Pandemics as Disasters: Reflections on Southeast Asia and the Philippines Ruchie Mark D. Pototanon
“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language” (Karl Marx, 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte)1
The thought of a “glorious past” has always made me cringe. For more than a decade teaching history at the university, I have looked at the past with great cynicism. Rather than as epics of “great men”, I have looked at the historical events as cautionary tales. History that does not nothing but glorify and romanticize are products of poor (or even dubious) scholarship. Looking at the fine print and digging into the archives always reveal the grim details of the human experience. Such is the mood especially if things like pandemics are discussed, where death and suffering are those that punctuate human experience.
The summer school at Universitas Gadjah Mada has offered me an opportunity to cast a wider net and looked at the role of diseases in history at a wider scale. I am quite familiar with history of epidemics in the Philippines. Something close to home is the 1886-87 Cholera Epidemic in my home province of Capiz. As I was doing a paper on 19th century conditions of the area, I was able to access pertinent documents to this calamitous event. More than 9000 people died in Capiz, roughly a tenth of the province’s population at that time . The following years were also disastrous, as the failed harvests and storms caused innumerable hardships to the people. Perhaps these events precipitated the early growth of the insurrection in the area. Capiz became the setting for the first two separate revolutionary movements outside the main island of Luzon.
The case of Capiz mirrors the other cases in Southeast Asia during the colonial times. Natives being subjects of Western colonizers have been the most vulnerable to dying with epidemics. Meanwhile another recurring theme is the relation between disease outbreaks and the colonial structure. The peoples of Southeast Asia have been further integrated into the global trade networks by the Western Imperialism, which exposed them to different forms of contagion from different parts of the worlds. Consequently, the extractive economies of colonialism have forced the natives off their lands and obliging them to grow crops for export, many are plants which the natives cannot eat. Lastly, the colonists have also restructured the environment and the dwelling of their subjects. Native settlements were restructured to conform with the view of order from their foreign eyes. As cities and towns were built, forests were cleared and waters were reclaimed, exposing the inhabitants to new or heightened hazards. The colonizers are also confident of their racial superiority and distinguished themselves from the people they conquer. The latter being relegated into cramped and less salubrious villages with no proper utilities while the masters live with the best comforts of their times.
These unjust conditions have spawned the worst of diseases, to which the poor natives were most likely to succumb. The colonial governments tried to treat the diseases which the inequities of colonialism caused with western medicine. Truly, these efforts would lead to reduction of morbidity, but it also further reiterated the notions of white supremacy. Although these diseases were controlled with the help of innumerable native hands, most of them will be forgotten and relegated into the background as mere caregivers or hospital hands. The latter’s indigenous methods and activities were usually unrecorded if not being blamed for the spread of the disease. It was the “white” doctors that were usually honored for saving the people.
After the Second World War, one by one countries in Southeast Asia gained their independence but the old networks set by centuries of colonialism remain and the inequities with their populations remain. Disease outbreaks also continue to happen from time to time like Nipah Virus (1998-1999) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (2002-2004). These occurrences however are to be dwarfed by the COVID 19 pandemic which has put the whole world to a standstill.
All lectures in the UGM Summer School relate to the present conditions by the current pandemic. However as different lectures were given each day, several points have been made clear to me. First, disease outbreaks are pivotal events in history and they are bound to happen from time to time, as the contagion, being part of nature evolves with us. Second, this continuous string of disease outbreaks (and eventually pandemics) usually exposes the different conditions in countries in which they spread. These conditions preclude whether the countries will have success in dealing with the consequences of the pandemic.
The latter point is the most relevant for me, as the weaknesses and problems of many Southeast Asian nations have been further exposed by the problems brought by COVID 19. Vietnam and Thailand were tagged as early successes in containing the diseases. However, Vietnam is now experiencing an upsurge and like other Southeast Asian nations is having problems with securing its vaccine supply.2 This inequity exists as majority of the vaccine supply is monopolized by Western countries. These countries include two of Vietnam’s former invaders/colonizers: France and the United States of America. France has already proceeded with giving its citizens a third, booster shot while the US has disputed the World Health Organization’s call for booster shot moratorium.3 Meanwhile majority of their former colonies in Southeast Asia are very much behind their vaccination schedule and are suffering the worst upsurges of COVID morbidity so far.
