Lecture 12

The Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918 in Colonial Indonesia: A Lesson to Learn?

University of Melbourne

Long before the Covid-19 pandemic, about a century ago, the world was struck by the 1918 Spanish Flu. Almost no country was spared, including Indonesia, which at that time was still known as the Dutch East Indies. Experts say about 21.5 to 50 million people were killed as a result of the Spanish Flu. Historian Colin Brown has estimated that at least 1.5 million of these were in the Dutch East Indies. The large number of deaths was caused by a slow government response, ineffective health policy and the impact of irresponsible parties who sought to take advantage of the situation.

Hospitals and clinics were full of patients. Many were rejected because of lack of available bed spaces. Doctors were confused about what to do because they had never faced anything like it before. They struggled to treat the illness with the drugs they had on hand, like quinine and aspirin.

The shortage of doctors in the Dutch East Indies forced the colonial government to send student doctors from the STOVIA medical school to regional areas to cover the gaps. According to the Koloniaal Weekblad (Colonial Weekly Magazine) (1919) each doctor was handling an average of 800 patients during this crisis phase.

The colonial government’s failures in 1918-1919 are important lessons for the Indonesian government as it faces the rapidly escalating threats of Covid-19. Sadly, it looks to have made many of the same mistakes that the colonial government made some 100 years ago.

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  • Brown, Colin, ‘The Influenza Pandemic of 1918 in Indonesia’ in Norman G. Owen (ed.), Death and Disease in Southeast Asia, Explorations in Social, Medical, and Demographic History (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 235–256.
  • Chandra, Siddharth, ‘Mortality from the Influenza Pandemic of 1918–19 in Indonesia’, Population Studies 67.2 (July 2013), pp. 185–193.
  • Chia, Jack Meng-Tat, ‘Who is Tua Pek Kong? The Cult of Grand Uncle in Malaysia and Singapore’, Archiv Orientalni 85 (2017), pp. 439–460.
  • Pausacker, Helen, ‘Presidents as Punakawan: Portrayal of National Leaders as Clown-Servants in Central Javanese Wayang’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 35.2 (June 2004), pp. 213–233.