Folk medicine What this coronavirus pandemic teaches us

HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose - The Philippine Star

I had an interesting conversation with the young medical anthropologist and columnist, Gideon Lasco, the other day. He had done research on folk medicine, and I hope it will get published soon. Our conversation is perhaps most relevant today especially with the country in the grip of the Coronavirus pandemic.

My reading of history tells me that during the Spanish regime, cholera and smallpox epidemics had occurred, killing hundreds, and they continued until the early part of the American regime and claimed, for instance, the life of Apolinario Mabini in a cholera outbreak in the 1900s.

My mother herself had smallpox, which poxed her face with shallow scars. Both diseases had been wiped out, but will they ever return the way polio has returned?

Gideon knows that many of the so-called folk medicine practices are not all that invalid for the herbolarios had a very good knowledge of our medicinal plants. In fact, I have wondered what the ancient Filipinos used for anesthesia; before the Spaniards came, they filed their teeth. They must have chewed some weed or root that numbed their gums. Much of the ancient knowledge on medicinal plants have of course been studied and codified by Chinese medicine.

Superstition – I remember when someone in our neighborhood got sick, and offerings were made before the giant dalipawen tree which is believed to be inhabited by spirits. The atang or offering consisted of a plate of gelatinous rice much like suman. In the middle was a shelled hard-boiled egg, a hand rolled cigar and betel nut. It is usually the head of the family, usually the grandfather who presented the offering, invoking a plea for the spirit to banish the ailment of the family member. After he had gone, we – the children in the neighborhood – feasted on the offering. When I had a fever, the local herbolario came to our house to offer a prayer and then covered my body with nameless leaves. It was to him who the villagers went to first when they were ill, and if their condition did not improve, only then did they go to the doctor.

They also give a massage often with ground ginger mixed with coconut oil, particularly to the women who had just given birth. Together with these herbolarios were the faith healers who enjoyed a wider clientele. Two skeptics, the late Max Soliven and I were attended to by Tomas Blanche of Isabela; he kneaded Max’s shoulders with his fingers and extracted cholesterol; he pressed a spoon on my tummy and a syrupy liquid flowed out from my skin.

Disease travels; many pristine societies in South America did not have the infectious diseases like syphilis until the Conquistadors came. Ancient Egyptian mummies were found to have traces of diabetes, the diagnosis of it made easy only in this century, and so many of the human ailments that were traced to diabetes were treated properly. If there seems to be a diabetic epidemic today, it is because its diagnosis is now easy to make.

When I was in the Medical Corps in 1945, the most popular drugs were the sulfas. Antibiotics have just appeared. My eye doctor, Cesar Lopez observed, the Bubonic plague that killed millions during the Middle Ages would have been easily cured by penicillin. Indeed, science continues to find new ways to combat diseases. The words, cholesterol and nuclear medicine, were unknown in the 1940s. So too organ transplants. It will take a few months more, I hope, when a vaccine for this Coronavirus pandemic will be discovered.  

Unless subsidized, a career in medicine is very expensive and all too often, doctors, particularly those in government, receive very little, for which reason, they opt to practice abroad where they get better pay. As specialists, they earn more but it takes years of practice to achieve that kind of reputation.

Then, there is the problem of expensive hospitals and medicines – a problem already resolved in socialist countries where healthcare is free and the responsibility of the state.

During the tenure of Dr. Juan Flavier in the eighties as Health Secretary, he initiated a program of sending “barefoot doctors” to work in the villages – prevention and correct hygienic practices warded off diseases, particularly the contagious.

Singapore and Cuba have been particularly successful in combatting COVID-19 primarily because their governments are efficient. One may argue that these are island states, small and therefore easy to govern. But it is more than this – the healthcare systems in these countries afford their citizens protection and support in instances of widespread need. Cuba’s educational system, too, is worth examining for this country illustrates how, even with its economic problems, it is able to provide basic services to all its people.

In Italy, where the death toll is the highest in the world, many of these victims died alone, their burial postponed. The next few weeks will certainly show how much we have to pay for the incompetence of our leaders.

If we survive this pandemic and I pray we will, what can we learn from it?

First, we must learn to bear the cost and to prepare for future pandemics because they are not going to disappear even with the greatest advances made in science.

If we have the most accurate information early enough and widespread enough, then we can at least prepare for it. China kept this information to itself – under that kind of dictatorial government, it seemed the right thing to do. We now reap the whirlwind.

This challenge – like climate change is global and we need to cooperate with all countries, particularly those that can help us. Shutting off our borders will not help as much as shutting our streets and neighborhoods where the disease first appeared.

It is also the duty of these giant pharmaceutical companies to produce drugs that are available to the very poor; and finally and most importantly, we have to reform the political order and usher in a government – very expensive perhaps – that can attend to the social needs of our people. Capitalism may have to go, as the deadliest virus. Capitalism protects the rich and damns the poor.

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