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).


Spanish Influenza


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


"... the authorities silenced doctors and others for raising red flags. They played down the dangers to the public, leaving the city's 11 million residents unaware they should protect themselves..."

“ ‘If the officials had disclosed information about the epidemic earlier,’ [Dr. Li] said, ‘I think it would have been a lot better. There should have been more openness and transparency.’ ”

Spanish Flu

"... wartime censorship may have affected publication of existing research. (The name 'Spanish flu' came from the fact that Spain was not a partner in World War I and its press was freer to report details of the pandemic than press in combatant countries who did not want to reveal information about deaths and sickness to enemies.)

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.



Yellow  Fever


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?

Click on 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

Spanish Influenza




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).

"The city has joined with the military and naval authorities in the effort to prevent Spanish influenza from making further inroads into the population. It will, in the natural course of things, disappear within a few days..."

The Philadelphia Inquirer (9/19/1918) (5)


"Since crowds gather in congested eating houses and press into elevators and hang to the straps of illy-ventilated street cars, it  is a little difficult to understand what is to be gained by shutting up well ventilated churches and theatres. The authorities seem to be going daft. What are they trying to do, scare everybody to death?

The Philadelphia Inquirer (10/05/1918) (5)

Spanish Influenza and the Fear of It

"There is need in this city, not to shut up well ventilated churches, not to turn the ordinary ways of life topsy-turvy..."

The Philadelphia Inquirer (10/08/1918) (5)

Stop the Senseless Influenza Panic

"In a newspaper interview [Dr. John W. Croskey] is reported to have said that 'the public should be educated to the fact that the disease is not as deadly as many believe it to be.' He estimates that the death rate is only about one-half of one per cent."

The Philadelphia Inquirer (10/08/1918) (5)

Stop the Senseless Influenza Panic

"Panic is the worst thing that can happen to an individual or a community. Panic is exaggerated fear, and fear is the most deadly word in any language. The fear of influenza is creating a panic, an unreasonable panic that will be promoted, we suspect, by the drastic commands of the authorities."

The Philadelphia Inquirer (10/08/1918) (5)

Stop the Senseless Influenza Panic

"The danger from influenza is virtually over. That it was materially augmented by the numerous restrictions tyrannically ordered cannot be doubted... The modern theatre, well ventilated, is perfectly safe. No one need fear to enter one, now that the doors are about to be opened again... The season of insanity is of the past."

The Philadelphia Inquirer (10/28/1918) (5)

Return of Sanity to Philadelphia

Do false narratives and misinformation cost human lives?

"Where does Sunday take place twice a week? And May 2 come before April 26? The state of Georgia, as it provides up-to-date data on the COVID-19 pandemic. In the latest bungling of tracking data for the novel coronavirus, a recently posted bar chart on the Georgia Department of Public Health appeared to show good news..."

"She has, however, suggested Health Department managers wanted her to manipulate information to paint a rosier picture and that she pushed back."

"Standing shoulder to shoulder, hundreds of protesters gathered outside the state Capitol on Monday for a rally to 'reopen' Pennsylvania..."

"Trump has gone from downplaying the risk early on, to overselling the availability of test kits, to encouraging strict social distancing measures, to questioning whether those measures were causing too much economic and emotional pain. He has claimed "total" authority and then insisted it's really up to the states to manage the response."



Why does xenophobia accompany epidemics?

Click on the stories below to learn more

Yellow Fever


In a dramatic escape from war raging on the Caribbean island of Saint-Domingue, French refugees found safety in Philadelphia. Weeks later came pestilence. Was this group with unclear support for French Revolution responsible for the yellow fever?


Duffy's Cut

At Duffy's Cut, the construction site of mile 59 of the P&C railroad, 57 Irish immigrant workers perished as cholera swept through their camp. Buried in a mass grave, recent archaeological evidence may indicate that Nativist locals played a role in the tragedy.

Spanish Flu

German U-Boats

The Philadelphia Inquirer raised the question: who brought Spanish influenza to the shores of America?

German submarines have been sighted offshore... did they bring disease?


Xenophobia 2020

With the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, Asians around the world have been the subject of intense xenophobia and blame. 

Even here in Philly, we continue to perpetuate the mistakes of our past.



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



Yellow  Fever


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:

"... there are some whose hardened hearts know no compassion, and who will have 'the pound of fleshthe penalty of the bond.' Indeed, when the disorder was at the highest stage, some landlords seized the small property of poor roomkeepers, who were totally unable to pay their rent. One man wrote to the committee, informing them that the poverty of his tenants rendered it impossible for them to pay him; he therefore begged the committee would, as they were appointed to relieve the poor, pay the arrearages due to him. Another person, a wealthy widow, produced recommendations for several roomkeepers, her tenants, and the committee gave them each a small sum. As soon as they received it, she seized the money and their clothes!

A Short Account of the Malignant Fever, Lately Prevalent in Philadelphia (1793) (8)

Mathew Carey

Spanish Influenza


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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