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Writing in the Age of Vaccines

My grandfather, Elpidio A. Genova, would always regale us with stories about vaccination during the American Occupation. Born in 1900, he was a small boy when the American doctors arrived to conduct a massive campaign of inoculation and vaccination. When he became the first Sanitary Inspector in all of Ticao, these memories of health education inspired him to be vigilant about health and sanitation.

The dichotomy then was: Americans were clean and the Filipinos dirty.

Presently, however, we are aware of what is happening in U.S. We are seeing people fighting for their right not to wear mask. And, the present reports are indicating a significant number of people who do not believe in vaccination. More significant that the ordinary American’s aversion to vaccine is the troubling aspect of some officials themselves who, for some reason or another, are not serious in enforcing any program on vaccination?

What happened between the U.S. of A. of 1900s to the America of the 2020s?

There is a book that can articulate in more systematic and historical way the memories of my grandfather. It is not a new book. I happen to stumble upon the abstract of the dissertation of its author, Warwick Anderson, on which the book Colonial Pathologies: American Tropical Medicine, Race, and Hygiene in the Philippines is based.

Examining American tropical medicine in the Philippines, the author looks into how the American physicians assigned to the country assessed germs. The said physicians were convinced about the native’s partial immunity to many tropical diseases, which made them carriers. The opposite of this took place – to the said diseases the Americans became highly vulnerable.

The solution was simple, and that was to introduce the American standard of hygiene.

In the introduction to the book, the following conversation took place between Rudyard Kipling, yes the poet of “Trees,” and W. Cameron Forbes, then governor-general of the Philippines. Kipling was said to have told Forbes this: The only things that matter in this fallen world are transportation and communication.” To this advice, the governor-general agreed it was sanitation that mattered.

This sanitation though would not only involve the cleaning of the surroundings – public spaces and plaza, food and water supply – but the bodies of the “natives.”

The colonial authorities therefore were supervising militarily the archipelago, bringing peace and order to the land. The force with which the colonial administration applied to “brigands” were used as well on mothers who would not bring their children to the clinics set up all over the land. Thus, the memory of my grandfather with the American doctors running after little boys of Ticao Island.

The book puts the situation in this manner: Colonial public health, as it emerged in the Philippines under the American regime, would come to share both logic and grammar with the military sanitary bureau. That is, the mode of action and disciplinary tactics employed by military surgeons to ensure the hygiene and propriety of white troops were invoked, toward the end of the war, to manage the civilian population of the archipelago.

In Chapter Four of the said book, which bears the title EXCREMENTAL COLONIALISM, human wastes are compared to arsenic or strychnine (two very strong poisons), and deemed more dangerous. That was the warning of the Bureau of Health in 1912.

The warning stressed how “dysentery, typhoid fever, cholera, and kindred diseases are conveyed to a person, regardless of whether he be king or peasant, with minute organisms that, probably, have passed through the bowels of another person.” All Filipinos, the book quoting sources, should learn to treat their “evacuated intestinal contents as a poison,” taking care to avoid contact with them or spreading them about.

This gave rise to the flurry in the building of toilets, an effort mandated and supervised by colonial administration.

While, by this time, the Filipinos were already declared the “White Man’s burden,” the book rephrases that ideology as our grandparents and great-grandparents were dubbed the “White Man’s Psychic Burden.” This meant that, contrary to the perception that the colonial administrators were in some kind of tropical paradise in the Philippine Islands or P.I. as the territory was called then, the Americans were becoming more vulnerable each day: “While it now seemed that with proper hygiene their bodies might resist physical decay and degeneration in tropical climes, their mental apparatus continued to appear distinctly fragile. Preoccupied with fighting germs and disciplining Filipino cleanliness—with disseminating civilization and republican virtue—most Americans nonetheless remained convinced that tropical displacement might destabilize their minds and morale.”

How much of the health and sanitation of the Filipinos have remained today could be answered by the numerous studies conducted by health scholars. One thing though has changed: Race is not anymore a variable to study health and sanitation. It is now the variable of poverty, and with it, class. This shift should be a reason for Americans and the West to stop viewing the “Orient” as the site of diseases and infections. But if this shift in perception has not taken place, maybe because Race, once more, is a seductive concept to explain why many Americans think they are different human beings from all of us.


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