A Century Later
The way pandemics were handled in the past could be a valuable lesson for responding to Covid-19. Health considerations should be prioritized when making decisions.
A century has passed, but the way we respond to pandemics has not really moved forward. A century after the plague and Spanish flu struck this archipelago, there are still anti-science people. As was the case a hundred years ago, a tardy response from the government to this pandemic and inconsistency and confusion from public officials has cost many lives.
The plague and Spanish flu struck the Dutch East Indies at the beginning of the 1900s. The plague, which started in Malang, East Java, and then subsequently spread around Java, is believed to have started in 1910. Initially, the government did not believe that this disease that affected rats could spread to humans. The disease was only identified a year later after its spread and killed thousands.
This experience of responding to the plague did not make the government more prepared when the Spanish flu struck eight years later. In April 1918, the Dutch consul in Singapore warned the Dutch East Indies administration in Batavia to ban ships from Hong Kong from docking and disembarking passengers because the British colony had been struck by plague.
A similar ban was urged by the British administration in Singapore, but the Dutch East India authorities only established an emergency plague response team seven months later, when the first wave of infections struck ports in Java, Sumatra and parts of Kalimantan.
Efforts to prevent the spread of the infection in the form of regional quarantines to restrict the movements of people were tried, but these initiatives were not enough to prevent the plague spreading. The lack of knowledge about public health and safety meant that people tried to battle the plague by consulting with traditional healers. Many tried rituals to ward off calamity as a way of ridding themselves of the evil spirits that they were convinced had caused the disease. Large numbers died. In two years, the Spanish flu pandemic killed at least half a million people in the Dutch East Indies.
Nowadays, there are still those who want nothing to do with science. When the Coronavirus Disease 2019, or Covid-19, broke out in Wuhan, China, and spread to a number of countries, many officials viewed Indonesia as an exception. Some believed that our genes were different meaning that we could not be easily infected by the coronavirus. Others thought that we were immune because so many people consumed medicinal roots, while others believed that the Indonesian people would be protected from the virus by frequent recitations of the qunut Islamic prayer. When the pandemic finally arrived in Indonesia, the government’s response was inadequate.
Matters were made worse by the stance of a number of people drunk with religious fervor who viewed the Covid-19 pandemic as a punishment from God or an ‘angel of death’ sent to rid the world of sin. These anti-science individuals ignored government efforts to prevent the spread of the virus, such as social distancing and worshipping at home. They saw the halting of religious activities as a form of repression against the faithful.
The response to pandemics in the past should be a valuable lesson for the government and the public in dealing with Covid-19. The government must prioritize health and public health and safety considerations when taking decisions related to the pandemic. In the face of this pandemic, we must do better than our predecessors a century ago.