How does COVID-19 compare?
One of the natural questions to arise from all of this is: Have we been here before? Have we even been close to here before?
Can we find anything that compares to the coronavirus crisis, without going back to the 19th century (they say the Civil War was pretty disruptive), or at least to World War II?
I was born in 1968. So while I’m not the oldest of old-timers, I’m no longer young, either. I’ll be 52 my next birthday.
Here are the disasters and major disruptions to American life that I can remember, starting with the 1970s:
Energy crises (1970s)
Throughout the 1970s there was anxiety about gasoline. This was mostly owing to events in the Middle East.
Twice–in 1973 and in 1979—these crises became acute. The proximate cause of the 1973 crisis was the Yom Kuppur War. The Iranian Revolution caused the 1979 crisis.
To be honest, I was still in kindergarten in 1973, and I don’t remember that crisis well.
I do, however, vividly recall the energy crisis of 1979. There were long gas lines, and there was concern about the availability of other fossil fuels, as well. Jimmy Carter, who was president at the time, famously encouraged everyone to turn down the heat and wear sweaters. (Yes, really.)
Blizzards of 1977 and 1978
I was in grade school when these occurred, and I remember them well, too. During those two consecutive winters, we had weeks of record snow and cold. The Ohio River here in Cincinnati froze solid. I was off school for days at a stretch. (And there was no e-learning back then.)
The Blizzards of 1977 and 1978 were disruptive for many Americans, and many businesses. To be honest, though, they became some of the more pleasant memories of my childhood. All that time off school!
Savings and Loan crisis (1985)
There were various savings and loan crises throughout the 1980s. There was one I remember in particular, though: the collapse of the Cincinnati-based Home State Savings Bank.
In March 1985, the collapse of Home State Savings was imminent and more or less public knowledge. There was a run on branches of Home State Savings (as well as other S&Ls) as nervous account holders rushed to get their money out.
I was in high school then. I remember seeing the long lines at the savings and loan near my house. Ohio Governor Dick Celeste ordered all S&Ls in Ohio closed.
The resolution of the S&L crisis—in Ohio and elsewhere—lasted well into the 1990s.
Waco, the LA riots, the first World Trade Center Bombing, and Oklahoma City (1992-1995)
Between 1992 and 1995, there were multiple events of mass violence that made the news. These were not widely disruptive beyond the places where they occurred, but they did create national anxiety.
In 1992, there were several days of looting and rioting in Los Angeles, in response to the verdict in the Rodney King trial. There were concerns that the race-related violence would spread beyond Los Angeles. To the best of my knowledge, this did not happen to any significant degree. But parts of Los Angeles would take years to rebuild.
On February 26, 1993, a Muslim extremist named Ramzi Yousef detonated an improvised bomb in the World Trade Center in New York City. There were only a few casualties, and the WTC remained structurally sound.
In April 1993, several branches of federal law enforcement raided the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, resulting in multiple civilian deaths, including the deaths of many children.
In April 1995, a rightwing extremist named Timothy McVeigh detonated a truck bomb outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. 168 Americans died as a result. Timothy McVeigh was captured, tried, and convicted. He was executed in 2001.
I was an adult by 1992; and I can recall watching live, or almost-live, footage of all of these events on television. They made me anxious. (The Oklahoma City bombing made me particularly sad.) But they did not interfere with my day-to-day life in any significant way.
I was at my corporate home base in Cincinnati when 9/11 began on the morning of September 11, 2001. My father, however, was still working at the time; and he was in Las Vegas for a trade show.
He had flown into Las Vegas the previous weekend. (9/11 occurred on a Tuesday.) So he wasn’t flying that day. But there was some anxiety about him getting home. For a while, all flights were grounded. After a minor ordeal in the Las Vegas airport, my dad and his companions found seats on a flight to Cincinnati.
On the afternoon of 9/11, there were some gas lines. But the run on gasoline was short-lived, when everyone realized that the terrorist attacks posed no threat to America’s oil supplies.
Those are the bad/disruptive events that occurred in my lifetime within the United States.
Many of the above were tragic. (Even the Blizzards of 1977 and 1978 caused some loss of life.) They resulted not only in deaths, but in economic disruptions.
None of these, however, was remotely comparable to the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. All of the above-described disturbances were relatively finite. Suicide bombers, as horrible as their work can be, can only bomb you once. No one believed that the Los Angeles riots of 1992 were going to continue for six months.
In other words, we don’t really have a living-memory benchmark to the COVID-19 pandemic. As everyone keeps saying, this really is uncharted territory.