Death by lightning
In the past two weeks alone, at least 147 people have been killed in the North Indian state of Bihar due to lightning strikes, raising predictions and fears that climate change is worsening the fatal threat posed by a phenomenon that most of us associate more with Thor and Zeus than with personal safety and public health.
“Tamaan man ako ng kidlat (Even if lightning strikes me),” people say to preface their solemn oaths or professions of love; most of us encounter lightning bolts not in open water or field, but in Marvel movies and Final Fantasy fights. Or we may encounter them in novels, as when one reads of Saeki-san in Murakami’s “Kafka on the Shore,” who interviewed lightning survivors and wrote a book about it. Indeed, although we do hear of reports of people getting killed by lightning, many of us still perceive them as “freak accidents” that’s “one in a million.”
As it turns out, lightning strikes in the Philippines have received a fair amount of news coverage over the years, and we can learn some insights about them from the mostly brief reports often filed in newspapers’ regional sections.
On June 22, 2019, for instance, cousins Jimboy Magsino Lora and Jericho Compra Lora, both 18, were hit by lightning in a mountainous part of Sta. Elena, Camarines Norte. Apparently, there was no signal in their house so they went up the mountain so they could play Mobile Legends — an online mobile game. News reports latched onto this fact, implying the absurdity of dying while playing a mobile game, with social media comments blaming the boys for not being careful. Perhaps there would have been more sympathy had the boys sought internet signal to do a school assignment.
Or, if the boys were working, like 58-year-old Diosdado Sabenorio who was killed by a lightning strike while fishing on May 23, 2019, in Carigara Bay, Leyte; 42-year-old Zaldy Marfil, who was similarly killed while harvesting palay on Sept. 11, 2019, in Moises Padilla, Negros Occidental; and 35-year-old Maria Jendeliza Monteza, who was likewise fatally struck by lightning while gathering seashells on Nov. 24, 2019, in Panglao, Bohol.
Or, if, instead of playing a mobile game, they were simply playing a game, like the two girls, one 16, another 15, who were similarly killed by lightning in Mapandan, Pangasinan, just last May 26 (alongside two others in the province around the same time). The girls, alas, were reportedly stranded during the community quarantine and had not been able to come home to Metro Manila.
All of the above incidents, and many others over the past years, show that lightning strikes people in various activities of everyday life — working, walking, resting, riding a habal-habal, or seeking shelter from the rain. But it is sensational details like playing a mobile game or talking to someone on a phone that are most likely to be highlighted. (As an anthropologist, I think it would be insightful to explore how people make sense of these incidents, and what they make of the victims).
They also show that fatal lightning strikes are actually quite common in rural areas around the country, and most of the victims are poor (India tallies over 2,000 lightning deaths a year; we do not have such statistics). On rare occasions, there would be reports of tourists getting killed, such as one in Siargao last year — but, at least in the Philippines, the great majority are those in marginalized communities where people are most vulnerable to the elements. This pattern mirrors the situation in India, where the victims have mostly been farmers, cattle grazers, and laborers.
Could it be that, despite bad weather, many of them felt compelled to work, and that, in any case, the very nature of work made them vulnerable to lightning? Could it be that they were too far from hospitals where they could have received life-saving care? If so, what are we doing to address — and prevent — these incidents? When a 14-year-old boy was struck by lightning on Sept. 22, 2018, in Brgy. Salaan, Zamboanga City, a report noted that it took an hour for him to be brought to a hospital, “due to unavailability of transportation.”
Lightning deaths may strike us as a matter of luck and mythic misfortune, but there is nothing romantic about their power; nothing unusual in their violence — especially in our age of climate crisis. If anything, they illuminate preexisting inequities, and the less-than-spectacular hazards faced by people at the mercy not just of nature, but also of modern-day gods.
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