Immunity to calamities

Of the first images of the devastating power that Supertyphoon “Yolanda” bore as it barreled through the Visayan islands, what struck me most was the grainy footage of the frenzied swaying of chandeliers in an old cathedral in Leyte whose roof was torn piece by piece by the howling wind. Throughout the day, television stations had seemed hard-pressed to show scenes of massive destruction that somehow would match the worldwide attention Yolanda had garnered even before it made landfall.

The memorable footage was taken by a GMA-7 crew that had sought shelter from the storm inside the church. To me, it dramatically captured the essential aspects of our traumatic encounters with Nature—our helplessness in the face of its frightening power, and our unshakable faith that, in spite of everything, we will be saved.

If we look a little more closely at what has just happened—based on the reports—we may find that while the destruction of property has been immense, the loss in human life seems nowhere near what had been feared. I say this partly as a wish, vaguely aware that heavily-populated Tacloban City in Leyte and Roxas City in Capiz have been badly hit.

Since power and communication lines in these provinces are still down as of this writing, we don’t know yet the full scale of the destruction caused by this monstrous typhoon.  The latest news is that over 100 people have perished in Tacloban alone. But, even as we grieve, it is worth recalling that in November 1984, Typhoon “Undang” left almost 900 people dead after it slammed across Samar, Panay and Leyte. We can only be grateful for small mercies and learn to see the bright lining in the darkest tragedies.

My hope is that the dead and the injured would be much less in number than we anticipated given the extraordinary strength of this typhoon and the path it took. There was, to be sure, a great element of luck here. So powerful were Yolanda’s winds that, even as she made several landfalls, she went away as swiftly as she came—as though she were headed somewhere else and was only passing through. She stayed on track and didn’t linger. There were no other weather systems in the horizon to complicate her journey.

She arrived not a minute sooner—not under cover of darkness, like other typhoons, but just as daylight was breaking. This meant that residents in the affected areas had every opportunity to find refuge in safe places. Most important of all, although she gathered unprecedented strength while traversing the Pacific Ocean, Yolanda didn’t carry with her a lot of rain. From experience, we know that it is torrential rain, with the killer floods and mudslides it triggers, that tends to multiply the number of fatalities.

Still, I would argue that, more than luck, it is practice founded on learning that spells the greatest difference between survival and tragedy, and between being crippled by crisis and being able to rise from it. That is the whole significance behind the need for drills and exercises. We have gone through so many tough challenges, indeed perhaps more than our fair share of Nature’s catastrophic events, that our daily routines as a people have become, by themselves, survival drills. Under the circumstances in which we live, only the most foolish would fail to learn how to parry Nature’s blows.

As a result, I think most Filipinos have mastered the art of suffering. Our personal psychology revolves around the virtue of overcoming adversity. We are generally unfazed by misfortune. We adapt to it as if it were living’s default mode. As the average overseas Filipino worker abundantly shows, we take unimaginable risks working in the most unfamiliar places in the world as though it were the most natural thing to do.

Yet, as a country, we seem chronically unable to translate this gift into a source of collective strength. At best we internalize it within our respective families, but seldom do we cultivate it at the level of the local and national community. And so when we say we lack discipline as a people, what we are acknowledging is our inability to coordinate our efforts and move as a unified social system. We have clearly failed to develop those tools by which we may collectively manage Nature’s fury. In contrast, when the killer tsunami hit Japan two years ago, that nation moved as one in the aftermath of the disaster. But, interestingly, I learned that, in Sendai, when everyone else was panicking in the face of the rising tide, it was the Filipino women who kept calm and instantly became the pillars of strength in the Japanese families into which they had married.

Over the years, we have learned how to survive under very real exigencies. We have had no time for disaster drills and education. Nature itself has kept us on our toes, throwing a variety of challenges in our direction almost as if it were preparing us for the big thing. Slowly, we are learning to heed warnings and instructions, to prepare for disasters as communities, and shield ourselves from danger. We have become more conscious of new epidemics that come in the wake of natural calamities. We are learning to take stock of the collective resources at our disposal, and to offer spontaneous leadership and organization when our formal institutions fail to respond. Most importantly, we are learning to befriend Nature.

The philosopher Peter Sloterdijk calls these forms of competencies “anthropotechnics”—strengths acquired through repetitive practice that enhances our performance for the next challenge. It was these, I think, that Yolanda tested and brought to the fore the other day.

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