What the news media didn't tell you about pandemics

Cal Samra, Editor, The Joyful Noiseletter

The African-American Church of Christ evangelist Marshall Keeble (1878-1968), the son of two former slaves, was famous for his sense of humor. In the days of strict segregation, both black and white folks flocked to Rev. Keeble's assemblies, and he had them rollin' in the aisles, laughing hysterically. When he read the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's declaration that "God is dead," Keeble commented, "I didn't even know God was sick, and I talked to Him this morning."

The superficial and faulty coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic by the American news media – secular, Protestant, and Catholic – suggests that many editors and reporters have concluded that God is indeed dead. The news coverage of the coronavirus pandemic was not American journalism's finest hour – or year.

The major news services and newspapers (conservative and liberal, secular and religious) and the national TV news broadcasts failed to put COVID-19 in historical perspective, and failed to report the views of prominent medical doctors and religious leaders – past and present – on the importance of leading a healthy lifestyle to strengthen the immune system against viruses.

I just turned 90, and as a newspaper reporter from the 1950s to the 1980s, I was privileged to work under the guidance of some of the great editors of "The Greatest Generation," I still cringe at sloppy, slanted, inaccurate, and biased reporting.

I have often wondered how my tough-minded and fair-minded editors would have covered the coronavirus epidemic. Surely they would have been troubled by the ignorance of the young lords and ladies of the modern press, who have ignored the great contributions people of all faith traditions, as well as secularists, have made to the health of humanity, especially when challenged by the life-threatening pandemics of the past.

The vicious coronavirus has killed thousands of people, but millions of others suffered only minor symptoms and quickly recovered, while millions more were unaffected by COVID-19, possibly because they have strong immune systems that reject viruses or lessen their impact on the body.

But where did you see an article on how to lead a healthy lifestyle and build a strong immune system?

The news media seemed exclusively focused on developing a vaccine to prevent the coronavirus, at the cost of a couple of billion dollars, or on coming up with a pill to cure it, even though vaccines and pills developed for previous pandemic viruses proved ineffectual.

Pandemics have assaulted the planet, at intervals, for centuries, and medical authorities and religious leaders have responded with remarkably similar prescriptions to strengthen the health and immune systems of people.

As an example, we sent the Sept.-Oct. issue of The Joyful Noiseletter with an article titled "Why not invite brains to the COVID-19 press briefings?" to the major American news media, as well as others. That article began as follows:

Dr. Kellogg & the Spanish Flu

My father was an immigrant who got his U.S. citizenship in 1918 by joining the U.S. Army during World War I. That was the year the Spanish Flu pandemic struck and killed 50 million people worldwide, including 600,000 Americans.

Not much more was known about the deadly Spanish Flu virus than our modern medical profession knows about the COVID-19. Cities like Philadelphia held massive public parades to sell war bonds. A big mistake.

My father survived the Spanish Flu by following the advice of Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, a devout Protestant who was the founder of the world-famous Battle Creek Sanitarium, which in those days attracted the likes of Thomas Edison and many other celebrities.

In a 1918 article titled “Spanish Influenza Treatment” by Dr. Kellogg, Kellogg reported that the Sanitarium had great success treating Spanish Flu patients by:

  1. giving them water enemas to clean out their bowels.
  2. requiring them to drink three or four glasses of water or fruit juice daily, to promote elimination from their kidneys.
  3. take short fasts occasionally (an old Jewish and Christian custom).
  4. avoid sugar, processed foods, and junk foods.
  5. eat a plant-based diet with a focus on fresh fruits and vegetables.
  6. take regular outdoor exercise.

Macfadden & the Spanish Flu

The JN article also mentioned that Bernarr Macfadden, considered "the father of physical culture," also claimed to have healed many Spanish Flu victims who flocked to his sanitarium with natural treatments similar to those offered by Dr. Kellogg's Battle Creek Sanitarium.

Both Dr. Kellogg and Macfadden, who did not identify himself with any religious movement, had some controversial views (they did not promote miracle drugs), but they were highly respected and had huge followings in the early 20th Century. And Jack LaLanne, a secularist who was called "the godfather of physical fitness" in the 1950's, also promoted a natural plant-based diet and regular physical exercise similar to Dr. Kellogg's and Macfadden's programs. LaLanne, who was known for his prodigious feats of strength, also had a huge following on his television program.

