Epidemics in Negros

By Modesto P. Sa-onoy

The new virus strain called “coronavirus” is giving the world another scary situation – a world-wide epidemic can break out unless governments impose strict rules to prevent its spread. Fortunately quarantine measures are working, but the virus, carried by the wind, continues to spread.

The World Health Organization has considered the situation not critical enough to warrant an international intervention. Still the virus claims human life daily. As of Wednesday, reports say 132 had already died and people infected with the virus continues to increase to over 4,000. The illness had spread to more countries in the Asia and Pacific regions. Several cities and provinces in China where the strain originated, had been locked down. Latest report says the virus has reached Germany, the United States and United Arab Emirates.

At least we are not seeing a pandemic, but since this kind of virus spread so fast, we will never know how quickly health authorities will be able to find a cure or the quarantine will be able to contain it to prevent its world-wide spread. So far, thank God, the virus has not reached Negros.

Occidental Negros Governor Eugenio Lacson said there is no need to panic; there is no report anyone here has been infected. Nevertheless, people are deeply concerned because the virus can strike everywhere and is undetected for several days after infection.

The world has seen seven pandemics during the last 200 years, but people survived because the disease oftentimes simply died out, like a flame that fizzles out after it has consumed its victims. The last (hopefully) cholera pandemic was close to our time – 1961-1975 but the Philippines was spared from this disease, not that nobody died of it but because it did not spread far wide enough. Even to this day, thousands die in Africa from cholera, an estimated over 200,000 annually.

Negros suffered much during the 4th (1863-1876) and 5th (1881-1896) pandemic with thousands dying by the week. This is one aspect of the growth of the sugar industry and the economic progress of Negros that people had never associated.

The expansion of the sugar industry demanded an army of workers that flocked to Occidental Negros mainly from Panay and even as far as Batangas. On the northern and eastern side of the island, they came from Cebu and Bohol. The largest migration was in the occidental side.

Cholera is transmitted mainly by the unsanitary living conditions. The Recollect fathers recorded the incapability of their towns to accommodate the inflow of immigrants who came without a specific destination. They arrived in Valladolid, Talisay, Silay, Binalbagan, Ilog, Himamaylan, Bacolod and Manapla in search of work.

In the meantime, they stayed in the towns without houses to stay but hovels and lean-tos and places for their personal hygiene. The woods and the rivers provided the means for human waste disposal and all sorts of garbage.

The periodic attack of locusts worsened their situation. This pest would descend upon the rice and corn fields, ravaging the land and causing hunger and with that disease and death. The parish priest of Himamaylan recorded in his Cosas Notables that the swarm of locust caused hunger with several deaths reported for lack of food.

Among the victims of the 5th cholera pandemic was Recollect Fr. Pedro Garcia of Binalbagan whose dedication to his flock to insure that the dying never leave this world without the sacraments, worked closely with the victims at their death beds that he too was infected and died at the age of 29 years.

The situation was beyond the capability of the local governments to care for the sick. Not until the late 1879 did Negros have a physician – one doctor for over 500,000 people. The idea of public hygiene was just beginning to take hold and the government appointed sanitarios publicos much later under the Spanish regime.

There were other incidents of cholera epidemics in Negros even during the dark days of World War II, but the disease was contained due to progress in health care and public sanitation.  There were other epidemics in Negros during the Spanish times and even up to the 1960s like malaria and dysentery.

The new corona virus is being prevented from spreading worldwide but the dark side is that no cure has been discovered yet. The only defense we have is prevention, but best of all are prayers.