There is a cost to everything — even to free stuff. Those community pantry initiatives springing up all over the Philippines are good. But there is no such thing as a free lunch, in this case literally. I touched on one such cost of the proliferation of these community pantries to society in my previous article where I highlight how Philippine Opposition partisans struggling with an acute crisis of relevance even as the 2022 elections loom in the horizon have all but thrown dishonest political shade on an otherwise noble concept. As a result, instead of further uniting Filipinos around what were intended to be local-community-level projects, the concept had become the centre of a degenerated national “debate”. It is proving to be a cost to democracy because it diverts from conversation surrounding strategic direction and mires the best “minds” of the Opposition in inconsequential quibbles.
As the old saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Because of the unnecessary attention attracted by community pantry initiatives, it is now beset by the scourge of unintended consequences. One such unintended consequence is how these are now being swamped by individuals — and even entire families — joining the queue to partake of all that free stuff on offer. So now a distribution model that works at a neighbourhood level is now subject to the demands of a barangay (district) level and possibly beyond. The question of sustainability becomes relevant. What if demand outstrips supply? Zena Bernardo, mother of Ana Patricia Non who started Maginhawa Community Pantry which is reportedly now swamped by an enormous — and growing — queue of patrons laments, “that if there are other people who are capable and willing to organize community pantries along Maginhawa Street, overcrowding would be avoided.” This follows concerns aired by some members of her neighbourhood over risks associated with the large crowds that gather on their street, often as early as the break of dawn.
This brings us to the next social cost of initiatives that involve doling out free stuff. Can community pantries survive the notorious Filipino Condition? There is a danger that, as desperation creeps further into the fabric of Philippine society, an even more virulent sense of entitlement to charity could take root in the Filipino psyche. Remember that big social problems like the vast squatter colonies that engulf much of Metro Manila and the jeepney infestation that holds public transportation in the megalopolis hostage all started as small acts of neighbourhood level altruism and stopgap instances of “Filipino ingenuity”. These and other scourges remain a stark reminder to all that there is no underestimating the Filipino’s capacity to pervert once-noble ideas and turn them into practically incurable social cancers. Indeed, one need look no further into history for case studies of this condition than the infamous Wowowee Stampede of 2006 where an enormous crowd of fans of the iconic ABS-CBN show trampled upon one another hoping for a chance to bag the free tickets and big prizes its host Willie Revillame dangled before them. The disaster left 88 dead. Not having learned from that lesson, as recently as January this year, fans also clustered dangerously close together — defying social distancing guidelines — to queue for dole outs on the occasion of Revillame’s birthday.
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Most important of all, once Filipinos get used to these stopgap workarounds and institutionalise them (the way squatters and jeepneys are now, themselves, institutions — even pillars — of Philippine society), those who seek to take them away become the bad guys. This is why squatters and jeepneys are now an intractable social problem — because no politician (even those who want to kick off modern housing and public transport initiatives) wants to be seen to be the bad guy who will put an end to all this parasitism. The same can be said of what community pantries, given a big enough dose of the same perversion that was worked into the squatter and jeepney infestation, could become. Are community pantries deadly stampedes waiting to happen? Only time will tell.
Finally, there is the question of whether Filipinos are really cut-out to be good community members. Indicative to answering this question is in the character of the average Filipino residential community. Just walking down even a middle-class street in Metro Manila, one would surely notice how most houses stand behind tall perimeter walls (often with shards of glass cemented to their top edges) with steel grills installed on every window. Step back even further and one will realise that the rich all live in fortified gated communities patrolled by heavily armed private armies. That says something of the sort of “community” Filipinos form. Indeed, if those who now politicise community pantries to oblivion are really sincere about the way they pat one another’s backs assuring themselves of just what an excellent society the Philippines has become “in protest of the Duterte government”, they should stop to think again. If bayanihan is truly alive in the Philippines, then there shouldn’t be any walls dividing the country’s rich and poor, no armed private armies patrolling subdivisions and guarding Seven Elevens, and no wide and deep gulf between the quality of public services enjoyed and suffered by the rich and poor respectively.
Would you leave your bicycle unchained on a Manila street corner while you duck into a store for even just two minutes to buy a soda? The answer to that question tells us what sort of society the Philippines really is. More disturbing is that it gives an indication of what small community initiatives that dole out free stuff — specially ones hopelessly politicised by dishonest partisan and terrorist camps — may ultimately become.
At the very least, Filipinos should be left to engage in good acts of contribution to civic life without these being hijacked to dishonest political ends. Community pantries are not “protest actions” as we are led to believe by “activists” and “thought leaders” of the Opposition. They are just Filipinos trying to do good to others within their small individual spaces. Your space is yours alone. Don’t let dishonest “activists” and, most specially, their terrorist henchmen take that away from you.
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