But when an AP writer did a huge article on the Spanish Flu of 1918, he and his editors completely ignored the work of Dr. Kellogg, Macfadden, and LaLanne. How can a journalist ignore these famous American healers as if they never existed?

At the coronavirus press hearings, the news media (both conservative and liberal) failed to ask questions putting pandemics in historical perspective. The Protestant magazine Christianity Today, as well as Catholic publications, also displayed a stunning ignorance of Christianity yesterday.

Early Pandemics

In the early centuries of Christianity, the Antonine Plague (165 to 180 A.D.) was reported to have killed five million people in Europe. The Cyprian Plague (251 to 270 A.D.) devastated the Roman Empire and spread to the Germanic peoples.

Ironically, despite terrible persecutions and martyrdoms, Christianity flourished during these pandemics and expanded spectacularly as Christian medical doctors, nurses, priests, monks, nuns, and laypeople cared lovingly for the sick, the poor, and the troubled in monasteries and hospitals. In those days, Christianity was cherished as a healing faith.

In the third century, A.D., 20 Greek doctors educated in the Hippocratic school of medicine who converted to Christianity were celebrated as "the unmercenary physicians" because they never charged their patients a fee.

The Greek Christian doctors of old revered the Jewish prophet Daniel (circa 620 B.C.) who survived his captivity by the Babylonians by adhering to his Jewish faith, declining to eat the luxurious foods of the King's palace and eating only kosher foods, vegetables, lentils, and water (a diet very similar to Dr. Kellogg's.) They also revered the Apostle Luke, another Greek physician, and took seriously the healing message of Jesus, "The Great Physician," who never charged any of the many people he healed a fee.

Foremost among these "unmercenary" Christian physicians were two third-century Arab doctors, Cosmas and Damian, twin brothers who were martyred, and were recognized as the patron saints of pharmacists by both the Orthodox and Catholic Churches.

Cosmas and Damian were reputed to heal their patients with medicinal herbs, a diet of healthful organic foods, short fasts, measured outdoor exercise, spiritual counseling and prayer. They also insisted that their patients follow the fast days and food-abstinence days of the Church.

Sound familiar? This was essentially the same health advice and treatment that, in 1918, the Protestant Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and Bernarr Macfadden had given victims of the Spanish Flu with great success.

This was also a time that monasteries flourished and grew famous as healing centers. The monasteries were located in restful, idyllic country sites, and everyone was encouraged to work in and cultivate organic gardens. The very first hospital for the poor was established in Greece by the saintly Basil.

And what about the healing history of the centuries-old Greek Orthodox monastery at Mt. Athos, and, later, the Catholic Franciscan monasteries in Italy, where the monks and friars were famed for their health and longevity? They and their patients worked their organic gardens endlessly, followed the church's fast days, and ate a fresh Mediterranean diet, which many modern medical authorities now consider the world's healthiest diet. That diet, incidentally, is also very similar to the plant-based diet that Dr. Kellogg and Bernarr Macfadden prescribed for their Spanish Flu patients in 1918.

Many people of all faith traditions, as well as secularists, through the centuries – medical doctors and religious figures – have given remarkably similar advice on how to lead a healthy lifestyle and strengthen one's immune system.

John Wesley's healing ministry

In the 18th Century, John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, authored a book, Primitive Physick, with practical health tips for  pastors and especially for the poor in England and America who could not afford medical care. Wesley promoted regular outdoor exercise, horseback riding, moderation in eating, temperance, and a fresh, mainly plant-based diet. Wesley's friend, Dr. George Cheyne, the eminent Anglican physician, recommended the same diet, similar to Dr. Kellogg's. Wesley and Dr. Cheyne made a valiant effort to restore the healing ministry of the early Christian Church.

In the 19th century, Ellen White, who was raised a Methodist, founded the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, and along with Dr. Kellogg, the Methodist African-American abolitionist Sojourner Truth, the Congregationalist Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Mary Baker Eddy, led a health reform movement in America focused on a natural plant-based diet, clean air, and clean water. The ecumenical Hindu guru, Swami Vivekananda, a yoga master, applauded the movement when he visited America.

The news media even ignored a JN article noting that several modern doctors were now prescribing healthy lifestyles to strengthen the immune system, that were very similar to all of these historical health regimes.

During the pandemic, Dr. Mehmet Oz, a Turkish-American Sufi Muslim, offered on his TV program "some simple tips to strengthen your immune system, including "Good sleep hygiene, exercise, meditation, and loading up on healthy fruits and vegetables."

