The medical and political drama that has unfolded as the novel coronavirus spread across the globe has undoubtedly left its mark with the tolls it has taken. With its origin in Wuhan, China, the virus has been the subject of censorshipmisinformationxenophobia, and greed, both here in the U.S. and abroad.


The first case of the disease that was later named COVID-19 was in early December, 2019 in Wuhan. On December 30th, Dr. Li Wenliang warned his classmates online of a new SARS-like disease. According to the New York Times, days later, "the police compelled him to sign a statement that his warning constituted 'illegal behavior.'" Dr. Li later died from the coronavirus (7).


In 1918, the U.S. engaged in similar activity

The U.S. did not completely silence the reporting of the 1918 influenza during the first wave in the Spring, but significant efforts were made to lessen the appearance of its devastation (9).

Is the federal reluctance to ramp up testing for COVID-19 censorship?

The Atlantic (5/21/2020)

'How Could the CDC Make That Mistake?'

The government's disease-fighting agency is conflating viral and antibody tests, compromising a few crucial metrics that governors depend on to reopen their economies. Pennsylvania, Georgia, Texas, and other states are doing the same.



The desperation of the circumstances as COVID-19 cases exploded in the U.S. and the lack of approved remedies has prompted some to turn to accessible, unvetted "magical bullets" shared over TV and social media in an effort to feel safe in this time of uncertainty.

In 1793, when yellow fever ravaged through the streets of early Philadelphia, medicine was stuck somewhere between the medieval and the modern eras. In these desperate times, when near 10% of the city perished at the hand of the virus, not only were laypeople desperately searching for quick cures, but so were prescribing medical professionals like Dr. Benjamin Rush (8, 21).

Which of these remedies were said to cure yellow fever and which were said to cure COVID-19?

Hover over the tile for the answer

Carrying around handkerchiefs soaked with vinegar

Consuming cow dung and urine

Amulets of dried frogs

Consuming alcohol

Avoid letting your throat become dry and avoid spicy foods

Heavy sweating and tea

Injecting disinfectant inside the body

Bleeding and purging

Illness caused by a parasite in the lips of the affected person

Exposure to volcanic ash

Burning gunpowder and breathing fresh air

But in 1918, even Philly's mild closures to public life were met with resistance. Despite no other American city experiencing the same death toll, writers for The Philadelphia Inquirer made their opinion clear: the city was overreacting and there was no need to panic (5).

Do false narratives and misinformation cost human lives?



Why does xenophobia accompany epidemics?

Click on the stories below to learn more



Duffy's Cut

Duffy hired 57 Irish immigrant railroad workers on June 23rd for mile 59 of the Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad in Chester Co. Owing to the rough terrain, this was to be the most expensive mile, called Duffy's Cut. In the midst of their work in August, the cholera pandemic reached their camp. Within two and a half weeks, all were dead, mere months after first stepping onto U.S. soil.

Historical writing suggests that the workers tried to ask locals for assistance, but locals made it clear they were not welcome, fearing the cholera and despising them as Irish Catholics. Threats against the workers were made if they did not preserve nearby private property along the line. Their bodies were buried in the fill they were making; buried where they worked. Some local newspapers derided the workers as depraved and intemperate, celebrating the tragedy. Even the railroad company tried to cover up the grisly events at Duffy's Cut.

Recent archaeological evidence has revealed that the workers were killed. Many experienced blunt force trauma, one was axed and shot in the head. Whether these were mercy killings or the work of Nativist locals has yet to be determined. (20, 23, 24)

Unearthed skull with a bullet wound.

BBC News Northern Ireland



Even in 1793, some wealthy landlords were set on sustaining a profit during a period of great mortal peril and economic distress. Mathew Carey, a publisher and economist at the time, recorded his critical thoughts on the matter:

And in 1918, the devastation of influenza did not stop ads from trying to capitalize on it.

