Things Have Always Been Terrible

A series in which I make you feel less lonely, realizing how many other pandemics humans have lived through.

Manila in 1901. Note the people with the scale-like two bucket carriers. That seems smart. But I’ve never tried it.

Philippine Beriberi Epidemic of 1901-1902 and 1909

We’ve got a new disease today!

Beriberi. To me it sounds like someone talking to a kid in a wubba wubba voice, “Is that your bearie-wearie?”

But no. Beriberi is one of those nasties that led our government to start spraying our cereals and pastas and breads and rice with a vitamin. In this case, B1, or thiamin. When I see all those complicated words on my cereal box, I tend to be annoyed, but perhaps I should shut up, because I have never had (and likely never will have) beriberi.

Let’s generalize about rice: brown rice good, white rice bad. Unless you have lots of various other medical issues that make white rice preferable for you

One issue is that brown rice has thiamin, but white rice has had the thiamin removed. Before Europeans showed up, people in Asia generally ate brown rice. As usual, Europeans arrived and said, “We have a great idea,” and it wasn’t a great idea. Well, it wasn’t a terrible idea, but it wasn’t a great idea. Rice without the husk (white rice) lasts longer without spoiling, but it also lacks fiber and thiamin that people need.

There are two kinds of beriberi: wet, which affects the heart and needs immediate treatment, and dry, which is not great, but not an emergency. Dry beriberi affects your nervous system.

The Philippines was also, during the early 1900s, having to fight off American soldiers. Soldiers who were burning down their homes and torturing prisoners. Yes, in a particularly ironic dick move, the U.S. was going from “fighting for liberty from our colonial overlords” to being colonial overlords. It usually doesn’t take long.

Bilibad Prison, which became the Manila City Jail. Today it is crushingly overcrowded, like many prisons in the Phillippines.

People particularly at risk for beriberi are prisoners. In Manila in 1901, at Bilibad Prison, beriberi reared its ugly head. They reported 5,448 cases, and 229 of those cases were fatal.

The other outbreaks were not as bad. Lingayen Prison and the Culion leper colony lost members of their community to beriberi. At Lingayen prison, the prison surgeon ordered the prisoners be fed local rice, rather than rice from China, and suddenly the outbreak was over.

Aside: I found some reviews of what I think is the successor to Lingayen Prison, and I’d like to report it had 80 “Likes” on Facebook. (?)

Culion Leper Colony was, at a time, the biggest leper colony in the world. It has been recognized by UNESCO as a historic site. They had their own stores, post office, baseball, theater– basically their own small town.

When they decided to take photos at Culion, they seem to have often taken photos of musicians. This bitch who visited said their music was “popular American songs badly sung.” But she can go to hell.

When they switched to feeding patients at Culion brown, “unpolished” rice, beriberi was eradicated there, too.

Today, Culion is a town without leprosy, where the few remaining survivors from the old days play guitar and serve as mayor, alongside locals who have never experienced the disease.

One other fun (well, interesting) fact about Culion Leper Colony is that they created their own money for use on the island. At first, the community was less than enchanted by this idea, throwing the coins into the sea. But they got into it later, when war led to the Culion coins being more valuable than regular Phillipine currency.

Culion coins. If people don’t like you at first, hang in there, they may change their minds.

The Philippines currently holds the title for most overcrowded prisons in the world. On average, their prisons are at 600% capacity. Some inmates have to sleep sitting up because all the floor space is taken, even in stairwells and bathrooms.

On a happier note, the Second Chance program works with people who have been incarcerated in the Philippines. They also have an awesome video featuring nuns tackling a mugger and turning him into a football star (?).

Today, there are some ways you may get beriberi: if you suffer from alcoholism, if you have a rare genetic condition that causes you to not be able to absorb thiamin, if you get dialysis, or if you take lots of diuretics and pee all your thiamin out. If you have bariatric surgery or have HIV, you are also at risk for beriberi. Don’t eat too many betel nuts.

Recently, in Cambodia, fish sauce has thiamin added to it, to help prevent beriberi.

Possibly Laverne or Shirley, but definitely ladies at a fish sauce factory.

But you don’t have it. You’re fine.

If you’re still worried, go have a bowl of cereal.

Things Have Always Been Terrible

A series in which I make you feel less lonely, realizing how many other pandemics humans have lived through.

Japanese Smallpox Epidemic of 735-737

Are you afraid of dogs?

Are you afraid of the color red?

Have you ever been soothed by a lion dance?

Have you considered that you might be a smallpox virus?

Smallpox demon shrine, before which the demon appears and says, “pull my finger.”

