A delicate time

Disasters in search of causes, victims in search of villains, and benevolence in search of recognition. They are all part of the aftermath each time a natural catastrophe of mind-boggling proportions hits our country. It is when we are brought back to existential issues: the inexplicability of human suffering, the chaos of nature, the fragility of life. We pause, and we are prompted to review our institutions, our beliefs, our manners.

It is also a dangerous time in another sense.  It is when our minds are most susceptible to superstition and intrigue, when reason takes a back seat, and culture requires that mourning and sympathy take precedence over everything.

I remember how then President Cory Aquino was singled out by her political enemies for being “malas”—the source of the people’s misfortunes. A succession of natural calamities had fallen upon the country. It began with Typhoon “Sisang” in November 1987, which killed almost a thousand people. This was followed by the destructive Luzon earthquake of July 1990 that reduced much of Baguio to rubble and left more than 1,500 people dead. The following year, 1991, the country took successive blows from two of the deadliest calamities in recent memory. In June, the long-dormant and little-known Mt. Pinatubo Volcano that straddles Central Luzon exploded with devastating fury, throwing up tons of pyroclastic material that in later years buried entire communities in mud. In November of that same year, exactly 20 years ago, Typhoon “Uring” blew across Ormoc in Leyte, causing floods that killed about 8,000 people.

Between the military coups and the natural calamities, it was hard to tell which disaster hobbled the Edsa 1 government more. The sense of panic they triggered was enough to take away the luster from people power. The wonder of it all is that even educated people began to think of Cory as synonymous with calamity.

If elections for a new president had not been scheduled for 1992, it would have been necessary to invent them. Cory seemed exhausted and could not wait to hand power over to her successor. When she finished her term, hardly anyone cared to give her credit for nurturing the nation’s democratic institutions in a time of great political peril. Her presidency came to be equated with man-made and natural disasters—power interruptions, coups, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, killer floods and destructive typhoons.

If he doesn’t tread carefully, P-Noy could fall victim to the same pattern of mendacious intrigue that today can go easily viral because of social media. We are beginning to see signs of this in recent commentary. He is being attacked for attending a Christmas party of the Presidential Security Group, the soldiers who protect the President, instead of immediately flying to Cagayan de Oro and Iligan to comfort the victims of Storm Sendong. Undersecretary Benito Ramos of the National Disaster Management Council is being criticized for suggesting that communities in the affected areas might not have been as heedful of typhoon warnings as they should have been because Mindanao was not in the usual path of tropical cyclones. The Department of Social Welfare and Development is being assailed for its slowness in providing relief to Sendong’s victims.

It is not difficult to get the impression that indeed the government is nowhere to be found in the ongoing relief efforts, which appear to be primarily led by private initiative. What do we see or hear when we turn on the television or the radio? We hear local officials appealing to the public for food, water, clothes, blankets and coffins. It is as if their first line of communication is to private donors and not to the government of which they are a part.

We see private individuals and organizations jostling to be among the first to distribute relief goods, each one typically insisting that they handle the distribution themselves. We see every media network scrambling to launch their respective solicitation campaigns, and likewise conduct their own distribution.  Though admirable, the race to do good, when done without coordinating with public agencies, usually creates the impression that government is not doing its work.

Contrast this with the way a country like Japan responds to its own abundant share of natural calamities. First of all, one cannot fail to note the civilized restraint in the way media depicts the scale of the destruction and the loss in human lives. One is never assaulted by close-up pictures of corpses; what registers on TV screens instead is the unbearable grief of communities in a desolate landscape. Secondly, victims are not prompted by media to voice their desperate need for basic things. Their eloquence is reserved for their grief and sometimes their own guilt at being spared while their loved ones have perished. Thirdly, we never see relief distribution being turned into photo opportunities. Generosity never comes at the expense of the recipients’ dignity.  Donors do not imagine themselves to be the bearers of the resources of survival, nor do they get in the way of the organized efforts of government.

Of course, there are good reasons for wanting to give help directly to the victims. We tend not to trust people in government. We see them all as self-serving politicians who cannot rise above their personal agenda. But, if true, do we not also become a little like that when we become obsessed with documenting our benevolence and hearing the beneficiaries’ profuse acknowledgment of their debt of gratitude?