A history lesson on pandemics in the Philippines

Interesting takeaways from the ‘History Comes Alive!’ lectures of Prof. Ambeth Ocampo

The Cholera Squad

Now that we are at the height of the global health crisis, it pays to know more about infectious diseases. Studying history helps us understand and better deal with the present.

Learning, however, has become a challenge these days as physical interactions and gatherings have been limited to prevent the spread of Covid-19. In response, various institutions have made a commitment to bringing Philippine art and culture into the digital space through programs such as the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ Sining Sigla and the Ayala Museum Virtual by the Ayala Foundation, to name a few.

Kicking off the slate of online programs for the museum in Makati is History Comes Alive!, conducted by Filipino historian, former chairman of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines, and professor Ambeth Ocampo, best known for his writings on national hero José Rizal. His two-part lecture series breaks down Philippine history for a contemporary audience.

Prof. Ambeth leads 'History Comes Alive!' for its 10th edition

I had the pleasure of attending the first of his webinars, where he talked about the previous pandemics in the country. I found that Prof Ambeth’s lesson was a breath of fresh air and, as much as it was informative, it was entertaining as well, a good way to spend a weekend afternoon. He detailed various pandemics throughout Philippine history in a fun yet comprehensive way, painting a vivid picture of how society, technology, government, and our colonizers worked back then.

To give you an idea of how enlightening the experience was, here are some of the most interesting facts from Prof. Ambeth’s online discussion.

Charms against diseases

“After doing several things like fixing my room and preparing the slides to be played during my funeral, I realized that maybe there are traces of the previous pandemics in our lives,” said Prof. Ambeth, as an introduction to the afternoon session. “I realized after looking outside of people’s houses that we usually have a palaspás (palm frond) at home.”

The palaspás was believed to ward off evil spirits and thieves, explains the author of various local history books. In the Old Testament Moses told people to put lamb’s blood on their doors so that the angel of death would skip them and not take their firstborn. In the Philippines, the palaspás was then believed to do the same to keep death and danger away.

Saint Roch of Montpellier

Likewise, images of San Roque (Roch or Rocco), the saint invoked against plagues, is another item famous in the Philippines. Photos show the saint with his skirt up, showing a wound that was part of his disease. Instead of being quarantined, he was cast out of town, where a dog would bring him bread daily for sustenance. “Images of San Roque were brought around during the cholera pandemic in the 19th century, and even in the early 20th century, they would bring it around town to drive off diseases,” he says.

The late national artist for literature Alejandro Roces would tell the professor that if one wanted to ward off a dog attack, one must put one’s hand out and shout San Roque. “I never tried this because I am afraid to validate this,” the educator jests.

Fernando Poe, Sr. Photo by Alex R. Castro

A misconception linked to the religious image was that if you had a wound and you let a dog lick it, the injury would miraculously be cured or heal faster. The most famous fatality from this belief was Fernando Poe, Sr., the father of FPJ. “He was on set and was injured. So he had a very cute puppy come into the set and lick his wound, not knowing that the animal was rabid. He became the most prominent person to fall victim to rabies,” recalls Prof. Ambeth.


Most of the time people ignore the bronze statue that stands outside the Manila Cathedral in Intramuros. Erected in the 19th century, the monument was built to honor Charles IV of Spain for giving the Philippines the smallpox vaccine. In 1805, the Spanish royal vaccination expedition came to the country with 25 Mexican orphan boys carrying the disease. The governor general and his own children were injected with the smallpox virus as vaccine, and so people got over their fear of the disease.

Fountain of King Charles IV in the middle of Plaza Roma, with the monarch's effigy facing Manila Cathedra

Bubonic Plague

The bubonic plague came to the country in 1899, 1905, and as late as 1912. It was spread by rats and the fleas on them. In order to contain the disease, the main entry point, the port, was controlled. Filipinos started to stop ships from getting close to wharfs, utilizing iron gangplanks for loading and unloading passengers and cargo. It was later discovered that the pests could jump off ships and swim to Manila, so the ports were renovated and given smooth concrete walls so that the rodents would not be able to climb their way up inland.

Uniforms of those studying the Bubonic Plague in the Philippines. Photo from the National Museum Of Public Health

The Americans told the Filipinos to protect themselves from rats, so rat catchers like cats were used at the time. In the book Yesterdays in the Philippines by Joseph Earle Stevens, some homes in the country utilized pythons placed on roofs as rat catchers. The American sanitation officials also paid people five centavos for every rat caught or killed. All people had to do was bring the rat’s tail as proof of the vermin’s death. Some Filipinos decided to cheat this system by breeding rats and selling the tails to sanitation officials.


There were as many casualties from fear as from the disease itself. There was a time the natives felt that the foreigners were poisoning the Pasig River and, because of their fear, there was a massacre of white people.

In the American period, during times of cholera, people were so scared of the Red Cross or the Medical Corps because they would come to find the infected person, take them into a carriage, bring them to a hospital, and, for many people, that would be the last time they would see their relatives alive.

Burning of the cholera-stricken lighthouse neighborhood of the Tondo district, Manila, 1902, by the health authorities. Photo by Arnaldo Dumindin

The disease ravaged the Philippines in the early 1900s and what people do not remember is that this was the period the Filipinos won their independence from Spain. Hidden in the historical literature was that sometimes the American military officials would use health as a way to contain the rebellion. They would make an excuse that there was cholera in this part of town to bring people from the fields and into a quarantine space. They would bring them into town, burn houses and fields to sanitize them, but also to hold off Emilio Aguinaldo’s forces. The cholera epidemic was a two-pronged fight, a fight to stop Philippine aspirations for independence and a fight against the disease. The fear was so intense that American forces burned an entire district in Tondo.

Cholera’s most prominent victim was Apolinario Mabini, who died after drinking tainted carabao’s milk. The protocol for the disease in 1943 was that the body should be cremated without any funeral. Apolinario was an exception, as he had one of the biggest funerals of the time, and he was buried in the Chinese cemetery.

Internment of Apolinario Mabini. Dressed in white from left to right: Timoteo Paez, Felipe Buencamino Sr., Pedro C. Domingo, Daniel Morelos, Jose turiano Santiago, Pio H. Santos, and Isaac del Carmen. Photo from the Philippine Free Press, July 20, 1929

The Americans had to change the way Filipinos used to do things. They concluded that one of the modes of disease transmission in the country was because Pinoys would eat with their bare hands. They started to teach people to wash their hands with soap and water before and after meals. Also, the Americans introduced eating with utensils such as knives and forks. They were also strict with food preparation and licensing of food establishments, which ultimately changed the way Filipinos eat, source, and serve food.


The 1918 flu pandemic killed 50 million people worldwide and it is estimated that 500 million people were infected. Despite the magnitude, nobody seems to remember it in the Philippines. When you Google it you will find out that many people describe it as the Spanish Flu. This disease, however, did not come from Spain. In the country the flu was simply called trangkaso. The disease, just like Covid-19, forced not just Filipinos, but the whole world to be more health-conscious by washing their hands, wearing a face mask, and taking nutritious food like milk.

“The history of pandemics in the Philippines is supposed to teach us not so much about how many people died or how it was treated. But it shows us that it is not enough to see history, one has to notice it in order for it to become relevant in our lives and to change us and prepare us for a better future,” Prof. Ambeth concludes.