The sad economics of human life is plain as day. Close to 6,000 Filipinos died just recently after super-typhoon Yolanda (a.k.a. Haiyan) struck the Philippines’ coconut growing heartland in November of this year. The Philippines made international news, the world’s great powers moved their men and steel into the disaster zone to help, top Filipino politicians grandstood, and the airwaves were flooded with sentiment that the relief effort delivered struggled to match. But then, also recently, Paul Walker of Fast and the Furious fame and Nelson Mandela of South African anti-apartheid fame died. The world was just as transfixed.
A noted social media commentator noted that there was going to be a day of mourning for Mandela, but none for the thousands of dead Yolanda victims. Yours truly chimed in and observed that neither was there any for the thousands who died when Sendong and Pablo struck in 2011 and 2012. For that matter, the tens of thousands of Filipinos that succumbed to watery graves over the last 20 years in ships run by the same company, Sulpicio Lines Inc., are but an afterthought today. They were all the Philippines’ “little people”. The ones who huddle in rickety passenger ships by the thousands every year during public holidays and school breaks. The ones that live in obscure fiefdoms tilling the land and churning out “cash crops” in value-crushing volumes for the descendants of the old sugar and coconut barons. The ones that send the country’s “unsung heroes” to desert kingdoms half a planet away to prop up the national economy and keep Henry Sy’s malls and James Packer’s casinos humming.
What is ironic here is that the people who presume to uphold the blessedness of the weakest amongst us are the same ones who viciously judge others on the basis of how much (or how little) they visibly “contribute” to one cause or another and to one relief effort or the other. Indeed, the very reason for the yawning gap between the adulation we reserve for guys like Mandela and Walker and the token concern we exhibit for our Visayan and Mindanaoan “compatriots” lies in this very judgmental character of the visibly and vocally “socially concerned”. By the logic of these “socially concerned” loudmouths, celebrities like Mandela and Walker contribute a lot to society and thus naturally attract more attention in life and more mourning in death per capita than those who (even in their vastly greater numbers) don’t contribute as much.
There’s nothing unsound about that logic, of course. The economics and the hard numbers absolutely back that thinking and calculate an inconvenient truth about the value of human life. It is the reason why per capita GDP (and not GDP in absolute terms alone) describes the real wealth of a society. The eminent Nick Joaquin himself pointed it out in his seminal piece A Heritage of Smallness observing that even for a relatively smaller amount of resources poured into an endeavour, advanced societies “pile up more mileage”.
While Walker and Mandela are tangible people we mourn, the thousands of Filipinos who died (many in preventable disasters) are, by comparison, mere abstractions.
The world lost two great men, the loud mourners wail, when Mandela and Walker died. I wonder though how much the world will “lose” when the next ten thousand Filipinos perish in the next “natural” disaster? Can the loss of thousands of Filipino lives in the next disaster be as compellingly quantified as the loss of a handful of celebrities? Well, considering that all we can rely on to buttress the memory of dead Visayans and Mindanaoans are poetry and prayer there’s really not much to look forward to. Indeed, the fact that the Philippine government and its media cheering squads would repeatedly insist that the devastation wrought by Yolanda will hardly make a dent in the Philippine economy says a lot. So, we are told, while “77% of farmers and 74% of fishermen in the central Philippines have lost their primary source of income [to the destruction wrought by Yolanda]” there really is little cause for worry…
“As many analysts and other government officials have said, the economic impact is expected to be mild,” Amando Tetangco, the governor of the Philippines’ central bank, Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas or BSP, said Friday as he spoke to foreign correspondents.
There you go. At least, in the aftermath of horrific death in 2001, the United States and its allies launched a global “war on terror” that lasted more than a decade and eventually resulted in the killing of the bogeyman. Where is the Philippines’ “war on mass death” following Yolanda’s killing spree? Numbers speak louder than poetry and prayer. Unfortunately, poetry and prayer are all Filipinos can deliver for now. The manner with which we mourn these “little people” and the resolve we exhibit to implement real measures to mitigate risk of mass death in the future will speak louder than any sort of social media “shout out” on their behalf. On account of that, I’m not holding my breath.
So far, the track record Filipinos have exhibited matching the short-lived crocodile tears they shed for their mass dead with an implementation of concrete structures to at least reduce the recurrence of death at these catastrophic scales is laughable. But that’s hardly surprising. It is no secret that many Filipinos loudly observe (as many foreigners undoubtedly do silently) that life is cheap in the Philippines. Two men in recent days sent the world in a frenzy of social media mourning and lament while the same noise afforded the Yolanda victims is in its dying throes as the Silly Season and its more pressing distractions approaches.
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