The Philadelphia Inquirer (10/27/1918) (5)

The Philadelphia Inquirer (10/27/1918) (5)

The Philadelphia Inquirer (10/27/1918) (5)


1. “Analysis of Spanish flu cases in 1918-1920 suggests transfusions might help in bird flu pandemic.” American College of Physicians, August 29, 2006.


2. “China coronavirus: Misinformation spreads online about origin and scale.” BBC News, January 30, 2020.


3. “Coronavirus: Can cow dung and urine help cure the novel coronavirus?” Times of India, February 5, 2020.


4. “Coronavirus: Outcry after Trump suggests injecting disinfectant as treatment.” BBC News, April 24, 2020.


5. The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 18, September 19, October 5, October 8, October 27, October 28, 1918.


6. “World Health Organization refutes misleading claim that volcanic ash can kill coronavirus.” AFP Fact Check Philippines, March 10, 2020.


7. Buckley, Chris and Steven Lee Myers. “As New Coronavirus Spread, China’s Old Habits Delayed Fight.” The New York Times, February 7, 2020.


8. Carey, Mathew. A short account of the malignant fever, lately prevalent in Philadelphia: with a statement of the proceedings that took place on the subject in different parts of the United States. Philadelphia: Printed by author, November 14, 1793.

9. Crosby, Alfred W. America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918, Second Edition. Cambridge University Press, 2003.


10. Dixon, Robyn. “No lockdown here: Belarus’s strongman rejects coronavirus risks. He suggests saunas and vodka.” The Washington Post, March 27, 2020.


11. Farrington, Brendan and Bobby Caina Calvan. “Public remarks prompted Florida virus data curator’s firing.” AP News, May 23, 2020.


12. Fernandez, Cynthia. “Hundreds gather at Capitol in Harrisburg for anti-shutdown rally calling to ‘reopen’ Pennsylvania.” Spotlight PA, April 20, 2020.

13. Friedman, Zack. “Proposal: Cancel Rent And Mortgages Due To Coronavirus.” Forbes, April 17, 2020.


14. Gostanian, Ali, Suzanne Ciechalski and Rima Abdelkader. “Asians worldwide share examples of coronavirus-related xenophobia on social media.” NBC News, February 11, 2020.


15. Haynes, Suyin. “As Coronavirus Spreads, So Does Xenophobia and Anti-Asian Racism.” TIME Magazine, March 6, 2020.


16. Keith, Tamara. “Timeline: What Trump Has Said And Done About The Coronavirus.” NPR, April 21, 2020.


17. Madrigal, Alexis C. and Robinson Meyer. “‘How Could the CDC Make That Mistake?’” The Atlantic, May 21, 2020.


18. Mariano, Willoughby and J. Scott Trubey. “‘It’s just cuckoo’: state’s latest data mishap causes critics to cry foul.” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, May 13, 2020.


19. Microsoft Sam. “Every Covid-19 Commercial is Exactly the Same.” YouTube, April 15, 2020.


20. Murray, Fiona. “Duffy's Cut: Irish emigrants' plight highlighted as murder victim returned home.” BBC News Northern Ireland. May 18, 2015.


21. Powell, J.H. Bring Out Your Dead: The Great Plague of Yellow Fever in Philadelphia in 1793. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.


22. Tanenbaum, Michael. “Video allegedly shows group assaulting couple on Philly subway platform.” Philly Voice, March 4, 2020.


23. Tucker, Abigail. “Ireland’s Forgotten Sons Recovered Two Centuries Later.” Smithsonian Magazine, April 2010.


24. Watson, William. “The Sisters of Charity, the 1832 Cholera Epidemic in Philadelphia and Duffy’s Cut.” U.S. Catholic Historian 27:4 (Fall, 2009): 1-16.

Temple Anthropology Laboratory and Museum 

Gladfelter Hall- Lower Level, Temple University

1115 Polett Walk, Philadelphia, PA 19122

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