Dr. Mark Hyman, medical director of the Ultrawellness Center in Lenos, MA, wrote: "What we eat influences our tiniest gut friends – microbes, and how well they function and fight off invaders." For good health, Dr. Hyman recommended, among other things: "Make sure 75% of your plate is veggies; avoid sugar, trans-fats, food additives and preservatives, exercise regularly."

An Epidemic of Obesity

The JN articles also cited numerous modern authors warning that the epidemic of obesity and constipation in America is the root cause of many health problems. ABC World News Tonight did report, briefly, that doctors, in one study, found that 42% of coronavirus fatal victims were obese, with other health problems like diabetes. But the network did not follow up on this information.

Reuters, a British news agency, finally did report that "evidence emerging around the world suggests that people who are overweight are at increased risk of getting more severely ill with COVID-19."

"Obesity puts extra pressure on almost every organ in the body. It leads to high blood pressure and can also affect the respiratory system and make someone breathless," said Susan Jebb, a professor of diet and population at Britain's Oxford University.

Also ignored by the American news media was a fascinating article in the Blue Zones newsletter by Allen S. Weiss, MD, FACP, MBA, the CEO of two Naples, FL, hospitals, which focused on prevention. Dr. Weiss wrote:

"COVID-19 strikes with alarming inconsistency. Most recover quickly, while others die. The disease devastates some communities and spares others. Understanding why and how COVID-19 preys on some and not others is essential to limiting its spread and mitigating its impact."

Words of Wisdom from The Blue Zones

The Blue Zones, a national bestseller as a book published by National Geographic, is a Minneapolis organization founded by Dan Buettner, who led an expedition of  medical scientists to five areas of the world with some of the world's longest-lived people. They interviewed many centenarians and studied their lifestyles, faith traditions, plant-based diets, and physical activity. A high rate of these centenarians managed to avoid many of the diseases that are killing and crippling many Americans. Dr. Kellogg and Ellen White would have been happy to know that one of the Blue Zones communities was a Seventh-Day Adventist community in Loma Linda (CA).

Dr. Weiss wrote that a March 2020 article in Medpage Today by author Rami Bailony declares: "Americans Unfit to Fight Pandemic – Epidemics of Obesity, Dietary Habits and Chronic Stress Leave Nation with Poor Baseline Health."

"Bailony starts with a snapshot of shoppers in a national, big-box grocery store. Packages of chips, candy bars, soda, frozen chicken wings, and other unhealthy foods overflow from the carts of overweight  or obese purchasers. This creates a powerful visual for COVID-19's top three co-morbidities: COPD, heart disease, and diabetes," Dr. Weiss wrote.

The following are other observations of Dr. Weiss on COVID-19:

"COVID-19 kills by overwhelming the pulmonary system. Three prevalent lifestyle issues in American society compromise individual's pulmonary systems. They are obesity, tobacco use, and sedentary behavior."

"Excess weight makes breathing more difficult. Obesity is a risk factor for all pulmonary diseases.

"Cigarettes, e-cigarettes, and smokeless tobacco products stack up behind the counters of large chain pharmacies and convenience stores. This exposes a new population, largely young, to future pulmonary disease.

"Sedentary behavior increases influenza-related hospitalization by up to 7%. Only 35% of people over age 65 are physically active. Moderate exercise increases immune function and strengthens the cardiovascular and pulmonary systems.

"Economic stress, high population density, excess obesity, smoking rates, drug abuse, and lack of access to healthcare contribute to COVID-19's rapid transmission, high prevalence, and increased mortality in marginalized communities.*

"It is self-evident that a community of healthy, economically stable, and happy people can withstand the onslaught of a pandemic better than a group of sick and sad people. Successful communities achieve longer life expectancy and a lower all-cause mortality by pursuing healthier lifestyles together."

"For longevity, eat a mostly plant-based diet. Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper," Dan Buettner advised.

Adulterated meat & pandemics

After many meat-packing plants in the U.S. laid off numerous workers who were found to be afflicted with COVID-19, one American news service finally produced an article pointing to meat-eating as a culprit in the coronavirus epidemic.

Dan Brook, a sociology professor at San Jose State University, wrote in an article for Tribune News Service that "the pandemics of the previous century – 1918, 1957, 1968 – originated in animals raised for meat" and that "COVID-19 also originated in animals (in China)."

