Cures past and present | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

Cures past and present

While I have written off 2020 and much of 2021 from my daily calendar, one of the silver linings of the pandemic lockdown for me has been the many hours I have spent (aside from Netflix) surfing through the digital collections of the Library of Congress, the British Library, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, the Biblioteca Nacional de España, and the Portal de Archivos Españoles. While most people will find my online obsession odd, I remind them that there are more engaging things to find online than porn.

In 1888, Jose Rizal had to physically visit the British Museum in London to access one of the two copies of the rare 1609 edition of “Sucesos de las islas Filipinas” (Events of the Philippine Islands) by Antonio de Morga preserved there. There were no photocopiers in Rizal’s time, and he had no smartphone to take photos and convert the materials into a manageable PDF file. Rizal did what he had to do: He spent his days copying out the book, by hand, and annotating what he copied at home at night. Today, I can download a high-resolution digital copy of Morga’s book with optical character recognition, which makes searching the whole document by keyword possible with one flick of the mouse.


Technology may have made online research easier, but we have yet to see an explosion of studies in Philippine history.

The internet is a bottomless pit of raw information, providing more than we will ever need or can humanly digest in five lifetimes. The downside of this has been the steady decline in research skills and critical thinking. Online information has led to echo chambers, with people listening to what they want to hear or cherry-picking from the mass of internet data whatever conforms to or confirms their beliefs or conclusions. Information had to be sifted and verified by gatekeepers in the past: academia, traditional media, the judiciary, government regulatory bodies—all of them now discredited or at least made to appear untrustworthy by the deluge of fake news that many people believe in despite their better judgment.


It surprises me, for instance, that many people are self-medicating against COVID-19 by taking ivermectin, a drug approved for use against parasites in animals or prescribed as a topical dermatological cream. Whenever I receive a well-meaning message with a link encouraging me to take ivermectin, I immediately reply with links to the US Food and Drug Administration and Merck, the drug’s manufacturer, that state in clear and unequivocal terms that ivermectin is not to be taken as a supposed cure for COVID-19. The response is always that their internet research says otherwise, and that “many doctors” prescribe it now. I then ask them to name a doctor—not someone bogus or one found on the internet, but just one local doctor we both know and trust who will prescribe ivermectin for COVID-19. Response? I am ignored, ghosted, blocked, or unfriended.

In my library, I have early 20th-century books like “Aklat ng Pagamutan ni Dr. Tissot,” “Aklat ng Panggagamot” by Selmon, and even a handwritten manuscript in Tagalog that provides medicinal uses for white horse’s urine, black pigs, black chickens, cockroaches, etc. I have yet to go over these again to find a possible antidote to COVID-19. Then there is the story retold by Rizal’s nephews, who always heard the hero prescribe to his patients “Emulsion de Scott,” which he advised to be taken daily. While in Dapitan, Rizal ordered boxes of what we now know to be the foul-tasting cod liver oil. The last time I saw cod liver oil capsules, they were prescribed by the veterinarian to give my pet dogs a shiny coat. As a boy, I also heard about Aceite de Castor (Castor Oil) taken as a purgative, and Agua de Carabaña—mineral water taken to aid digestion in the past, but applied on the face today against acne. If there is any oil taken these days, it seems to be Virgin Coconut Oil. I have held off from VCO, fearful about one of its side effects—explosive diarrhea.

Before T.H. Pardo de Tavera’s “Plantas Medicinales de Filipinas” (1892), there was Fr. Manuel Blanco’s “Flora de Filipinas” (1837), a work much prized today for its beautiful botanical plates, more than the text that comes with notes on medicinal uses of plants. Then, rice chaff (palay) was used against fever. Liquid from burned straw rice was a cure for dandruff and could be used as a soothing after-shave lotion. Lukewarm rice was applied to swollen testicles.

Who knows, perhaps we can uncover from the historical past a cure for COVID-19.


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TAGS: Ambeth Ocampo column, Looking Back, past
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