Is the Philippines, as a society, really concerned about the huge humanitarian crisis that continues to fester in its central region following the devastation left by super-typhoon Haiyan (a.k.a. Yolanda)? Or is it, as is becoming quite evident, simply moving its focus to more interesting and intriguing issues? Fact is, the poor are not the drivers of human history. It is the rich and the aristocracy whose stories get told from which much of historical insight on politics, culture, economics, and science are gleaned. In the Philippines, this is specially true — even where very little of such sorts of insight is ever harvested.
As I write this, the plight of the victims of Haiyan is fast fading into the background of the national consciousness. Stories related to the on-going humanitarian crisis there are getting less and less airtime in the media. Indeed, the only “outrage” being loudly issued over the failure of the state to step up is coming from a tiny minority of Philippine society — so-called activists and socially-aware netizens — who attempt to apply Western standards of indignation to the issue.
Yet if we look even just a short way back in our history, we will find that the last two and a half decades is blighted by similar tragedies, some of them even more appalling than what befell Tacloban. Have the underlying factors that contributed to the horrifying scale of death and destruction in those ones been recognised and addressed? Suffice to say, most of the ingredients that contributed (and will likely contribute again) to the scale of the Haiyan disaster had been around and remained largely un-addressed despite decades of experience with such disasters from which important lessons should have been learned.
Why is it that such forgetfulness routinely flattens the Filipino’s learning curve?
Simple: Because the victims of these disasters are made up of the poor and inconsequential.
We’ve seen how the Philippines’ poor — even when they die in vast numbers — remain but a mere background to the lofty concerns of the powerful and influential. In this most recent instance, these poor victims served as mere backdrops to the on-going feud between the Romualdez and Aquino-Cojuangco clans. Such is the banality of the inconsequential place poor Filipinos occupy in the hierarchy of social priorities in this country that Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) Secretary Mar Roxas found nothing wrong with explicitly highlighting this feudal rivalry while discussing relief operations with Tacloban City Mayor Alfred Romualdez, pointing out that the Aquinos and Cojuangcos currently occupy Malacañang while the mayor is “a Romualdez”.
Seen from the eyes of the “socially aware”, this behaviour in their top officials is certainly an abomination. But then who are we to judge from our ivory towers? The Philippines to ordinary Filipinos, after all, remains a society vastly different from what we from our lofty perches expect it to be. It is one that is inherently unjust and lacks compassion in a profound and consistent enough form that could sustain a focus on anticipating and mitigating risk to the well-being of its most vulnerable people. And its leaders reflect this collective character to a tee — because they are products of the popular vote. No amount of willing Philippine society to subscribe to the way we think (around the lofty egalitarian, secular, and social justice ideals of the West) will change this any time soon.
It is likely that ordinary Filipinos see nothing wrong with feudal politics playing a key role in government operations during even the most pressing emergencies. Ordinary Filipinos, after all, are completely sold on the concept of their leaders’ being family members first and custodians of the public trust a far second. Why else would they vote their leaders into office on the basis of family ties? It is because ordinary Filipinos have knowing the smallness of their place in their society deeply-ingrained in their minds so much so that they inherently understand that, like them, politicians will always put family first.
Philippine President Benigno Simeon “BS” Aquino III himself is a beneficiary of that sort of thinking. Indeed, BS Aquino ascended the presidency on the back of that very sort of primitive thinking — his pedigree as only son of illustrious “national heroes”. Filipinos voted BS Aquino president back in 2010 because, well, he is an Aquino as Roxas himself pointed out to Romualdez in late 2013 as the stench of rotting corpses filled the air of Tacloban.
And so now here we are expressing “indignation” over the way family politics has taken over the Haiyan crisis in central Philippines, failing to see the irony in the manner with which we had originally selected the very leaders who, we point out, now put family above duty.
The failure to serve the victims of Haiyan is, yet again, just another case of Filipinos sowing what they reap.
[Photo courtesy Reuters.]
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