Like the Hong Kong Flu, this too shall pass


I’ve really enjoyed putting together the first two installments of our new “Now & Again” feature.

If you missed the first one in last week’s paper, you can mosey on over to Page 9 and peruse a few photos that have run on the pages of our publication over the years between the dates of June 7-16.

So far, working on this feature has given me a greater appreciation for just how odd life has been thus far in 2020. It’s only been three months since the pandemic fundamentally changed our day-to-day lives, but pictures of people standing shoulder to shoulder without masks throw me for a loop. I’m also coming across reminders of annual events we used to take for granted that have not taken place this year.

As I scrolled through photos in my archives, I happened across a shot of City Manager Pete Peterson on June 6 of last year briefing the media on Johnson City’s budget. Peterson gathered the media at City Hall last year on the morning the City Commission was set to vote on the first reading of the FY 2020 budget. He walked us through a slideshow highlighting major capital projects that were being funded and providing an overview of revenue sources and projections.

Generally, Peterson was able to paint a rosy picture. The economy was roaring, and the city was able to knock out quite a few wants and needs as a result. The budget totaled nearly a quarter of a trillion dollars.

Near the end, Peterson briefly mentioned the city’s fund balance, which is required to contain enough money to cover the city’s operating expenditures and transfers in case of an emergency. As Peterson unfurled a hypothetical scenario that would require the city to rely on the fund balance, my eyes glazed over, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in the room who had that reaction. After all, the good times were rolling, and there was no end in sight.

Peterson wrapped up the explanation of the fund balance by knocking on the heavy wood table in the conference room, “Thankfully, we’ve been blessed and haven’t had any extraordinary disasters where we had to get into that.”

Nearly one year later to the day, I found myself on the phone with Peterson because city hall was closed. We were discussing a “worst-possible scenario” budget put together in the 11th hour because a global pandemic had knocked out about three months worth of sales tax revenue, and nobody knows exactly if there will be a second-wave that seriously hampers next year’s revenue.

This is a good illustration of just how fast life can come at you. The confluence of events we’ve experienced this year has certainly been unnerving, but there’s a word I think has been seriously overused. That word is “unprecedented.”

Sure, we have wide-scale protests in the streets. Our country is deeply divided over the most basic of issues, and we’re battling a global pandemic on top of everything else. This must be unprecedented, right?
Well, not exactly. Back in the fall of 1968, we had young people fighting in Vietnam while other young people were at home protesting the war. Richard Nixon was elected President, capping off a tumultuous election cycle that saw the assassination of Robert Kennedy and riots outside the Democratic Convention in Chicago. In other news, the H3N2 avian flu virus – known as the Hong Kong Flu – was spreading rapidly across the world.

I hadn’t heard of the Hong Kong Flu until this past week. When I read about how the Woodstock music festival was planned and took place during a global pandemic, I thought for sure it was that “fake news” you’re always hear about. Turns out I was wrong.

It’s estimated that the H3N2 virus killed over a million people worldwide and over 100,000 in the United States. There was a first wave in the fall of 1968 and a second in the fall of 1969. Schools weren’t closed, but folks avoided public transportation and wiped everything down with alcohol wipes.

Folks I talk to who lived through the late 1960s have said it felt, at times, like the world might be coming to an end. I hope those of you who are feeling that way now will take solace in the fact these times aren’t as “unprecedented” as they may seem.

It’s impossible to “get back to normal.” We’ll get there, but only by moving forward like we always have.

Knock on wood, one day this pandemic will be a footnote in the history books, followed up closely by brighter, more unified, times.


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