Callous words from the Prez
For a country that is accustomed to the yearly battering of violent storms, the Philippines was struck by Typhoon “Ompong” (international name: Mangkhut) in a severe way, with flooding and landslides in northern Luzon.
The strongest typhoon yet to hit the country this year packed gale-force winds that uprooted trees and ripped off roofs, as well as torrential rains that weakened the earth and triggered massive soil movements, killing people and burying others alive.
In Itogon, Benguet, which is known for the small-scale mining of gold, what happened at Barangay Ucab was particularly harrowing: An entire hillside fell on a miners’ bunkhouse.
A feverish rescue effort by soldiers, policemen and volunteers was hampered by the lack of electricity as power lines had been toppled by Ompong.
Volunteers had formed a human chain to move the debris from where the bunkhouse used to be, but time was running out. By Wednesday the death toll had risen to 45, with 59 still missing, and hopes for more survivors began to dim even as a pet dog was found alive in the rubble.
“We believe that those people there, maybe 99 percent, are already dead…” Itogon Mayor Victorio Palangdan was quoted as saying.
Still, he said, the search for both the living and the dead would continue “until [the rescuers] surrender. There are relatives among the rescuers who are still hoping they will be able to find their kin alive.”
Occasions like this drive observers to peevishly wonder why small miners continue to ply their trade despite the deadly risks — until it is pointed out that mining is their livelihood.
It’s an age-old conundrum with which the impoverished are familiar: “kapit sa patalim” — a way of life that involves gripping the knife edge in trying to survive.
But there is more that adds to the anguish of the bereaved, and to the peevish wonder of observers.
What happened in Itogon is lamentable, but so are President Duterte’s initial remarks on it.
In an earlier visit to Laoag, where he was briefed on the progress of Ompong and the damage it had wrought, Mr. Duterte commented on the tragedy of the landslide thus: “There is an evolving story sa Itogon, Barangay Ucab. Forty-three persons doon, nag-collapse yung church. Kaya nga ito eh, alam mo, sir, sa totoo lang, kung pinalitan ninyo yung pari diyan, di magbagsak yan.” (Forty-three persons were there when the church collapsed. That’s why, sir, you know, really, if you had replaced your priest, the church wouldn’t have collapsed.)
Truly callous comments, those, and coming from the President who had bestirred himself to check on his stricken constituents.
Callous, and also inaccurate, because the two Catholic Churches in the area — Our Lady of Fatima and Ucab Parish Church — are both still standing after the storm.
It appeared that the “church” Mr. Duterte referred to was a bunkhouse converted into the United Church Fellowship chapel, where police say 11 church members were trapped.
Yet this is a remarkably misplaced, if downright inappropriate, statement issued by the President, who appeared to be continuing his verbal assault on the Catholic Church in a place of unfortunate death and destruction at the cost of both accuracy and propriety.
How far would he go in waging his war against the Church that has repeatedly criticized his policies?
To compound matters, no clarification has yet been made regarding this mysterious collapsed church and the priest who is the supposed cause of it.
Mr. Duterte’s spokesperson Harry Roque has switched to automatic mode in interpreting his principal’s statements: “Let us not take his word always literally,” Roque told reporters.
To be sure, Mr. Duterte has taken pains to visit some of the landslide victims’ relatives. But he is the President, after all, and that is something he is expected to do, even as authorities continue their last-ditch efforts to find survivors and eventually go on to the process of rebuilding.
But what to make of his words, which were not only unrelated to the disaster at hand but were also petty, strange, and utterly insensitive, and which served to make a terrible incident all the worse?
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