Brook noted that "eating meat is associated with heart disease, and increases the risk for stroke, various cancers, diabetes, Alzheimer's, kidney disease, hypertension, obesity, and arthritis."

The stock of a plant-based meat alternative company is now soaring, Brook reported.

But Brook did not mention the success that Dr. Kellogg and Bernarr Macfadden had treating victims of the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918 with a plant-based, natural diet.

Nor did Brook mention that, in 1906, after Upton Sinclair's bestselling book The Jungle exposed deplorable conditions in the U.S. meat-packing industry, the health-minded President Theodore Roosevelt campaigned for the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act, which prohibited the interstate transport of goods that had been "adulterated" and led to the establishment of the Food and Drug Administration. Roosevelt pursued an aggressive campaign against manufacturers of foods with chemical additives.

Snubbing the female environmentalists

The secular, Protestant and Catholic news media even ignored the JN articles celebrating the contributions to humanity's health of the mothers and grandmothers of the environmental movement: Congregationalist Harriet Beecher Stowe, the abolitionist who campaigned just as passionately for good health, good nutrition, clean air, and clean water to free people from unhealthy habits that were causing their diseases; Presbyterian Rachel Carson, whose book Silent Spring alerted Americans to the dangers to health of the pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides that were being sprayed indiscriminately on plants and the food supply; and the Catholic author Catherine Doherty, who founded an organic farming community in Canada, and promoted the consumption of organic foods to improve the health of people, leading to the phenomenon of many national supermarkets now offering organic foods to their customers.

Were these three extraordinary authors ignored by the news media because they were women, because they were Christians, because they were pro-life, or because, as environmental pioneers, they challenged some profitable commercial interests?

Had these extraordinary women lived to see the coronavirus pandemic, they no doubt would have expressed concern that the ongoing pollution of our air, water, and food supply had so weakened the immune systems of people that many fell victim to COVID-19.

I watched many of the coronavirus press briefings, but not once did I hear anyone ask questions about the impact of environmental pollution on our health and immune systems.

The news media also ignored the important recent research of Don Colbert, M.D., a Christian medical doctor in Lake Mary, FL, who wrote recently: "Americans are exposed to more than 80,000 toxic chemicals every day, indicated by figures issued by the EPA." Dr. Colbert and other doctors are exploring ways to eliminate toxic chemicals from the body, including intermittent fasting as recommended for health purposes by all major religious faiths, but neglected or discounted by many modern clergy and health officials alike.

So why didn't the news media ask any questions about the environmental pollution of our air, water, and food supply and its effect on COVID-19? These are fair questions worth answering.  Sadly, the news media skirted the issues on the pandemic and did not allow dialogue on the issues.

One can excuse the ignorance of the Bad News Bears of the news media about the healing history of Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sufi Islam. But when you give the news media, on a silver platter, the historical facts about the extraordinary healers of all faith traditions, and they still ignore them, then it is, plain and simple, bias and censorship benefiting advertisers' commercial interests.

It should be evident, even to journalists and theologians, that a sedentary, gluttonous, soda pop, cigarette-smoking, and booze- and drug-drenched lifestyle does not build good health and strong immune systems. It should be evident that you don't strengthen your immune system by gorging on processed and fast foods laced with insecticides, pesticides, sugars, and preservatives. It should be evident that you don't strengthen your immune system by partying with strangers who may have the COVID-19 virus.

But how can you excuse the silence of narrow-minded seminary professors who are ignorant of their health legacy and are reluctant to give any credit to healers outside their own faith traditions, and whose only advice is to "wear a mask"?

(Nonagenarian Cal Samra, the editor of The Joyful Noiseletter for the past 35 years, is a former staffer for The New York Herald Tribune, The Newark (NJ) Evening News, the Associated Press, and a reporter and columnist for The Ann Arbor News and The Battle Creek Enquirer. He is the former lay executive director and newsletter editor of the Huxley Institute for Biosocial Research, a medical research foundation. He is the author of several best-selling holy humor books. His newest fully-indexed book, In Pursuit of Health and Longevity – Wellness Pioneers through the Centuries, which includes a chapter on "The Physically Fit Messiah," received several favorable press reviews, but was also ignored by most of the news media who were sent review copies by the publisher. It is available from Barnes and Noble bookstores or from www.joyfulnoiseletter.com)

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