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No Free Lunch

Of sheep and goats

We’ve heard it said that disasters and crises have a way of bringing out the best in people. But there’s another side to it as well: It can also bring out the worst in others. Times like this bring out people’s basest instincts and true character, and reveal whether selfishness or true caring and sharing rules in their hearts and minds.

By now, many of us know or have taken part in exemplary acts of compassion amidst the COVID-19 crisis. The virtual lockdown in the island of Luzon has spurred numerous groups and individuals to initiate direct assistance for those severely affected. Many immediately moved to help provide food and basic needs for families of “no-work-no-pay” workers rendered without income by the forced loss of their livelihoods. At the University of the Philippines Los Baños campus, the stoppage of domestic transport stranded hundreds of students from other provinces in their dormitories. On top of that, the closure of most restaurants and eateries deprived them of their usual sources of inexpensive meals. Many of my Los Baños townmates were quick to respond, as individuals or groups, to the university authorities’ call for assistance for the students, in the form of meals, food, and basic needs in the midst of store closures.

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Carla May Beriña-Kim, a young mother of three who I was once privileged to work with, decided on her own to help feed our heroic frontline health workers in hospitals around Metro Manila, well before other similar initiatives for health workers began to snowball. “I imagine that they can hardly rest or go home to their families because they have to attend to so many people in need, particularly amidst the COVID-19 scare,” she posted on social media. “These brave men and women risk their lives every single day. Let’s help them so they can continue to do the important work they’re doing for thousands of patients in medical facilities.” She went on to call on owners of restaurants, catering businesses, transport and delivery services; people who could help identify deserving hospitals or health centers; and potential contributors of funds or time to help in her campaign.

Within 24 hours, Carla had single-handedly raised tens of thousands of pesos through a crowd-funding platform and online bank deposits, and small businesses had signed up to her initiative. Days later, packed meals for health frontliners were already being delivered at the Philippine Heart Center, then the East Avenue Medical Center. As of this writing, more than a dozen hospitals are on Carla’s list, and responses from beneficiaries and donors to the initiative have been affirming. In a heartwarming message, a hospital worker texted: “Sobrang happy sila sa food, na finally nakatikim din ng iba after days of corned beef… ma’am thank you.” One donor wrote: “I chose to donate to you because other fundraisers are so commercialized and it’s all about brands. Yours is more personal, you have my support. God bless you more.”

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There are countless other individual or organized acts of kindness around us that COVID-19 has spurred, which can convince us all of the inherent goodness in ordinary Filipinos’ hearts. This makes it all the more disappointing, and indeed infuriating, to hear of top public (supposed) servants either asserting entitlement or seeking political mileage under current circumstances brought about by a virus that has afflicted prince and pauper alike. News of government leaders demanding priority testing, including for their families, ahead of more urgent patients, has been met with public disgust. It was particularly galling to see top officials, known to be driven in their luxury cars, pose with a sign likening themselves to health care frontliners, many of whom had been forced by lack of public transport to walk for hours to get to work. And then there are those local politicians who just can’t pass up the opportunity to promote themselves as they hand out food and basic needs to needy constituents, in contrast to others who have done the responsibility sans fanfare, and in true public service.

It’s indeed a time when the Biblical distinction between sheep and goats becomes clear in the eyes of all.

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