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Reflections on old and new plagues

/ 05:02 AM March 14, 2020

So now that two Filipinos were reported on March 6 as being infected with the COVID-19 virus, can we heed that British exhortation “Stay calm and carry on”?

Can we stay calm in these scary times as the virus spreads around the world? History tells us about one of the deadliest plagues in humankind, labeled the “Spanish Influenza,” which occurred in 1918. Rats were suspected of spreading it, causing the deaths of some 50 million people worldwide. The pandemic (thus named because Spanish media, unlike those in other countries, actively reported on it) eventually petered out in 1919.

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Quarantine that’s imposed these days on sickened people is more tolerable than it was in 14th-century Italy, which imposed “quaranta giorni” or 40 days’ isolation for its patients.Not long ago, some Westerners remarked that, to them, all Chinese looked alike, whether they hailed from mainland China, Taiwan, Singapore, or Chinatown, San Francisco. The pejorative term “Orientals” entered the vocabulary but was gradually dropped. But simmering prejudice exists, especially after 2003 when SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) sprung from China. The virus was found to have been spawned in wet markets where civet cats were sold. The new plague from China today is suspected of having originated in pangolins.

In 2003, the SARS pandemic spread to 80 countries and was eventually contained in late 2004. COVID-19 today is in 114 countries and seems to be growing uncontrolled.

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Recently some Filipinos seemed confused about their Asian neighbors’ identities. This involved a muddle that occurred in Cebu at the suburb where I live. A friend living in a neighboring building told me she’d seen an ambulance with a police escort go to the building next to hers. She said it had to do with a newly arrived Singaporean suspected to be infected with COVID-19 and, hence, a PUI (person under investigation). She figured they’d gone to fetch him and put him in quarantine.

Later I learned from another neighbor, who identified the PUI as Malaysian, that the man had decided to quarantine himself. I thought, who could blame him since he may have heard about what happened to some OFWs returning from Taiwan. Those bewildered women were sequestered in the Apas suburb of Cebu in a building which turned out to have no water or electricity. They made such a big noise, they were let go (apparently before less than 14 days), at which Cebu Gov. Gwen Garcia sniffily remarked: “What did they expect, a mansion?” That display of obtuseness and insensitivity from a top official was unconscionable.

Filipinos’ confusion over which nationalities are supposedly responsible for spreading today’s plague may be due to the inability to discern among Chinese-looking folks originating from our neighboring Asian countries. This was obviously the case in Cebu, where the majority of those who’ve immigrated to this country are Korean. Now that the second largest COVID-19 cluster is in South Korea, local authorities have imposed bans on Filipinos going to the infected regions and on the entry of people coming from there.

Columbia University epidemiologist W. Ian Lipkin, who went to China during the SARS crisis and has been back there to study COVID-19, predicts the virus will keep growing for a spell. Since that country is suffering greatly economically and in other ways, he has been helping the Chinese government institute ways to contain the virus. Lipkin hopes that the Chinese, who are famous for their cuisine, will stop patronizing wet markets that sell all manner of exotic animals. (This brings to mind a wag once saying that the Chinese will eat anything on four legs, except tables, and anything that flies, except airplanes! Thankfully, Filipino appetites usually don’t crave more than our famous lechon.)

The bewilderment over nationalities recently displayed by my neighbors in Cebu may be explained by our education, which has too often emphasized Western more than Asian history. Until history and geography are made core subjects from the early grades onward, Filipinos’ knowledge of geopolitical issues will remain limited.

There are, after all, many of us Pinoys with Chinese forebears—just think of the Angs, Chiongs, Lims, Ongs, Sys, Tans, Wongs, and Yaps among us. We don’t get confused over folks thus named in our population.

There’s a typically British twist to that advice to keep calm, which goes “Keep calm, nobody knows what they’re doing either.” Filipinos can only hope our leaders know what they’re doing.

Isabel Escoda has been writing for the Inquirer since the late 1980s.

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