Can you eat sand? Can the view of a magnificent sunset from an artificial beach feed you and your family, or cure COVID-19?
Everyone knows the answers to these questions. No, no, and certainly not.
And yet, in the midst of what is undoubtedly the most serious health, economic, and policy crisis the country has faced since World War II, the government continues to spend precious funds—to the tune of P389 million—to create an artificial beach on a short stretch of seaside on Manila Bay.
Environmentalists have sounded the alarm on the disastrous effects of the “dolomite beach,” from environmental damage to the surrounding waters, to flooding and sewerage build-up, and even to the loss of livelihood of fisherfolk.
But to these concerns must be added the context against which the beach project takes place. The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on whole families, neighborhoods, livelihoods, and the economy as a whole. Apart from the cloud of grief that hovers over so many as the number of deaths and infirmities keeps rising steadily—the total number of confirmed cases is set to reach a million in the next few days—there is the economic black hole into which the crisis has plunged the people.
Widespread and lengthy lockdowns have led to the closure of establishments and the consequent massive loss of jobs. This has led to unprecedented hunger for a great many families, the impact of which is felt not just in the short term, but also in long-term consequences especially among children on whom stunting and poor nutrition have already inflicted lifelong damage.
Recognizing the reality of hunger and the growing desperation of impoverished folk, a young woman entrepreneur set up a “community pantry” from which folks could avail themselves of free foodstuff donated by concerned individuals. The community pantry on Maginhawa Street in Quezon City has, in just a few days, influenced more than 350 other individuals, groups, and institutions to set up their own versions of the free larder. But, bizarrely, this has earned the ire of state-sponsored anti-communist groups and troll brigades. What are they so irate about? The long lines at all hours of the day at these community pantries are proof that the problem of hunger is real and urgent, and that wrong priorities on the part of the government lie at the root of this crisis.
The heaviest toll of COVID-19 is being felt in the health sector, as dramatic stories of patients rushed to hospitals only to die in their cars, in hallways outside emergency rooms, or unattended in quarantine tents fill the media. Health care personnel tell of their frustration and fear as the continuing lack of personal protective equipment and regular testing put them at continued risk of infections, while they can only writhe in frustration as scarce hospital beds, monitors, ventilators, and other basic necessities in the COVID-19 fight hamper their best efforts to keep patients alive.
In light of these fatal shortages, one wonders how much good P389 million could do if reallocated for those in urgent need of treatment, medication, and food. Certainly, much more good than an ersatz beach—adorned with artificial, ugly “rock formations,” fronting a stretch of polluted water, and requiring costly upkeep—could contribute to the public welfare.
To defend themselves from charges of pursuing skewed priorities when other far more urgent matters call for attention and a responsive budget, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources has said the budget for the project had already been approved as part of long-term efforts to rehabilitate the Bay. (An insane excuse at this point: If a household that had a budget for, say, landscaping or beautification refused to use that money to save a family member from a life-threatening illness or emergency, wouldn’t that family be judged universally in harsh terms?) That fait accompli argument was likewise invoked by Cebu Gov. Gwendolyn Garcia when she approved a fresh shipment of dolomite sand from her province for the Manila Bay project. Ironically, the DENR is charged with protecting the environment and promoting ecologically sound practices and policies. It had no business in the first place proposing and defending such a hare-brained idea as a “dolomite beach.”
That it continues to do so, and that the administration has not seen fit to stop this obscene waste while abject hunger and death stalk the land, is a testament to the lack of empathy, conscience, and clear thinking among the country’s so-called leaders. As former vice president Jejomar Binay lamented in a tweet: “Some people in government have lost not only their compassion and sense of priorities but their common sense.” Let them eat dolomite!
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