Today’s plague gives us a moment to consider one of humankind’s theories that hasn’t aged well. In the 1100s in Europe, people, I guess, saw that smallpox gave you red spots, and thought, red hates red! Fight fire with fire?

In their defense, placebo effects are real. Doing something can be better than do nothing, and if you like the color red, even more’s your happiness.

They wrapped Queen Elizabeth I in red blankets when she got smallpox.

I mean, when I take a pill to smooth out my brain freakouts, it’s pretty crazy, too. I don’t have any real reason to think swallowing a little bit will make me happier. It does, though.

Minamoto no Tametomo, thinking, not today Satan, defeats a smallpox devil in the guise of a drunk frat boy, from Yoshitoshi‘s 36 drawings of Yokai

It took until the 1930s for humans to concede that red fabric and red lights were maybe not effective. Which isn’t to mock the idea. Light really does fix some problems.

Women dancing to ask smallpox to leave, reminding me of the “Thriller” dance, and isn’t “Thriller” basically a dance to mock and drive away demons?

In two villages in Japan, Rokugami and Shimo, women danced a special dance to be friendly to the smallpox demon. If the demon felt welcome, he might also be receptive to being asked to leave. That’s some classic passive aggression. The women wear a purple wrap and white sandals. The drummer wears a red sash. The woman in front carries a big coin on her shoulder and has “Amaterasu Kodaijingu Shrine” written on her left hand. (I must reveal to you that this last paragraph came from a google translate of a page in Japanese, so buyer beware.)

More recent image of women dancing smallpox away. Here it looks more like the macarena. But seriously: it’s a UNESCO approved cultural thing to do.

Figures of owls, fish, and cows might also help you with a smallpox problem.

Or, hey, throw a party to scare smallpox away. No, don’t do that. That’s the worst of their ideas.

The people of Japan blamed the Koreans for their first experience of smallpox. Those two have a very dysfunctional relationship.

But you could understand them wanting someone to blame when between 30 and 60% of their people died. Their agriculture fell apart, their government and army fell apart. It was a bad, bad scene.

Some people in Japan thought the smallpox demon was evil, and should be fought. Others thought he could be bribed and flattered. Others thought that demon was actually a protector AGAINST smallpox. Humans react differently to fear and suffering. They imagine different responses from spiritual forces.

This illustration from about 1720 is from a Japanese book on small pox called Toshin seivo, written by Kanda Gensen. Many people in history were embarrassed about their smallpox scars, including Josef Stalin. What if he had gotten a smallpox vaccine? Oy.

By the year 1000, the Japanese people had built up enough immunity that smallpox only infected and killed children. That sounds grim, but it’s definitely less grim than it was. Smallpox vaccines were still 700 years in the future.

Here’s my favorite story about a smallpox god, or “hosogami”:

An eyewitness account of a hōsōgami was reported in Nisshin shinjishi, a Meiji Period newspaper. A rickshaw driver in Honjo, Tōkyō reported that he gave a ride to a young girl about 14 or 15 years old. She asked him to drive her from Midorichō to Asakusa. Midway through the ride it began to grow dark, so the rickshaw driver pulled over to light a lantern. However, when he stopped, he noticed that the girl had vanished from the back of his rickshaw. In her place, there was a rice barrel lid with a red staff mounted to it. He recognized the barrel lid with the red staff as a symbol of a hōsōgami. The young girl he had given a ride to must have been a hōsōgami using the rickshaw system to find her next victim!

So next time you pick up a young female hitchhiker, consider if you may have picked up a smallpox demon, and check on her once it gets dark.

…Thank you to this great source. I accidentally went to write without my big book o’ plagues, so I relied more on the internet today.

Things Have Always Been Terrible

A series in which I make you feel less lonely, realizing how many other pandemics humans have lived through.

African Cholera Pandemic of 1989-91

Let’s start with some good news: in 1989, when this pandemic broke out, more people had more access to oral rehydration. But there continued to be issues getting people medicine and treatments they needed. In the late 1980s, cholera in Peru had a fatality rate of less than 1%, while in Africa, the fatality rate was more like 12%.

Glass half full, humans had learned some things about treating cholera, and it showed.

Map of Sao Tome from 1665.

Back to the terrible things: this pandemic was when the islands of Sao Tome and Principe lost their malarial virginity, so to speak.

Sao Tome and Principe are in the shade of Africa if Africa is a tree leaning left. Their two islands are about 90 miles apart. Wikipedia claims no one lived there at all until Portuguese explorers found them. This may be true, but I don’t like it.

