-, April 13, 2020
First posted: https://news.abs-cbn.com/blogs/opinions/03/28/20/cholera-1902-vs-coronavirus-2019
Growing up Waray-waray in Calbayog, Samar, it was not uncommon to hear cuss words such as “Kulera ka!” Mostly among the fishwives type, as I recall.
Alongside “Pisti,” “Pisting yawa!” or simply “Kulera!", the profanity seemed milder than “Di p*ta ka!”, or even strange, compared to the now shared Filipino commonality of “p*@ng ina mo!” I have always thought “Kulera ka” to be fascinating. Maybe and especially because its etymology is obviously “Cholera.” But how then did it evolve? The cuss word, that is. The disease we deal with in a bit.
It does seem to me quite coincidentally that “Kulera ka!” is a local version of the very British expression “the pox be on you!” That is, cursing someone with some affliction like syphilis or chicken pox!
The origin of the expletive could not but be reasonably traced to the only moment in our history when the word “Cholera” captured national consciousness. Then, the incidence was overwhelmingly devastating and disturbing. Indeed, such was the sad ordeal the country weathered that the word “Kulera”/Cholera lingered. At least, as common parlance in a milieu that spoke “Binisaya Waray-waray,” the language of my birth. That was the only moment in our history when the Philippine archipelago was ravaged by its worst and deadliest pestilence ever! The Philippine Cholera Epidemic of 1902. There is no Filipino alive today who has personal familiarity, much less direct experience, with that national agony. It is good to remember.
Harkening back to that moment in history ought to render unto ourselves some comforting pause, strengthening our resolve and confidence that we will weather triumphantly these perilous times of the Coronavirus Disease of 2019 (Covid-19). We will survive. With disciplined and cooperative fortitude, we will survive, as did our forebears, that Cholera Epidemic of 1902!
Here is the reason why. But first, please fasten your seatbelts as I rattle off some startling statistics.
137,505 dead! That was the total fatality in 1902. (72,788 males and 64,717 females). The following year, 1903, there were still 62,843 deaths. In Manila alone the total deaths were in excess of 5,000. (My source: “Census of the Philippine Islands – 1903”…. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Washington D.C. 1905)
200,348 dead was the two-year total. This was when the population of the Philippines was estimated to be some 8 million. Old Manila had some 150,000.
Thus far, as I write (Mar. 26), the world is faced with 20,494 fatalities out of a reported 452,156 cases. The Philippines has 803 reported cases with 54 deaths thus far.
This passing context and perspective of Philippine Covid-19 vis a vis Cholera 1902/03 is certainly not intended to diminish continuing awareness of the risks that lurk, simply awaiting for some careless laxity by which the virus could lurch some more into new legions unsuspecting respiratory glands.
It is beyond doubt that much ought to engender profound alarm and disciplined caution/action than the immediate loss of lives that presently stalks the nation. The current scourge will wreak greater devastation upon the national economy, as it already began, with delayed although prolonged suffering and hardship, if the measures now in place are not maintained and rigidly complied with. In the very least, home confinement, self-quarantine or “shelter-in-place” are measures that have proven effective.
Obviously, we all know now what Covid-19 is. But what is cholera, anyway? Or, ought I ask: what was cholera? Not having been experienced hereabouts for generations, the information is still a useful reminder. Even if only as past evidence of Filipino resilience and resolve.
Cholera is an acute infectious disease of the small intestine that is caused by bacteria. Bacteria spawned from dirt! It is characterized by profuse loose bowel movement (‘LBM’ or diarrhea,) vomiting, muscle cramps, massive dehydration and eventually, death. Cholera is a direct result of “unhealthy sanitation practices and poor quality water.” In places where ”water can be contaminated by fecal matter, the disease is highly prevalent … individuals living in slums and unhygienically congested environments.” “Overcrowding and poor diet” have likewise been cited.
I guess, a plain and simple comparison (‘for dummies?’) would be Covid-19 is to the respiratory system as Cholera is to the digestive system.
The cholera disease was not experienced in the U.S. at all, at least not in the magnitudes of widespread occurrences in Asiatic countries. (First cholera pandemic reported in India, 1817.) Hence earlier records have referred to it as “the Asiatic Cholera.” “…In March 1902, having been, it is said, brought from Hongkong.” “…it is certain that from the time of the alleged introduction of the disease from Hongkong it spread rapidly over the archipelago,” so goes commentary available in Philippine records.
Here is more from “My source” ---- “the final suppression of the epidemic was due to energetic measures…… “ which included ‘sanitary cordons,’ ‘rigid quarantine,’ ‘destruction of refuse by fire,’ ‘burning of houses and contaminated articles,’ ‘fumigation…distribution of medicines, isolation of persons,’ ‘draining of standing water,’ ‘boiling of all drinking water” and other sanitation and lifestyle strictures. So that in many quarters, there too prevailed resentment from many locals over the unaccustomed exigencies exacted for common good by the new colonial administrators.
Yet, all of the preceding were deemed “not sufficiently so to prevent the general prevalence of cholera throughout the Philippines…” In 1961-62, Cholera reappeared. (El Tor fatalities: less than 2,000.) Most parents will remember that renewed scare. Although much less virulent, it was yet another awakening.
Widespread societal fright and deprivation possess evolutionary qualities. Will Covid-19 provide sufficient intensity to cause paradigm change in the Filipino?
From our collective experience must emanate introspection and reflection, a ‘silver lining’ requiring national pursuit. Covid-19 must make of us all, as a nation, the better equipped, physically and mentally. Truly encouraging and remarkably salutary is the Filipino response to an effectively understood demand for discipline.
Did God just write straight in crooked lines? Ad astra per aspera!

Tomas 'Buddy' Gomez III began his professional media career in ABS-CBN's (previously Chronicle Broadcasting Network) DZQL-Radio Reloj in 1957, after which he spent 25 years with the Ayala Group.
In 1986, then Pres. Cory Aquino appointed him Consul General to Hawaii and later served as her Press Secretary.
During the Ramos administration, he was chairman and president of state-owned IBC-13 Network.
After government service, he became an ‘OFW’ in the U.S., working as front-desk clerk and then assistant general manager of a hotel. He also worked as a furniture and antique restoration specialist.
He is now retired and lives in San Antonio, Texas.

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