Thailand on the other hand has had a series of coups in the recent years and the pandemic has allowed the government to undermine pro-democracy movements.4 The use of pandemic response as an excuse to suppress human rights and civil liberties is not unique to Thailand. The Philippines has been the hotbed of extrajudicial killings since Rodrigo Duterte came into power in 2016. His infamous “War on Drugs” has led to the deaths of several thousands (more than 6000 are confirmed killed by the police) of alleged drug suspects. This death toll has already got the attention of the International Criminal Court who saw basis for a probable “crimes against humanity” case.5 Consequently, activists and community organizers are also being killed, some while being served arrest warrants that are later declared invalid.6 These killings continued well into the pandemic.
One of those killed early in the lockdown was familiar face to me: the community organizer and activist Jose Reynaldo “Jory” Porquia. We would usually meet at the local protests in Iloilo City and when the lockdowns were declared he was one of those who organized community kitchens to feed the people. On April 30, 2020, he was shot in his home by unidentified assailants but prior to his death, he has been trailed by members of the police. Forty-two of his fellow activists (including his daughter) were also arrested when they tried to stage a caravan to demand justice for him7. On March 3, 2021, a former classmate and now human rights lawyer Angelo Karlo Guillen was also stabbed with a screwdriver in the face by an unknown attacker. Atty Guillen has been one of the petitioners of against the Anti-Terror Law and has served as the legal counsel for activists and members of the Tumandok indigenous people who have been arrested by the police.8
All these attacks are perched on the practice of red tagging, in which civilians are labelled by the state as “affiliated to communist insurgents”. This attempts to vilify these persons and justify threats and attacks on them. This propaganda is regularly spewed by government agencies such as the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF ELCAC). Among the NTF ELCAC’s victims were the Ms. Patricia Non, the first organizer of community pantries which sprouted in April 2021. This setup operates on the concept “Magbigay ayon sa kakayahan, kumuha batay sa pangangailangan” (Give according to one’s capacity, take based on one’s needs) where shelves are displayed in a public place and people can put food and essential items for others to take for free. This was well received by the public as the country is having the longest lockdown in history and aid from the government is scarce. However, posts accusing the community pantry as “communist propaganda” circulated in social media with official pages of the police sharing them. Furthermore, NTF ELCAC spokesperson Gen. Antonio Parlade likened Patricia Non’s community pantry to “Satan’s temptation of Eve” and Asst. Secretary Lorraine Badoy accused her of being a “communist”. Ms. Non has since feared for her safety because of these threats.9
All these antics are just the tip of the iceberg of the kind of “disaster” that the pandemic response in Philippines has been. Early in the Summer School, I categorically asked Dr. Luthfi Adam, if the past epidemics in Dutch Indies can be considered as “colonial disasters”? Such inquiry comes from the fact that high morbidity among the natives was a result of the oppressive systems imposed by the Dutch colonizers. The answer is yes and perhaps the same thing is true with how the COVID 19 pandemic is handled throughout Southeast Asia. Global inequities still abound as early successes have been rendered useless by the lack of access to vaccines. Within individual nations are disasters of their own, in which the poor populace is at the mercy of the rich and powerful. The latter who gained disproportionate influence with the rise of authoritarian and populist leaderships in the past few years. This eerily foreshadows the end of the pandemic, where millions of lives will be sacrificed for the interests of a few. These interests being guised under the pretense of “order” and the “economy”. The quote above by Marx seems right, then.
Now, where do I go from here? The pandemic has delayed one of possibly the greatest milestones in my life: getting a PhD. I was supposed to begin this May 2020 but the pandemic happened and I have to indefinitely postpone my commencement. While attending this Summer School, I did continue my research for my PhD thesis on the history of urban flooding, thus it has become often that I saw things at the framework of disaster studies, with “disaster” being human made. I saw this pandemic as a disaster, one that is due to wrong decisions or policies. Therefore, as a student of history I feel obliged to take note of current events and transform them into something that can be transmitted to the future generations, so that may learn from past mistakes. I have also learned to accept that change takes time, so whatever suggestions we might have now will not transform into policy immediately, sometimes we must fight long battles for it. One lesson I learned from Meaghan Morris from another summer school years ago is that activism involves persistent optimism: it doesn’t matter how many times we lose but at least we win. I see the past and present as things to contend with, neither as fantasies nor as nightmares but as realities that will allow us to shape our futures. I am yet again drawn into an oft quoted phrase from Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach , “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it”.
The Author, Ruchie Mark Pototanon is Assistant Professor of History at the University of the Philippines Visayas and an incoming PhD student at Murdoch University. This paper is submitted as a requirement for the Universitas Gadjah Mada History Summer School entitled, “ Resilience and Control: Transmissible Disease and the Rise of Modern Society”.