Fear of the Russian Flu

In the winter of 1889, Filipino ilustrados in Madrid were alarmed that the Russian flu, first spotted in Bukhara, then in St. Petersburg attacked Madrid with ferocity after only five days.  Already, 6, 180 deaths were reported and in Barcelona, 52,000 were infected with the disease. Officials of the kingdom seemed to be in denial as they ordered the churches to stop tolling the bells for the dead so as not to alarm the populace. They did order the closure of some schools. How ironic that the deadly Russian flu epidemic spread so rapidly because of the network of highways, railroads and maritime lanes, the veritable symbols of   progress and global connectivity in the 1890’s.  Manila was an international port since 1843, so the Filipino ilustrados in Spain were worried about their homeland. The Russian flu epidemic had engulfed all of Western Europe, killing princes and paupers alike.  On 31 October 1890, “La Solidaridad”, the newspaper of Filipino propagandists, published the letter of a certain Ramiro Franco, a foreboding aria about the state of healthcare in the Philippine colony.

Ramiro Franco was the pseudonym of Dominador Gomez, a medical doctor who later became a labor leader.   He pointed out what must have been obvious, the Philippines was definitely not prepared to handle an epidemic of Russian flu proportions.  The appalling mortality rate in Spain was due to the ineptitude of Madrid officials, Franco/Gomez claimed.  Considering that it was the Metropolis, Spain had few hospitals, so ministries had to hastily convert their premises into health center while new hospitals were being built in a frenzy.  If those were the conditions in Mother Spain, the Empire, what could be   the state of sanitation and hygiene in a colony like the Capitanía-General de Filipinas?  Franco/Gomez wrote: “These are the same characteristics openly displayed by our officials in Manila… It is as if they are encouraging deaths through criminal disregard of rules of hygiene, due to neglect and lack of interest…” Even more sarcastically, he asked, “Is it not favoring the interests of death to construct cemeteries in the city itself, at its very gates or only a little distance away?”  Neither did the letter- writer approve of bringing dead bodies to churches for funeral rites without knowing the causes of death. The clothes and utensils of those who died of cholera, typhoid and small pox should be properly disposed of in order to kill   bacterial germs and microorganisms roosting in its folds and fibers.

By criticizing the existing health system, or comparing Spain with the Philippines, Franco/Gomez said he could very well be accused of being a traitor to Spain, a filibustero like Jose Rizal. “We wish to recall, nevertheless, what our good friend Rizal once solemnly said, referring to a similar situation: ‘I forget these difficulties!’ [that is, the filibuster-tagging] Yes, we should also forget them and forced by the cry of anguish which afflicts suffering humanity, we shall expose openly and without fear our criticism of the officials in the Philippines which may be severe, but fair. “

Franco/Gomez affirmed that when diseases go untreated, these can become epidemics; but,  the blame always falls on the poor colony and never on those officials mandated to safeguard public health. He also said that when writing about the problems in the Philippines, one risks being called ignorant or worse, accused of being a traitor to and an enemy of  Mother Spain.  It was not his intention to compare Manila and Madrid, nor Spain and the Philippines, because one is just as unfortunate as the other.  Then, he mentioned a circular issued by a certain Don Benigno Quiroga y Ballesteros who was respected by Filipinos and unanimously acclaimed for his extensive knowledge of public hygiene. Where is that document? Asked Franco/Gomez.  Is it lost?  Everyone knows that Don Benigno’s circular caused such “a tumult”, in 1888, when he put together a group of veterinarians and health professionals to eradicate the rinderpest epizootic epidemic in the Philippines. Carabaos and cows were dying at such a shocking rate that animal carcasses were clogging waterways. The Quiroga team found out that rinderpest came from animals imported from Indo China and Hongkong.  The circular was a threat to the profit margins of importers and cattle breeders.  As a result, scientific studies made by doctors, vets and other health professionals were ignored, or made to disappear. “Instead, epidemics are blamed on the “torpor” of the climate,” Franco/Gomez wrote, “Arrogance accompanied by absolutism and despotism poison the moral and material life of what ought to have been the citizenry.   While the microbes of cholera, typhoid, tuberculosis and syphilis pervade the atmosphere and are suspended over our heads like many swords of Damocles, colonial officials puff smoke and do nothing but think of their promotions to higher positions…”

In a much earlier epoch, historian Thucydides wrote about the pathology of the Athens plague, as well as the pathology of a society in the brink of disintegration because of the plague.  The Greek historian maintained that neither science nor art were any real help.  Prayers fervently recited in the temples remained unanswered, oracles consulted were useless. The Athenians were so devastated by their suffering that they lost faith in their gods. Many instinctively quarantined themselves. People died alone and unattended because those who came to help caught the plague as well.  Multitudes waited for death on the steps of temples; cadavers lined the streets and parks. As their society crumbled in full view, Athenians indulged in momentary pleasures and instant gratification, so honor and one’s good name lost currency and were totally devalued. As there was no future in sight, Athenians ignored the commandments of their religions, as well as the laws of the State.  Justice no longer mattered because both the righteous and the criminal were dying indiscriminately. Thucydides said he wanted to write a history of the Athens plague that would be useful for future generations. Perhaps Ramiro Franco had that in mind when he   wrote to “La Solidaridad” about the Russian flu.