunction with H3N2, it appeared that Reuters published a fact check specific to it. Text at the top of the page was quite revealing:
Correction 2: Reuters Fact Check team initially rated this claim as True, and later revised that to Partly True. After listening carefully to feedback from readers and reviewing the timeline of the Hong Kong flu pandemic that started in 1968, we are correcting this verdict to Misleading.
It is not unusual for fact check ratings to change when events progress chronologically (such as when the subject of a death hoax later dies, and a page is updated from “false” to “true”). What makes Reuters’ series of corrections so extraordinary for a fact check is that the events being changed took place half a century before they were investigated.
Under that, the fact check’s corrections and clarifications continued:
Note – this fact check does not aim to compare the responses to the Hong Kong flu and the current COVID-19 outbreaks. It is strictly assessing the primary claim shared in social media posts that “Woodstock occurred in the middle of a pandemic”. It does not attempt to verify or disprove the entire content of an article with that headline that was published on the website of the American Institute for Economic Research here
Here, Reuters attempted to clarify the scope of the fact check, placing it squarely as a chronological matter — in other words, not a one-to-one pandemic comparison. Reuters attempted “strictly assessing” the “primary claim” about the co-occurrence of Woodstock and the 1968-1970 pandemic before swapping the ratings out (twice.)
Beyond that point, it is not expressly clear which fact check elements were newly added, and which appeared in the original version rated “true.” But one portion — possibly added when the rating was last changed — involved an email sent to Reuters by Woodstock co-producer Joel Rosenman about the relationship between the pandemic and the concert:
Woodstock was not partying in defiance of pandemic containment measures, because at the time of Woodstock, there was no pandemic, and there were no containment measures to defy. In the months following the December-January peak of the pandemic, the flu all but disappeared. By mid-‘69, any preoccupation with the virus had given way to widespread unconcern. Media coverage had dwindled to virtually zero. As far as the nation was concerned, the pandemic was in the rear-view mirror. It was during this time, not during the pandemic months of the previous winter, that my co-producers, John Roberts, Artie Kornfeld, Mike Lang and I created Woodstock—without so much as a thought about ‘pandemic.’ It wasn’t until the next flu season, several months after Woodstock, that we all found ourselves in a horrifying déjà flu.
AIER published a misleading and out-of-context claim not only that Woodstock was not only held during a pandemic, but that schools and businesses didn’t close at all during its duration. AIER appended their own unlabeled corrections alongside a “note,” and fact checkers revised their work to address the vital nuance in the claim. For a variety of reasons, the comparison was dishonest. One of those reasons was AIER’s unveiled editorial viewpoint in conflict with medical science, and many others were medical or historical in nature. However, Rosenman stepped forward to clarify the timing of Woodstock as it related to the pandemic, objecting to AIER’s dishonest — but nevertheless viral — claims.