Rizal’s experience with quarantine, 1888
Quarantine has always been among the ways societies try to deal with epidemics. Long before scientists developed germ theory and identified the pathogens that cause disease outbreaks, nations and communities have sought to isolate people deemed contagious. Because disease outbreaks tap into people’s primeval fears of death, many societies have considered such an exceptional measure as justifiable, independent of the actual biomedical basis to do so. For some diseases, like leprosy, their visible manifestations become marks of identification. But, especially in the case of “invisible diseases” like the flu, notions of race — i.e. physical appearance — become the markers of exclusion. Jose Rizal himself was subjected to quarantine when he was on his way to Europe via the United States in 1888. And as we grapple with the novel coronavirus outbreak, it is insightful to look at his experience.
After his productive first sojourn to Europe, Rizal had decided to go back to the Philippines, where he had to deal with the aftermath of “Noli Mi Tangere’s” publication. His homecoming was eventful, but he soon decided to go back to Europe via America, leaving for Hong Kong on Feb. 3, 1888. He spent a few weeks in Japan, then departed for the US on April 13 aboard the SS Belgic.
Two weeks later, the Belgic arrived in San Francisco but, to his dismay, they were not allowed to land. “They placed us under quarantine,” Rizal recalled in a letter to Mariano Ponce months later, “in spite of the clearance given by the American Consul, of not having had a single case of illness aboard, and of the telegram of the governor of Hong Kong declaring that port free from epidemic.”
Rizal spent six days in quarantine, and his diary gives some insight as to his feelings. On April 29, he wrote: “Second day of the quarantine. We are greatly troubled and bored aboard. I have not eaten; it gets on my nerves.”
On April 30, he noted: “The quarantine is continued. I read in the paper a statement of the Sanitary Doctor against quarantine.” The physician in him must have felt exasperated, given that there seemed to be no actual justification—e.g. smallpox or cholera—for the quarantine. “The true reason,” he wrote to his parents while aboard, “is that, as America is against Chinese immigration, and now they are campaigning for the elections, the government, in order to get the vote of the people, must appear to be strict with the Chinese, and we suffer.”
He continued making notes and letters in the succeeding days, until finally, on May 4, it was over. “The quarantine is ended,” he reported with great relief. The normally budget-conscious traveler celebrated by staying in the famed Palace Hotel, which cost him $4 a day “with bath and everything.”
Rizal would go on to travel from the West to the East Coast, and form a fairly positive impression of the United States, expressing marvel at its “magnificent,” electricity-lit cities. However, the experience of quarantine left an indelible impression in him, as when he wrote: “I’ll not advise anyone to make this trip to America, for here they are crazy about quarantine.”
Surely, he also had the quarantine in mind when he mentioned in his letter to Ponce that “Because of their hatred for the Chinese, other Asiatics, like the Japanese, being confused with them, are likewise disliked by the ignorant Americans.” Referencing his experience, he recounted that the poorer Asians had it even worse: “Afterwards, only the passengers of the first class were allowed to land, the Japanese and Chinese of the 2nd and 3rd classes remaining in quarantine for an indefinite period. It is said that in that way, they got rid of about 300 Chinese, letting them gradually die on board. I don’t know if this is true.”
More than a century hence, we have far more sophisticated knowledge of disease and public health, but the fears of contagion today are as virulent and politically-charged as in the time of our national hero. Whether or not—and to what extent—quarantine is justified in our time, we should be ever mindful of the prejudices, racial and otherwise, that infect our responses; prejudices that ultimately affect, and shame, all of us.
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