1918 and now

"Here is what happened then."



It is not widely known that the 1918 influenza pandemic killed between 70,000 to 85,000 Filipinos out of the estimated 1918 population of about 10 million. This translates to 6.8 to 9.2 deaths per 100,000 population. The latest COVID-19 death toll on the other hand was 886 as of Tuesday out of the current population of about 108 million.

Considering the severity of the 1918 pandemic, the measures employed by the colonial government then as we shall see were a lot less restrictive compared to what the current government is doing to control the spread of COVID-19. This is because the conditions now and then are vastly different. For one, medical science has advanced so much compared to what it was then. We now know a lot more about viruses compared to 1918. For the last three months, the IATF has basically taken over our lives telling us what we can and cannot do. The intention is to prevent the virus from further infecting more people and making the problem worse.

According to the research of Filipino academic Dr. Francis Gealogo, published by Ateneo Press, and to some of my online readings, in 1918, the government led by the Public Health Service was the agency that issued guidelines for the public to follow and took some actions that are still being done today like quarantines, inspections and disinfections. Although there is a dearth of readily available literature on the 1918 pandemic in the country, there are records that tell some interesting stories. There is even a Filipino academic who is an authority on the study of pandemics. The records show how the disease got to the country, how it spread together with how the government responded and the problems encountered during the attempt to control the spread of the disease. The disease was initially detected in the port of Manila among the workers suggesting strongly that the disease was imported from abroad. The disease spread very quickly all over the country eventually coming in three waves. The first was from April to July 1918, then October to November and the third from February to March 1919.

The second wave killed the most number of people because as later studies would show, the initial strain mutated into a more virulent strain. This is a strong indication that we will likely have a second wave and perhaps a third. Unlike COVID-19 wherein the elderly and those with existing medical conditions are more vulnerable, the 1918 pandemic was more dangerous to younger people particularly children who were ten years old and those ages twenty nine to early thirties. Among women, those under 35 years of age accounted for 70 percent of all female deaths. Looking at all fatalities, 99 percent of all deaths were below 65 years of age.

Doctors also reported that many of those infected suffered from respiratory, cardiac and renal complications which some of those infected with COVID-19 are reported to be also exhibiting. To combat the disease, the government established quarantine facilities in many parts of the country like Mariveles, Cebu and Iloilo. Inspection stations were also established in all ports in the country there being no air travel at that time. The government also conducted lectures, treated those who were sick, distributed medicines, inspected tens of thousands of houses, issued medical bulletins, examined children, required general cleaning and disinfection of houses, schools, prisons and leper colonies. Because there was a war going on and the country being a colony of the United States then, there was mobilization to train men for the war in Europe. This resulted in a big spike in infections when a lot of men were brought to Manila from all parts of the country to train in a military facility called Camp Claudio, a facility that is not familiar to me. Maybe this was the old name of Fort Bonifacio. This resulted in the increase of infections that caused the death of several hundred people forcing authorities to designate the camp as some sort of a cantonment area together with the surrounding towns with a total of about 108,000 people. This was the closest thing to a lockdown as we understand it today.

During the pandemic, schools were not closed, there was no social distancing, economic activity went on as usual and travel was not restricted. There were no food aids nor social amelioration funds distributed. There were also serious problems faced by the Health Service like the lack of health workers due to retirements, resignations and death. In the middle of the pandemic, the American in charge of Public Health resigned, leaving a Filipino to take over the position. The mobilization effort which in the end did not push through because of the armistice on November 11, 1918, disrupted government efforts and contributed too many resignations of medical personnel. When it was all over, a report was written which is very sobering in its honesty because the report admitted government failure in not being able to control the disease.

It is perhaps something we will never see happen today ---- the Department of Health admitting to any failure. In this day and age, it is very rare to see government officials admitting mistakes much less see them resigning because of it to preserve one's honor. In the aftermath of the pandemic, the Philippine Health Service prepared a Sanitary Code which was intended as a primer for the public to follow but within a short time when the effects of the pandemic wore off, the public seem to have gone back to old practices. Maybe COVID-19 is different and can really change the world to something very different unless a vaccine can be develop very soon.

Topics: Florencio Fianza , 1918 influenza pandemic , coronavirus disease 2019 , COVID-19
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