After the Pandemic: ‘The New Normal’
An influenza pandemic changed many things for the Dutch East Indies and the world. A new way-of-life was begun. Some things had to change for the pandemic not to recur.
NOT a handsome face, nor a muscular physique. The only requirement to try capture Seriati’s heart was the ability to cure influenza. The contest announced by Seriati’s dad was worded thus: “Anyone capable of treating the dangers of this flu may marry my daughter, Seriati. Is she not a beauty, O Plump Master?”
The Plump Master admitted Seriati’s comeliness. He showed off his healing medicinal prowess against coughs and fever, which in this story was called sakit kromo. An amulet was his secret weapon. Suddenly appeared The Tall One, who with a ringing voice cried out to the crowd, “Are you struck by sakit kromo? If you are suffering symptoms of fever and coughing, that is called influenza. Avoid the breeze. Eat gruel, drink warm water. Rest at home. When your body feels stronger after one week, only then may you go out.”
This excerpt can be found in a Malay-language book published by Balai Pustaka in 1920. Steve Ferzacca retold the story in the book Beware! The Influenza in his essay Governing Bodies in New Order Indonesia” in the book New Horizons in Medical Anthropology. Ferzacca highlighted the efforts of the Dutch East Indies government when campaigning science-based healing methods through folk story-telling to get the message across. The way it was told emulated the Ramayana epic, in the scene where Rama is trying to win the heart of the Goddess Sinta in a show-your-might competition. This methodology was selected after millions of people had died for holding on to traditional cures in the influenza pandemic of 1918.
As the story continued, The Tall One went on with his oratory by describing the influenza virus that was passed on through the saliva of those infected. If the virus enters the body, the system’s white blood cells will rally to combat it. To facilitate healing, The Tall One suggested covering the sick one with a blanket, cooling down their fever with a cold compress, having them eat nutritious food, and giving them medication named the Bandoeng pill. Because of his superior mastery, The Tall One won the contest.
The information in the story was packaged by a colonial government health panel and disseminated by the director of education and religion (Onderwijs en Eeredients). Besides using the Malay language, epidemic historian Tubagus Arie Rukmana said, the handbook was also printed in Javanese using the Javanese script. “The book was written in the conversation form between the Punakawan characters who were very popular in the communtiy,” said Arie in a written interview.
As the book Yang Terlupakan: Pandemi Influenza 1018 di Hindia Belanda (The Forgotten: The 1918 Flu Pandemic in the Dutch East Indies) noted, from the narrative format and contents, it can be surmised the handbook Lelara Influenza was aimed at the dalang (puppeteers) community with the hope they re-convey the health information published inside through wayang (shadow puppet) performances. The colonial government wanted easy dissemination of the public health campaign using colloquial informal language.
As quoted in Yang Terlupakan, the Lelara Influenza (Influenza Sickness) handbook contained such information as:
Influenza causes fever and coughing, is highly infectious, originates from ash or dust, so be very aware not to be careless in allowing dust to settle...
...anybody suffering high fever and coughing should not leave the house, should only sleep or rest. Cover the body tightly with a blanket, compress the head, don’t let them take a bath...
Lelara Influenza was a popular reading in the Javanese language even until long after the influenza pandemic, also known as the Spanish flu, had subsided. Data on the number of people who borrowed the book at the Taman Pustaka Library as quoted in a, essay titled Balai Pustaka and Public Health by W. B. Horton showed that the book was taken out 3,000 times a year throughout the period between 1926-1930. “Medical advice was disseminated in a conversation format between Semar, Gareng, Petruk, and Prabu Kresna, making the book very inviting to be read,” wrote Horton.
The Spanish flu pandemic, estimated to have killed 20 to 50 million people, revolutionized many things the world over. The Dutch East Indies, where 1.5 to 4 milllion people died of the virus, reorganized itself so the pandemic would not recur. Community-based medical assistance was given more focus. “In the Dutch East Indies, STOVIA medical students were dispersed because the number of infected people rose sharply outside of Batavia. The commitment to boost the STOVIA became stronger,” said Arie Rukmana.
The cover of Awas! Penjakit Influenza./Syefri Luwis doc.
In fact, during the handling of the pandemic, evidently the STOVIA graduated Javanese doctors played a greater role compared to European doctors graduated from the Geneeskundige School. As quoted in The Forgotten, the Javanese doctors were the functional partners of the colonial government in dispensing community health care right down to the very grassroots. These STOVIA doctors had the leading edge because they understood Javanese, and also the culture and native penchant for traditional cures. A photo in the book’s appendix showed a doctor named Ismael, wearing the blangkon and beskap traditional Javanese garb, interacting with a patient. Ismael was a STOVIA graduate who served at the Mojowarno Christian Hospital in East Java.
On a global scale, the Spanish flu pandemic forced a war to grind to a halt. The pandemic is known to have been instrumental in the Paris Peace Accords that contained the agreement to end World War I. Because many of the delegates were infected with the flu, peace negotiations were less harsh. Historial researcher Alfred W. Crosby in his article Flu and The Paris Peace Conference argues that physical weakness and tiredness caused by the flu succeeded in bringing the League of Nations to fruition. “The new normal after the flu pandemic was to stop the war and strengthen international cooperation,” said Arie.
Reflecting on the turmoil nations went through to overcome the flu, the League of Nations established the Health Organization in 1923. According to Arie, the technical body invented a new epidemic monitoring system, not made up of diplomats but rather health experts. “This agency was the burgeoning seeds to the World Health Organization, established in 1948,” he said.
Jennifer Cole, an anthropologist from Royal Holloway, University of London, said war and plague played a big role in formulating the concept of state well-being, later adopted by many European countries. This concept was developed after much reflection on the plague that had widowed and orphaned millions, and gave rise to diffabled in the millions.
Another new normal after the pandemic was more data openness. According to Arie, the epidemic between 1918-1919 has now practically disappeared from history books and popular culture because of non-transparency in information. If this is left to fester, it has the potential to lower the alert levels of future generations, once a new plague rolls along. “Freedom of the press became the new normal,” he said.