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The tyranny of vaccines: Orphans, kings, and revolutions

By LISA GUERRERO NAKPIL, The Philippine STAR Published Jan 24, 2021 5:00 am

Vaccines and the Philippines have had a long, harrowing history together. Before there was Sinovac, we had “HispanoVac.”

Two hundred years ago, it was smallpox that terrorized Spain and the rest of Europe, a plague far more deadly than COVID-19 that took the lives of one in three that it afflicted. For the Spanish colonies, where doctors and proper hygiene were hard-pressed to be found, the death toll was unimaginable.

Edward Jenner was the genius who developed the miracle vaccine for smallpox. Think of him as one of the eggheads in Oxford, Pfizer, or Astra-Zeneca. (The word “vaccine,” incidentally, comes from the Latin “vacca,” or “cow.” Jenner observed that milkmaids who had recovered from cowpox, a similar but less-deadly disease, built up the ability to fight off the sickness.)

As one watches countries as mighty as the United States grapple with the logistics of refrigerated trucks and sub-zero freezers, one wonders what a nightmare it must have been to bring the vaccine from the old world to the new.

 A portrait of King Carlos IV, bringer of the first vaccine to the Philippines, by Francisco Goya. From the Prado collection.

“How Children Took the Smallpox Vaccine Around the World,” by the science writer Jess Romeo in the online JStor Daily, describes how the Spanish pulled off this medical feat two centuries ago.

Armed with this invention, the Spanish government faced another challenge: how to distribute it. They struggled to transport the fragile vaccine across the ocean,” Romeo writes. Methods as strange as using silk threads or glass plates were tried but ended in failure in the face of a long sea journey and hot climates.

What happens next reads straight out of a sci-fi alien-invasion novel. It was decided that the vaccine would be carried using human hosts — yes, young boys.

Thus, continues Romeo, “On November 30, 1803, the ship Maria Píta set sail from a Spanish port, headed west toward the Americas. The ship bore a small cohort of people tasked with a historic mission: to circumnavigate the globe distributing the vaccine for smallpox,” she writes. “The Royal Philanthropic Vaccine Expedition, as it was called, was staffed by a handful of physicians, two surgeons, and four nurses. The vaccine itself was carried beneath the skin of 22 orphan boys, ages three to nine.

 The Carlos IV Monument, c. 1898, in the Plaza Mayor, Intramuros, demonstrates how vaccines are politicized then as now. Photo from geronimocristobal.com

“After arriving in Mexico (through which the Philippines was ruled),” she explains, “the expedition picked up more non-immune boys to use as new vaccine carriers in their chain (including 26 Mexican boys…[whose] parents entrusted their sons to the expedition for monetary compensation and the promise that they would be returned). A total of 62 children took part in the 10-year campaign. Four boys died during the voyages. The expedition traveled from Spain to the Caribbean, to Mexico, across South America, to the Philippines, and even to China. It is estimated that the expedition immunized over 100,000 people.”

That sublime, life-saving strategy was commemorated by a statue memorializing the Spanish King that sent the vaccine to the Philippines, Carlos IV, whose monument still stands in Intramuros. Or so we long thought.

Art historian Geronimo Cristobal looks deeper into the symbolism of this memorial in the essay poetically titled “The Furnace of Kings.” In it, he reveals the history of metal-sculpture in the Philippines, writing about foundry workers who were pressed into creating huge figures when they had previously made only tabletop objects such as chalices and candlesticks. With the Charles IV memorial, they made a leap to “making a sculpture which was very different from what was commonly made in the Philippines at that time, images in ivory and religious images made in wood. Bronze sculpture, although practiced, was not common in the islands.”

As one watches countries as mighty as the United States grapple with the logistics of refrigerated trucks and sub-zero freezers, one wonders what a nightmare it must have been to bring the vaccine from the old world to the new.

Indeed, the majority of pieces created by Filipino and Chinese artisans were in the greater service of the faith and the Catholic Church, as evidenced by the glorious works that now populate the auction houses. The names of these creators, except for a few such as Tampinco and Ah Tay, would be lost in the sands of time.

For the Spanish regime, it was important to remind the Filipino population not how gifted they were but how much they owed to Madre España (or “Mother Spain”).

Cristobal says, “For the longest time, it was believed that the monument was commissioned by Manila residents in gratitude for the King’s order to send smallpox vaccines to the Philippines in 1804, but the date of commission precedes this by a decade. Further investigation concluded that it was, in fact, the work of the Spanish government. The statue was designed to reinforce colonial power; to literally tower over citizens who were increasingly demanding autonomy.”

 Monstrance: Glorious church art that is an example of the kind of table-top metal sculpture created in the Philippines before the Carlos IV monument was fabricated. From the León Exchange catalogue.

He theorizes that the vaccines and, therefore, its remembrance became politicized, a forerunner of how medical strategies such as mask-wearing and social distancing have become symbols that divide one party from the next in the US. Indeed, Metro Manila mayors now compete to provide the best vaccines in the fastest way possible to win the hearts and minds of their voters.

The timing, Cristobal points out, came on the heels of a spectacular revolt by the insulare Andres Novales, a swashbuckling officer in the Spanish army in the Philippines. Think of him as a 19th-century Gringo Honasan. Unhappy with unfair practices in the military, he led a revolt of other creole captains and laid siege to the Walled City. He almost succeeded in toppling the government but most dangerous of all, he styled himself as “emperor.” This was a particularly painful affront that demanded a larger-than-life response from the Spanish crown in the form of an outsized monument. 

Thus, a now-forgotten soldier unnerved his colonial masters enough to rush the fabrication of the embodiment of Spain’s power and majesty. Unsung would be the Filipino and Chinese artisans who created it and unremembered would be the orphans who made the first vaccination of the Philippines possible. Then, as now, only the benefactors of each vaccine will be remembered. This is the legacy and tyranny of vaccines.