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Corpses, corruption

Publication Date : 04-12-2013


At the University of the Philippines we have a team of social scientists who are now beginning to gather stories from survivors of Supertyphoon “Yolanda” to derive lessons for future disaster responses.

The most vivid, and horrendous, accounts from survivors in Tacloban City are about the many corpses, bloated and contorted beyond recognition, lying in the streets for nearly two weeks. People from there also told me that it was the stench, lingering to the point where you become desensitised to it, and yet returning whenever you’d see a corpse.

There were fears about the corpses triggering epidemics which, it turns out, were not scientifically based. The World Health Organisation has many documents on disaster management pointing out that corpses do not pose public health hazards. Ironically, it’s the living that becomes the problem, since the pathogens—disease-causing bacteria and viruses—need live humans to be able to survive, and to spread.
In the end, the corpses’ harm was more political than anything else, as they came to represent government neglect.

In times of war, corpses left in the streets represent a defeated army, a vanquished people unable to bury their dead because they are still trapped by fear and overwhelmed by their own need to survive. The victors in wars know how important it is to keep the corpses out and unburied—daily reminders of defeat. In many cases, the corpses would not just be left in the streets but were put up for display with the grim message: “This too will be your fate if you resist us.”

The corpses become part of a systematic reign of terror, as the victors plunder and pillage. Rape, too, of both women and men, becomes an important tool of asserting one’s domination over a people, as well as of spreading fear.

No war
In Tacloban there was no war, no enemy, but the corpses were devastating for other reasons. Each day the corpses remained in the streets created more resentment, fuelling the feelings of neglect even after aid began to pour in. Then, too, there were the stories going around, many exaggerated, about looting and rape. In such a situation, the corpses became dreadful omens of bad times turning worse, creating feelings of helplessness and despair amid new dangers, real or imagined. It was not surprising that many of the descriptions of the looters and rapists referred to them as “outsiders,” looking different from Tacloban residents, making it seem like the city had been invaded.

The corpses also created a paradoxical situation where people on one hand resented the neglect of the dead, and yet were reluctant to bury the bodies themselves. Some of the survivors were still scouring the city, looking for missing relatives from among the corpses. On the other hand, those who had found their loved ones from among the corpses were reluctant to have the dead buried in mass or makeshift graves, fearing they would not be able to find the graves after the situation had returned to normal.

There was one similarity to war situations: The corpses came to represent, with time, a kind of creeping defeat of Tacloban—a dead Tacloban.

Now that the corpses are being buried, and relief and rehabilitation programmes are ongoing, memories of the corpses will stay on, this time amid new laments and allegations of corruption. Like the burial of the dead, the slowness of responses stems mainly from inefficiency, but in times of urgent needs, that inefficiency fuels tales of corruption and, again, government neglect and callousness.  The stench from the corpses, too, comes to represent “baho ng gobyerno”—the symbolic foul odor of government.

And the worst consequence of all this is that the more people complain about government neglect, the less initiative they have to help themselves and their neighbors. Future disaster management programs will have to consider all these political and cultural angles. Meanwhile, in the relief and rehabilitation, psychologists should be processing the survivors’ memories of the corpses, with all the political meanings.


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