This too shall pass. As we are all challenged today by the COVID-19 virus, the Way Back Wednesday series will look back at past epidemics and health challenges, with a particular focus on those individuals who sought to aid the sick, and on how our landscape remembers those past times.
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Over the past several weeks while gathering material for our Way Back Wednesday articles relating to the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1920, it is readily apparent that there are striking similarities to these days of COVID-19. Social distancing, business closures, quarantines, health care challenges and masks became part of daily life in October and November of 1918, much in the same way they are at this moment in time.
Advertised “remedies” – the snake oil of their time – follow much the same course, then and now. Striking of opportunism and scams, and pointedly downplaying the severity of the Spanish Flu, many advertisements for “miracle cures” can be found in historical newspapers.
Doctor McFadden, the Peel Medical Officer of Health in 1918, after issuing orders to close schools, churches, theatres and places of public gathering on October 31, 1918, then addressed the prevalence of “folk remedies” for battling the Spanish Flu, noting that none of the “advertised solutions carry medical assurances to combat the spread of the influenza. If you are sick, stay in bed until the doctor allows you to leave.”
Some of the quack cures in 1918 included eating more onions, sliced lemons, whiskey to relax the throat muscles, laxatives, something called creophos, and more.
None of the “cures” were proven to have worked, but it likely generated a profit for those peddling the remedies. We can chuckle, perhaps, at the historical advertising, but also note that the focus of the quack cures was to profit from fear.
In “Profiting from a Pandemic is an Old Trick” by Jane Jenkins, published on May 31, 2020 in the Globe and Mail:
“Isolation, boredom and overwhelming dread replaced the usual routines of life that chilly fall of 1918. And feeding on this widespread anxiety were newspaper advertisements and articles trumpeting often outlandish remedies to prevent or cure influenza by keeping the right attitude, making recipes at home, or buying ready-made items. In most cases, the path to cure and comfort led straight to the clothes and other goods for sale in shops and stores.”
We can see parallels today in the promotion of unproven remedies for COVID-19, such as hydroxychloroquine, colloidal silver, whiskey with pineapple, Dettol, boneset tea and other herbal remedies, and the list goes on. There is currently no indication that any of them can prevent, or assist in the battle against, COVID-19. It is currently noted by health care professionals that there “are no vaccines, no prescription drugs, no supplements, no pills, potions, lotions, or lozenges that we know of that can prevent or treat the coronavirus.” Sure sounds like Doctor McFadden’s advice all over again.
While the Spanish Flu petered out on its own by 1920, a vaccine was not developed until the 1940s. Hopefully with COVID-19 we will not be on the same trajectory for a vaccine, but nothing is of course guaranteed, particularly as we are in the midst of the crisis. Looking back at the path carved by the Spanish Flu just over 100 years ago, and the commonalities we can see today, history tells us that this is a long way from being over. And the best way to face these challenges and to slow transmission of the virus is by following proven public health advice, such as washing your hands often, avoiding close contact with people who are sick, wearing a mask when in public, and staying home if you are sick. Simple, proven advice that we should all follow.
But heck, a sliced lemon on the counter or eating more onions can’t hurt, right?