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Just asking

Publication Date : 25-12-2013


“What happens when the relief runs out?”

The man who said that was one of the victims of “Yolanda.” He was a carpenter who saw the typhoon obliterate his shanty but was thankful it did not include his wife and six children along with it. He had managed to move them in time to one of the shelters which had withstood the furious winds. In the aftermath, he had managed as well to withstand furious hunger and thirst, foraging for food and water for his family.

The relief had now become a steady stream, and by dint of enduring the long queues every day, he was getting by. There was of course no work to be found. Though the entire place was in shambles and needed rebuilding, no one was hiring carpenters. There were no materials, no tools, no money. For some, there was no sense–better to just leave for Cebu or Metro Manila and try their luck there. For others, like him, there was no way; they were stuck where they were.
Which brought out his sigh, or moan: What happens when the relief dries up?

Yolanda in fact did not just drive home the new normal, it also drove home the old normal.  The new normal of course is climate change or global warming, which has brought in its train tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, blizzards, whiteouts, hurricanes and superstorms of a scale and frequency we had not known before. The new normal said Yolanda was not the end of things, the culmination of what had gone before. It said Yolanda was just the beginning of things, the augury of things to come.

The old normal is that most of us are poor, down-and-out and desperate.

To be sure, the effects of Yolanda were exceptional. The fury of the storm did not spare anyone but assailed rich and poor alike, prince and beggar alike. It’s not every day you see devastation of this breadth and width during peacetime. True enough, it will take years before the place gets back on its feet. Some faster than others, some clinging to hope more than others. I myself know a tuba maker who is in the throes of giving up; the storm razed his coconut trees, and he doesn’t know if he has enough money or heart left to start again.

But it’s the poor who bore the brunt of it. They were the ones who had only prayer to see them through the howling winds. They were the ones frozen in the miasma of death, huddled in makeshift dwellings, walking aimlessly like zombies, having lost their homes, their loved ones and their minds.

As they have in past earthquakes, in past mudslides, in past superstorms. Arguably not in apocalyptic numbers like this, but they have been there. Yolanda merely drove home the point, but the point was already there. Hanging like a hanging coffin after every torrential downpour overruns the creeks in Metro Manila and the inhabitants of the patched-up dwellings beside them. We are poor, we are down-and-out and we are desperate. Disasters just make it visible, Yolanda just made it visible.

All this drives home as well one thing: We need to change framework, we need to shift paradigm–from being obsessed merely with achieving growth to being resolved to end poverty.

What the (re)discovery of the old normal means is the discovery of the new agenda, the new direction, the new norm. The point is not just to have more, it is to have more people have more. The point is not just to give the victims of disaster temporary relief, it is to give them permanent relief. There is no worse disaster than poverty. There are no worse victims than the poor.

This is by no means the first time this call has been made. You hear it during elections, not least during the last one when several candidates called for it: Stop being obsessed with growth, start being concerned with poverty. Unfortunately, the ones who did so, who were the officials of UNA, did so with themselves and not the poor in mind. Who did so to counter government’s record rates of growth. Even more unfortunately, the ones who did so, Erap, JPE, and Jojo Binay, all reeked of corruption: The first was jailed for it, the second stands to be jailed for it, the last could always be jailed for it. Healer, heal thyself: True enough, pag walang corrupt, walang mahirap (if there's no corruption, there's no poor).

The song however is tuneful even if the singers are out of tune. The point is not more growth, it is less poverty. The point is not wealth, it is shared wealth.

The aftermath of Yolanda lends a special urgency to it. The teeming numbers of the poor that have been left with nothing–or since they had nothing to begin with, less than nothing–lends a special urgency to it. The numbers that have just been added to the teeming numbers of the poor, the ones that have fled elsewhere apart from the ones stuck where they are, jobless, homeless and helpless, lends a special urgency to it. The ones who are trying to squeeze life from a depleted land while sighing “What happens when the relief runs out?” lend a special urgency to it.

Indeed, this time of the year imparts a special blessing to it. Why can’t we make the magnificent blast of beneficence, the epic explosion of goodwill and caring, that we’ve seen of late last a little longer, probably well into next year, probably well into forever? Why can’t we use this capacity to transcend ourselves, to be better than ourselves, to discover aspects of ourselves we had not known before to turn these transient acts of charity into something more permanent, or more, to turn these acts of charity into acts of justice? Why can’t we find in this silent night, holy night, or joyful day, riotous day, a night or day given to remembering impoverished carpenters and the glorious things they build, the insight and resolve to make this the watershed of our lives, the first day of the rest or our lives?

Just asking.

Merry Christmas, everyone.


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