Social Climate

Cholera killed 100,000 in 1902-04

/ 05:06 AM April 04, 2020

In March 1902, it was the fourth year of the Philippine-American War. Many towns in Luzon, hamletted by the Americans, suffered from famine. In Isabela, Emilio Aguinaldo would soon be captured. In Batangas, Miguel Malvar felt forced to surrender soon, so that rice could be planted in May. To top it all, cholera arrived. “For the inhabitants of the war-torn areas, it was ultimately a choice between dying of hunger or dying of cholera,” wrote historian Reynaldo C. Ileto.

“In March 1902 a vessel from Hongkong arrived in Manila carrying cholera. Soon after, the first cases of cholera surfaced. Cholera was impossible to contain because the Filipinos and even the American troops themselves moved around carrying the bacteria. Cholera was not selective; it claimed as victims people from different strata of society and ethnicity—elite, masses, Filipinos, Americans, Spaniards and Chinese. But the lower classes were the hardest hit, especially in certain districts in Manila, because of the ‘overcrowding, poor sanitation, and poor diet.’ By the time the epidemic ended, about 109,461 died, 4,386 of which were in Manila…


“[T]he cholera epidemic gave way to what Ileto calls ‘germ warfare,’ another stage of the Philippine-American War. During this time, military surgeons became the next wave of ‘pacifiers’ after the cavalrymen and troops. Searches and surveillance were conducted among Filipino homes to ferret out the sick and quarantine them. The Filipino response was concealment and evasion since they refused to part with their sick family members.

“Within the cholera combat zone, colonial officials prohibited gatherings of people in places considered conducive to the spread of cholera like churches and cockpits. Officials also resorted to burning the houses of cholera victims and even gathering places like the town market. By cremating cholera casualties, they elicited further resistance and hatred among Filipinos whose religious practices demanded proper burial.


“Ileto notes that powerful drugs, strict quarantine, and cremation of the dead did not end cholera. Rather, it was the combination of the heavy rains and the increasing immunity of the populace that caused the epidemic to subside [italics mine].” (Quoted from The Philippine History Site, Outbreak of cholera epidemic, http://opmanong.ssc.hawaii.edu/filipino/cholera.html. The basic study is Ileto, “Cholera and the origins of the American sanitary order in the Philippines,” 1988.)

My personal connection. It was Rey himself who explained to me, when we became friends circa 1985, how the 1902 cholera probably affected my own father’s family of orientation. Heavy rains came in 1903, and washed away the cholera-infected sewage; Rey dates the end of the epidemic as February 1904.

Thus by September 1904, when my father Federico Mangahas was born in Hagonoy, Bulacan, the epidemic had come and was just gone. Federico had elder siblings but never met them, since they all died before he was born, most probably from cholera. He grew up as an only child, with relatively elderly parents, and was orphaned by the time he reached high school.

Might the coming Philippine hot weather slow down COVID-19? It has been reported that the coronavirus does not thrive in high-temperature and high-humidity environments. This suggests that COVID-19 may be more vulnerable in the coming summer months. If the hot season could play a role in combating the present pandemic, just as the rainy season played a role in ending the 1902 cholera epidemic, it would be fitting.

On 4/2/20, the Foundation for Economic Freedom (FEF) recommended ending the hard lockdown on April 12, and doing a calibrated easing of the lockdown, on the general principle that restrictions on the movement of people and commerce are harming the people’s livelihoods and also ultimately endangering public health. I am a Founding Fellow of FEF, and fully support this recommendation.

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