The title of this blogpost refers not to the Province of Rizal (which encompasses a small part of the Luzón-wide enhanced community quarantine to halt the spread of COVID-19) but to Dr. José Rizal. Not many Filipinos today know that the national hero also endured what many of them are experiencing right now. But this happened to him in faraway San Francisco, California.
I was reminded of Rizal’s quarantine episode when United States President Donald Trump a few days ago described the 2019 novel coronavirus as a “Chinese virus”, sparking outrage and debate (mostly from journalists, actually).
Trump was accused of being racist. But in his defense, there was no racism at all. His smug reply: “It comes from China”.
Could he be right? Perhaps. The MERS-CoV outbreak of 2012 which death toll reached almost a thousand worldwide was caused by the MERS-CoV virus, and it’s an acronym for “Middle East respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus” because it originated from the Middle East. The scarier Ebola virus was named after a Congolese river near the village where the outbreak was first reported. The Spanish flu of 1918, although not from Spain, was named as such because it was then thought that Spain was the country that was hardest hit by the pandemic. In all mentioned accounts, there were no racist undertones thrown.
But in Trump’s case, some say there is. Remember that even before the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, China and the US have been in a stiff trade war since Trump announced tariffs on solar panels, washing machines, steel, and aluminum in 2018 (the US is a large importer of the said products from China). And from his own words, it was China that first accused US soldiers of spreading COVID-19. There seems to be a vendetta.
US xenophobia against the Chinese is nothing new. And this Rizal reported first hand. In early 1888, he was on his second trip to Europe via the US. Upon arrival at San Francisco, California, Rizal’s ship was not allowed to dock and was immediately placed on quarantine on account of halting the spread of cholera. But apparently, cholera was just an excuse for something else. Wrote Rizal on his diary:
Nos pusieron en cuarentena. A pesar de llevar patente limpia dada por el Cónsul americano. A pesar de haber estado cerca de un mes en el mar, a pesar de no ocurrir ningún caso de enfermedad a bordo, a pesar del telegrama del Gobernador de Hong-Kong, declarando el puerto limpio; nos pusieron en cuarentena, porque llevábamos 800 chinos, y como entonces se hacían en S. Francisco las elecciones, el Gobierno, para tener votos, alardeaba de adoptar medidas rigorosas contra los chinos para captarse las simpatías del pueblo.
My translation: We were quarantined. Despite having a clearance issued by the American Consul, despite having been at sea for nearly a month, despite no case of illness occurring on board, despite the telegram from the Governor of Hong Kong declaring the port clean (the ship he boarded departed from Hong Kong -Pepe-), they still placed us on quarantine because we had 800 Chinese. And since elections were to be held in San Francisco, the government, in order to gain votes, boasted of taking rigorous measures against the Chinese to win the people’s sympathy.
He also wrote about this same experience to his friend Ferdinand Blumentritt:
Whether or not President Trump was right with his China virus opinion, suffice it to say that it is still not the right time for political polemics and other similar innuendos in times of international crises; his wording comes out strong since the trade war between his country and China is far from over. It might even surpass the ongoing pandemic.
Truth be told, xenophobia —or Sinophobia to be more precise— is also a pandemic. And in view of the foregoing, it appears that, sadly, no amount of historical quarantine was able to contain it.