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Could Black Plague Masks Save Us From COVID-19?

  • by Nick Keitel
  • 7 Months ago
  • Comments Off

History may or may not repeat, but as author Mark Twain once said, it certainly rhymes. As people around the world are beginning to worry about the spread of COVID-19, a new and deadly coronavirus that originated from a seafood market in China, memories of the SARS outbreak of the early 2000s have resurfaced.

Like COVID-19, SARS was also a coronavirus with Chinese origins. By the time it finally went away it had infected over 8,000 people in 37 countries, killing 774 of them (That’s almost a 10% fatality rate).

COVID-19, which is transmitted human-to-human, has spread rapidly throughout the world.

Cases of the new coronavirus have currently been confirmed both in larger Chinese cities like Beijing and in other countries such as Japan, South Korea, Thailand, and even the United States. So far it has infected over 400 people and counting, leaving 9 dead in its wake. There’s no telling how much damage it will do after its run its course; everyone should take reasonable precautions but also shouldn’t panic.

However, it doesn’t just have parallels with SARS. There have been many outbreaks and epidemics throughout recorded history. One of the most infamous of which was the bubonic plague, commonly known as The Black Death (which also originated from Asia, systematically making its way down the Silk Road).

To protect themselves from transmission of the disease, doctors at the time often wore protective suits when working with infected patients. The suit even featured a bird-like mask complete with a long beak.

Side by side of an old illustration of the ‘plague doctor’ suit (left) and a real German version of the suit (right).

How did this mask function? Well, it was covered in a wax-like substance as an extra layer of protection and thick goggles with glass lenses covered the eyeholes. Herbs and various spices were placed inside the beak, not only to supposedly prevent the doctor from inhaling deadly pathogens, but also to cover the stench of death that permeated the air.

The Death Mask, as it’s now been called, has seen a rise in popularity in recent years. Not so much as a legitimate medical uniform, but as a stylish, edgy fashion accessory and Halloween costume. In light of the new coronavirus, some are wondering if the mask and suit have any functionality in the modern age, and if they could actually protect oneself from an infection.

The ‘plague doctor’ costume has become popular as a Halloween costume, with one Twitter user sharing pictures of his daughter wearing it to school for the holiday.

Unfortunately, the answer is no. Contrary to popular beliefs of 13th century, the mask would be of little use in warding off a serious disease. Of course, it’s better than nothing. Wearing a health mask or gloves when dealing with sick people is always better than nothing. But there is no evidence the design of the death mask was effective at its job. That’s one reason they went out of vogue in the medical field over time – they’re cumbersome to wear over long stretches of time and do little to nothing to shield the wearer from harm.

In a pandemic situation, they’d be even more useless. Still, they are an interesting blast from the past, and they at least show an early form of human inventiveness when it comes to thinking of ways to prevent the spread of disease. You could think of them as a precursor to hazmat suits.

As for COVID-19, hopefully it will see a less successful career than the outbreaks before it. And hopefully it is relegated to the dustbin of history sooner rather than later.

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