Words of comfort
Gripped in a crisis the dimensions of which are unprecedented and therefore frighteningly unknown, people naturally look to government for comfort. They are floundering and have to regain their footing. They need to be apprised of the enemy and of the ways, if any are planned, to bring it to heel.
In these desperate times when people all over the planet are dropping like flies in the face of the novel coronavirus, Filipinos are looking to government for reassurance—and coming away bewildered and disappointed. Now more than ever, reasonable and reassuring words from leaders acquire a singular importance, especially when government actions are late in coming or are distressingly lacking, or, in certain critical instances, are nonexistent.
Locked down Filipinos are expectant when it is announced that President Duterte will address the nation. Despite his brusque demeanor vis-à-vis the COVID-19 pandemic, behaving in the early days as a siga mayor slapping the virus around like some drunk getting rowdy in his city, his words are awaited for the crucial information they may possibly provide for the safe conduct of daily life. That he thinks nothing of making the nation wait interminably to listen to what he has to say—more than seven hours on Monday—demonstrates an indifference to, indeed a high degree of contempt for, his public. Let them stew, he seems to be saying. I’ve got all night, and all day.
It’s been that way since he announced the lockdown mid-March, with Filipinos coming away from his late-night monologues hardly edified and rolling their eyes. But on Monday, when his taped message was finally aired close to midnight and he let drop his strange words of praise for fallen medical personnel, public incredulity, and then revulsion, came swiftly.
How lucky they were to die for their country—the only reason, Mr. Duterte said, for dying: “May mga doktor na, mga nurses, attendants, namatay. Sila ’yung nasawi ang buhay para lang makatulong as kapwa. Napakaswerte nila. Namatay sila para sa bayan. Iyon ang dapat ang rason na bakit tayo mamatay.” He went on to add: “It would be an honor to die for your country, I assure you.”
In fact, the medical personnel who perished as a result of laboring at the frontlines of the war on COVID-19 did not have to make the ultimate sacrifice. These men and women of courage and high intellect did not have to lay down their lives for the motherland had their government ensured their protection against a virulence that continues to threaten their ranks as we speak. Their country needs their services more than ever, and is truly bereft by their passing. Their spouses and children, their elderly parents, their siblings, friends, and others who love them, including their patients, did not have to be so grievously orphaned.
It’s true that theirs was an honorable death, which is something every decent human being aspires for. But they did not have to be felled like this, away from their loved ones’ embrace and absent the traditional rituals necessary for their families to vanquish sorrow and move forward, had their government had the foresight to take the urgent proactive steps early on even if those steps offended China. Then those fallen medical personnel would have gone about their sworn duty fully armed with the tools of their profession and the protective equipment provided by their government—and not with the certainty that they were a goner.
Presidents are constantly called upon to exercise leadership and statesmanship, and especially so during times of crisis: That’s the nature of the beast. In the United States, it’s said that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt got the American people through two of the gravest crises in modern history—the Great Depression in the 1930s and World War II in 1939-45—with the help of a series of speeches regularly aired on radio.
“Fireside chats,” the speeches were called, although he delivered them behind a desk at the White House on which lay mics of the various news networks. The term, coined by a reporter, conveyed the sense of comfort evoked by FDR in regularly addressing his constituents and discussing such pressing matters as unemployment, the drought plaguing farming, and the war against fascism in Europe.
It is of course futile to dare hope for anything like it in these parts.
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