Imagining an Eighties Coronavirus Pandemic

Thinking about the TV series It’s A Sin I blogged about on Saturday a couple of things struck me in relation to our current situation trying to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the early 1980s we had no access to the internet – it only really get going until 1983 and most households didn’t get connected until much later. There wasn’t even email either. And nobody had mobile phones – smart or otherwise, so there were no text messages.

Had the Covid-19 pandemic occurred forty years ago we would have had to face it in very different ways. Working from home for most people would have been impossible so any kind of lockdown would have had dire economic consequences.

In the education sector, in which I work, the existence of the internet has allowed us to switch to remote teaching and learning (and assessment). Although it has been very far from ideal, at least we have been able to do something. What would we have done in the 1980s? I really don’t know.

One possibility is to have used the TV to broadcast some form of educational service. But until 1982 (when Channel 4 arrived) there were only three channels in the UK so it would not have been easy to devote a lot of time for live broadcasts. On the other hand people did have video recorders, so programmes could have been transmitted during the night for later consumption. I guess also that some materials, assignments, etc could have been delivered using the regular mail rather like old-fashioned correspondence courses. The Open University was already doing that, of course, but expanding it to include every student at every level in the country at very short notice would have been very difficult indeed.

The number of people in other sectors who would be able to work from home would also have been very small, so the economic cost of a lockdown would have been even higher than at present. I suspect that Governments wouldn’t even have tried, with the resulting increase in mortality.

And there is also the social dimension. During this pandemic people have been able to use software such as Zoom to stay in touch, including with elderly relatives who might otherwise be completely isolated. That would have been impossible in the Eighties.

In any case socializing for young people during the 1980s – which is what I was then – was very different. We didn’t (because we couldn’t) use texts or mobile phone calls to arrange nights out or other things. I didn’t get my
first (very basic) mobile phone until the 1990s – and I think I was an early adopter. I kept in touch with my friends in normal times by frequenting the same bars and clubs as my friends. We’d often meet up without arranging anything specifically.

There were no dating apps then either, so people used to hook up in bars and clubs (and frequently elsewhere). I suppose that has changed a lot over the past couple of decades (although I don’t go to such places any more, being an oldie).

Suffice to say that compared to today the impact on social lives and wellbeing would have been even more drastic had we had lockdowns in the 1980s.

6 Responses to “Imagining an Eighties Coronavirus Pandemic”

  1. If this pandemic had occurred in the 1980s, I suspect that we would have essentially given up and let the virus spread until we got to herd immunity. The costs (both economic and personal) of the actions required to prevent it would have been seen as too high. As appalling as the death toll has been, it would have been quite a lot worse.

    • On the other hand, the number of people in the most vulnerable age groups was probably quite a bit smaller in the 1980s.

    • Thats what we (the UK) did in the 1957 flu pandemic. I don’t think it was anywhere near as serious as covid in terms of deaths/hospital overload etc, but it was far, far worse than a normal flu season. I wonder if the reason they did nothing was because working from home was simply impossible in those days?

      OTOH I have read in the spanish flu pandemic some US cities did have full lockdowns. Also according to Bill Brysons Shakespeares book lockdowns in London were commonplace due to plague (so hospitality essentially shut by government decree for 6 months or so).

  2. My guess is that there was much less travel. Remember when flying was expensive?

    • In the late 70s and early 80s a return ticket (tourist class) to the US for a field trip was 3 months pay for a scientific civil servant… (and I had to get a special stamp from the bank in my passport to allow me to take more than some incredibly low limit -£100??- for expenses)

    • telescoper Says:

      I didn’t travel abroad at all until 1986 (Corsica).

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