A rock formation on Sao Tome that definitely isn’t a penis.

Portuguese assholes named the islands for St. Thomas and the prince of Portugal, who was getting a cut of the sugar profits created by perfectly nice people who were being whipped nearly to death on the daily.

Regular old Portuguese people weren’t that interested in the islands, so Portugal noticed it had these people who were Jewish, and sent them instead. They took 2,000 Jewish children to San Tome and Principe to work in the sugar fields.

Though it be called Principe, it is but little.


The islands became one of the biggest sugar producers in Africa, and a popular stop for people enslaving people.

The shit work of getting the rich white people their sweets.

Although the islands greatly benefitted from the slave trade, and slave labor, I found their changing laws about slavery interesting: in 1515, the black wives of Portuguese men were freed, and the children from those marriages were freed. In 1517, people who had been enslaved by the first settlers were all freed. By 1546, people who had both black and white ancestors could hold office, and participate in politics and business.

Theoretically Portugal abolished slavery in 1876, but in reality, slavery was definitely still going in 1897.

Indeed the Portuguese saw the island and thought, WE SHOULD OWN THIS, TOO!

After sugar became less financially advantageous for them, they began specializing in one my absolute favorite crops: cocoa (hear from local farmer Fatima Horta in this happy video).

Although they’ve had some trouble along the way, Sao Tome and Principe are currently described as free and safe. Portuguese ships continue to patrol their waters, which seems only fair. Their life expectance is 70 years. The place also looks like a goddamn paradise.

I’m happy for them.

Let’s end with a poem by a poet from the islands:

Maria Manuela Margarido, from a page that was in Portuguese, a language I’m not even nodding acquaintances with.

by Maria Manuela Margarido
Translated from the Portuguese by Julia Kirst

Nightfall … grass on the back
of the gleaming black man
on his way to the yard.
Grey parrots
explode in the palm trees’ comb
and cross each other in my childhood dream,
in the blue porcelain of oysters.
High dream, high
like the coconut tree along the ocean
with its golden and firm fruits
like obstructed stones
oscillating in a tornado’s womb
ploughing the sky with its mad
In the sky the severe anguish
of revolt passes by
with its claws its anxieties its uncertainties.
And an image of rustic lines
takes over the time and the word.

Things Have Always Been Terrible

A series in which I make you feel less lonely, realizing how many other pandemics humans have lived through.

Ethiopian Malaria Epidemic of 1958

This is our newest epidemic thus far. I know people who saw 1958 in person.

The prettiest portrayal of a mosquito I could find.

The villain today, such as she is: the anopheles gambiae mosquito.

Anopheles gambiae like both fresh and salt water. Females lay about 200 eggs on the surface of the water. While the eggs float about, the larvae breathe through little holes in their butts.

When resting, these mosquitos stand up straight as soldiers, and when feeding, they bend way down like a hungry giraffe spotting a doughnut on the ground.

In their eating habits, the females are like vampires, and the males live like Gandhi.

Their conservation status is listed as “no thank you.”

Ethiopia looking real good to me.

A very wet and very warm rainy season ended in June 1958. Yes, Ethiopians were just trying to get healthy after a famine in 1957, when the merciless universe threw more crap at them: a malaria epidemic.

Now, I know you’re saying, Liz, isn’t malaria treatable? It is. Why weren’t these people treated? Well, they didn’t have enough hospitals, and they certainly did not have enough of the right medications.

I ‘m going to put the worst of it in this paragraph: about 3.5 million people got malaria. And about 175,000 people died. In western Ethiopia, so many people were ill that crops stayed in the fields. Food needed by people was instead eaten by wild animals. Children under the age of 2 only had a 50% chance of surviving. Previous malarial infection also makes children more likely to suffer from other infections as they get older.

The people of Ethiopia’s lower elevations fared better. Malaria was always hanging around there, so many people had already survived it.

A recent photo of people in Ethiopia enjoying being out and about, as fighting in the northern part of the country has calmed down. Well, the ladies are enjoying, The gentleman on the right seems to have put off all his errands and now has to schlep around the city. I’ve been there.

Let’s enjoy some music of Ethiopia:

It Couple Yared Negu and Millen Hailu

The backup dancers in Yared Negu and Millen Hailu’s video are having SO MUCH FUN, and I also like the telephones. Get me that prop master.

Also enjoy Alemu Aga singing the Lord’s Prayer in Amharic, accompanied by a begena lyre (a.k.a., David’s harp). He started training on this instrument at age 12. Ethiopia is one of the most ancient of Christian places, and this instrument has been used in religious context for a very, very long time.