Habagat season is once again upon us, and so are tropes celebrating the “Filipino spirit.” As in calamities past, photos of people smiling amid floodwaters, managing to laugh in their rooftops, materialize in our newspapers and newsfeeds at this time, as if to show that, despite the hardships, everything’s all right.
At the individual level, there’s nothing wrong with this narrative: It is certainly true that Filipinos manage to smile even in the direst of circumstances. But to equate smiling faces with resilience, and ending the story at that, is problematic for a number of reasons.
In the first place, smiling can very well be superficial and say nothing of people’s real emotions. We know this to be true in our everyday lives: No matter how reluctant we are to be photographed, no matter how annoyed, sad or tired we are, we find ourselves smiling when the camera is upon us. Indeed, the ability to smile is the poorest barometer of the state of someone’s emotions.
Secondly, granting that Filipinos can genuinely laugh or smile amid disaster, it is still problematic because it speaks of how disasters have become normalized in people’s mindsets. Perhaps floods have become so common that people no longer question their occurrence; perhaps they have grown accustomed to wading or even swimming in them, the health risks notwithstanding.
People regarding calamity as part of everyday life can’t be good, because it will keep them from demanding something better.
Thirdly, viewing people’s happy resignation as resilience detracts attention from the conditions that necessitate such “resilience” in the first place. In the case of floods, we can point to a number of reasons, most of them inconvenient — from the decimation to our forests to the uncontrolled development that have all but destroyed our ecosystems, from the misuse of funds to a general failure of planning and leadership.
Finally, the narrative of individual resilience can often omit the question of who needs it. When we speak of the “Filipino spirit,” we often refer to the poor and marginalized; no one will ever call the rich “resilient,” because they never need to be such. To misrecognize victimhood as “resilience” is to ignore how disasters reflect and reinforce social inequalities.
Disasters can devastate even the most advanced and best-prepared countries. Just recently, we saw how parts of Japan were struck by heavy floods. Especially in light of climate change, we should not underestimate the power of this “Filipino spirit” to carry us through calamitous times.
But at some point, we have to stop romanticizing resilience, and start demanding answers — why Filipinos, especially the poor and the marginalized, have to be “resilient” in the first place.
True resilience entails not just smiles, but blood, sweat and tears: that is, the labor of building capacity among communities to deal with natural hazards, and of strengthening our sense of national solidarity. It also requires science and technology — the kind that Project Noah exemplified; these efforts must be defended, not defunded. Moreover, Marikina’s commendable use of modular tents shows that just as important in disaster response is cultural and gender sensitivity.
Finally, true resilience requires leadership and long-term commitment from all levels of government. Because major disasters may not happen during the term of a mayor or a president, allocating resources for them may not be politically attractive; but this is exactly why we need transcendental leadership. Only when leaders are able to look beyond their political fortunes can we respond to the critical challenges of our time.
Again, I’m not saying that we should stop smiling amid hardship; the “Filipino spirit” can certainly be a source of strength in moments of crisis. But we need to be critical of the ways in which, in the process of celebrating individual “resilience,” we lose sight of the larger work of managing risks and mitigating disasters.
It may be “heartwarming” to see Filipinos smiling despite the floods, but what should really warm our hearts is the sight of Filipinos safe and dry in their own homes.
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