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Keep them from drowning

Tears flow aplenty in this season of grief. But the thing to do is to stop crying, you tell yourself. Stop crying for the couple in their 80s in Alcala, Cagayan, whose lives were upended by the great flood. Stop shedding tears over the evening newscast showing the frail woman disembarking from the truck that took her and others from the evacuation center to a point where they had to negotiate the way home on foot, barefoot, the mud and all manner of debris making short shrift of their flimsy footwear.

Home is tiny but, mirabile dictu, still standing in the muck. The TV camera recording the evacuees’ trip back does not direct its intrusive gaze inside, giving the viewer full rein to imagine the horror within.

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Standing before their home, their auras leaning each to each, the couple in their 80s look into the camera and try to explain how they will live, having lost nearly everything. He stayed behind to guard the house, scrambling up to the roof when the water rose and staying there for four days until it ebbed, subsisting on God knows what. She was forced to leave him to flee to the evacuation center along with their children, grandkids, neighbors, others.

It was the first time in their life together that they were separated.

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They speak haltingly, he brushing vaguely at his eyes, she looking calmly into the distance when he says he does not quite know where to begin picking up where they left off. Her worn, lined face indicates a lifetime of toil but fails to hide her good looks—the flower, you think, “born to blush unseen/ and waste its sweetness on the desert air.”

The couple’s middle-aged son, who lives next door, is bewildered at what they have come to. They must find something to eat, he says. His voice breaks. Manlike, he fights back his tears. It was he who took charge of the family’s hasty flight to the evacuation center, but there was no relief, he could not sleep, he kept thinking of his old man alone in the dark, in the flood…

The thing to do is to stop crying, you tell yourself. Turn off your gadget, wipe your eyes and your snot. And, in the face of the siren call of staying apart, engage.

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Momentary exhaustion has set in and there are few volunteers in the hall, but the work waits to be done. Bags and boxes of stuff are clustered on the floor and arriving vehicles disgorge many more. There is a scheduled distribution today; there is no time to waste.

The private sector has once more risen to the occasion and produced the necessities of daily living, to meet the immediate physical needs of those devastated by “Ulysses” while they rebuild their lives from the wreckage. Besides cash (for Cagayan folk, for example), donations comprise sacks of rice, bottled water, canned food, tins of crackers and biscuits, as well as diapers for babies and adults, items for personal hygiene, used clothing, and more.

Bayanihan Alay sa Sambayanan or Balsa for #UlyssesPH is a service to the people being carried out by the Concerned Artists of the Philippines, All UP Academic Employees Union Diliman, and UP Diliman COVID-19 Response Volunteers. Like similar organizations nationwide, they are coming to the aid of stricken communities with vigor and no fanfare, operating systematically to reach even those in remote areas unserved by local governments.

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There is both poetry and practicality in the name: Balsa, meaning “raft,” to keep people afloat.

The tasks are simple: Repack rice from the sacks into plastic bags of 2-3 kilos. Sort clothing according to gender and age. Fill up the relief bags, each containing: rice, water, canned food, biscuits, hygiene kit (soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, face masks and shields, bottles of alcohol, sanitary napkins, diapers).

A call was earlier made for sanitary napkins, multivitamins, and, quite urgent, ointment for alipunga—foot fungus, common among those who have had their feet in muddy water for too long.

The tasks seem easy and mechanical. But hours-long work takes its toll, hence the absence today of certain regular volunteers who are at any rate expected back soon, rested and good to go, by definition using their own time and wherewithal to get themselves there, perform work, and expect nothing in return. Case in point: A man and a woman, apparently partners, come in quietly and proceed to their assigned chore. For hours they sort out the used clothing, methodically folding and filing for the use of men and women, young people, children, babies. Their job done, they leave as quietly as they came.

On other days, Balsa prepares ready-to-eat meals for same-day delivery to families numbering in the hundreds. Volunteers come to peel, chop, dice and cook rice, vegetables and meats for packing, or community kitchens complete with gas tanks, giant pans, and utensils are set up for right-there cooking in stricken areas.

It is engagement like this that is saving many Filipinos, easing their hunger and thirst, keeping them from drowning.

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TAGS: Cagayan, COVID-19, government response, health crisis, pandemic, typhoons
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