How Dutch Imperialism of Indonesia gave us the COVID-19 vaccine

Posted on 21 April, 2021

By Fahry Slatter – AIYA National Blog Editor

Translated by Gabriella Pasya – AIYA National Translator

Bahasa Indonesia version, click here.

How the only company capable of producing vaccines in Indonesia got their capabilities, and how colonialism became the origins of modern pharmaceutical practices.

What made diseases deadly in the old days, was that nobody knew what they were. You’d wake up one day and the entire neighbourhood suddenly got really sick, and your friends and neighbours just started dying. Your only option was to blame an angry witch, a rival tribe or a villager you didn’t like. But as crazy as it sounds, a lot of our understanding of pharmaceutical practices that would eventually lead us to developing the COVID-19 vaccine, actually started from the Netherland’s imperialism of Indonesia. 

So how did this:

Lead to this?

Let’s understand the context first.

Before we had the Indonesia that we all know today, we had these string of wind-swept islands, and the small connections these islands had were held together by the thin glue that was Dutch imperialism. They were known as the islands east of India, or the Dutch East Indies.

In the 16th century, a group of wealthy Dutch merchants set sail for South East Asia. It was an extremely competitive environment, as their trade had to compete with the likes of the British, the Portuguese and the Spanish. They wanted to avoid all the riff raff, and so they set their eyes at a small Portuguese colony in the East of Indonesia, that had an interest in trading cloves, approximately here in a place called Amboina, presently called Ambon:

Source: Amboina ad viumu descripta, Johannes Isacus Pontanus 1599

The Netherlands back home saw a business opportunity. To really establish themselves in the region, they established this organization called the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC).

Then, the VOC did what all powerful Europeans did back then, which was looking at a culture, approaching them and say; “We think we can do this better. Allow us to take over from here”. Their business then spread throughout the rest of Indonesia, and Bali was one of the first islands to have started trade with the VOC. They soon took over these chains of islands and called it the Dutch East Indies. History tells us that the European powers at the time weren’t interested in helping the locals or improving their lives. If you were a native, the only job opportunities available was either being a servant, or plowing fields on land you didn’t own. 

 

More from this author:

 

It was the early 1700s and the VOC had grown exponentially large. They were amassing huge amounts of wealth and were getting insanely rich, thanks to spices and owning specific trade routes. It was their heyday and the company was at its prime. Business was booming and the Dutch East Indies became a prized colony. But they were also starting to gain an interest in the affairs of the natives, they stuck their noses in the local politics and diversified their business, going from trading to politicking.

So, what does this have to do with COVID-19 and vaccines? 

In 1733, a mysterious disease, called Malaria, had broken out in one of their major trading ports, Batavia, and claimed the lives of 85,000 VOC personnel. An epidemic broke out and Dutch sailors, soldiers, merchants and craftsmen stationed in Batavia dropped like flies. This put a dent in the operations of the VOC, because the death rate had climbed so high that there weren’t enough sailors to actually drive the ship back to the Netherlands. Manpower and labour were dying faster than they could deliver goods. The rulers back in the Netherlands caught wind of what was happening, and enlisted the help of medical professionals. Where they came from wasn’t an issue, but they understood the fact that this disease was harming their most precious colony and wanted someone to find a cure, by any means necessary.

Number of deceased VOC company employees in Batavia (van der Burg, 1997). Notice the sudden spike in 1733.

Soon, medical professionals, from France, Germany, the Netherlands, all came to Indonesia/Dutch East Indies…..and actually started caring about public health, and wellbeing. The European powers actually invested in medical research in all over the islands of Indonesia in hopes of finding the cure for this “Malaria” disease. The scientists that spent time researching would gather data and initiate our understanding of bacteria, viruses and pharmaceutical practices. 

Whilst all that was happening in the background, the VOC was struggling and was on the brink of bankruptcy. The government of the Netherlands saw this and decided to take over from them and colonize Indonesia themselves in 1799. Even though the VOC gradually dissolved, the doctors and scientists still stayed and continued their research. 

Indonesia was an ideal place to study diseases and even had the medicine needed to cure it. The Netherlands would open a Dutch medical institute on the street of Postweg, Bandoeng, called Parc-vaccinogène. This was one of the earliest Medical schools in Indonesia, attracting, at first, colonial doctors and scientists tasked with finding the cure for tropical diseases.

One of the earliest Biomedical Institutes in South East Asia, Parc-vaccinogène, Bandoeng.

A French doctor in 1885, named Louis Pasteur, who had been stationed in Bandoeng, found the vaccine for Rabies and opened the Institut Pasteur back in France. 

Not long after, he got a request to go back to Indonesia and visit the Dutch Medical Institute, Parc-vaccinogène, in Bandoeng to treat 14 children who had been infected with Rabies. He introduced the concept of vaccines to the institute, and he helped advance their knowledge, educating the researchers there, sharing his knowledge and developing the scientists. Soon, the institute made compelling research and groundbreaking discoveries on bacteria, parasites, viruses and how to prevent them using vaccines. 

The small Parc-vaccinogène institute, which occupied a house in Bandoeng, grew to become the Parc-vaccinogène en Instituut Pasteur. Then, after Indonesian independence, it would develop into PT. Bio Farma, which we all know today as the company that’s manufacturing and distributing the Sinovac vaccine, currently vaccinating the 270 million people of Indonesia.

Dutch and Indonesian doctors vaccinate the local population in Malang (1910).

PT. Bio Farma, is currently the only company in all of Indonesia capable of manufacturing vaccines. They are a game changer, and their capabilities and skills were all thanks to a single doctor, and the colonial ruler’s initiative to start a medical institute in the 1890s. In fact, they are one of the few companies who are qualified and own a license to produce vaccines (including the COVID-19 vaccine) in the entire world – this is legitimately confirmed by the World Health Organization.

The long legacy of European scientists and the Dutch Institute of Medicine, gave us the foundation needed to understand vaccines and how we fight viruses and diseases. It educated early doctors and scientists whose knowledge in 100 years time would pass on to fight a global pandemic for Indonesia and the world. Pasteur was just one researcher. It should also be noted that a lot of the European graduates from these institutes went on to work for pharmaceutical companies that would eventually develop the modern Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The man behind the Johnson & Johnson vaccine actually graduated from a European medical institute that was created due to colonialism in the tropics, for example.

Parc-vaccinogène en Instituut Pasteur has developed into the modern PT Bio Farma. The same building still stands with its original Dutch architecture, located in Asia-Afrika, Bandung.

In case you’re still left in the dark: Malaria killing colonialists in Indonesia led to investment in medical research, which led to scientists stationed to find a cure, and those scientists would open medical institutes, and those medical institutes would develop into the single company producing and distributing the Sinovac vaccine in Indonesia. 

Imperialism is appalling and certainly a remnant of history that most of us can put behind. What the European powers did in Asia was quiet shocking and can be difficult to wrap your head around. The major takeaway of all this is that, it’s very difficult to find a large company that does not have a blood on its legacy – the work that these companies are doing right now are saving lives, and we have to be thankful for that.