Christmas and tragedy
Yuletide, the days leading up to today’s celebration (although in this country the season begins long before the day itself), began for Filipinos with a most optimistic, hopeful spirit.
The worst of the COVID-19 pandemic seemed to be over—for now at least. People were finally free to wander from confinement in their homes, schoolchildren in pilot areas were trooping to their classrooms for face-to-face classes, churches opened to welcome the faithful, and shopping malls came alive again with the sound of shoppers and canned Christmas carols.
But then, in a sudden nasty turn for the worse, the situation shifted once more to crisis mode. Omicron, a COVID-19 variant that is far more infectious and no less deadly, set alarm bells ringing. Although the number of cases remains at the single-digit level here, travel controls have been reimposed and cautionary measures remain in place. And the free-floating anxiety that had seemed to hover over our heads came creeping back, lending an edge of uncertainty to our holiday preparations.
And then Supertyphoon “Odette” struck. As of this writing, at least 375 people have been reported dead, 56 are missing, and 500 more folks injured. The scenes in coastal areas hit by Odette have been described as “complete carnage” by the Philippine Red Cross, with the winds and floodwaters of Odette leaving homes, hospitals, and schools “ripped to shreds.”
A news account in this paper, usually confined by journalistic standards to dry, factual reportage, was compellingly vivid: “The storm tore off roofs, uprooted trees, toppled concrete power poles, smashed wooden houses to pieces, wiped out crops and flooded villages—sparking comparisons to the damage caused by Super Typhoon Yolanda (international name Haiyan) in 2013.”
The post-disaster situation, with thousands of families suffering the loss of their homes along with shortages of potable water, food, and basic necessities, almost assures a spike in the toll of death, injury, and illness in the affected areas. And to top it off, the lingering threat from COVID-19, with the added danger of the Omicron variant, exacerbates an already dire situation.
Meanwhile, back in the relatively safe confines of the metropolis and elsewhere in these islands, families celebrate the Season, perhaps in a more subdued manner but still imbued with the joys of family and faith, the birth of the Savior who, so scripture tells us, was sent to us to save us from sin.
But we must ask ourselves: What does this bizarre, tragic pairing of holiday-making and disaster tell the more fortunate among us? What are we, who are still so fortunate as to observe Christmas and New Year in comfort and comity, called to do in response to the cries of distress from our sisters and brothers in need?
Today and in the near future, we are not called to set aside our revelry nor are we expected to put on long faces and set aside our joy. Instead, even as we keep the safety and health of our country folk in our minds and hearts and in prayer, we are called to resolve, with greater will and commitment, to do whatever we can to give whatever we can afford, and to ensure that in the near future and well beyond that, the suffering that follows natural disasters need not be part of the usual turn of events for the hapless citizens of this country.
We can begin by holding officials to account: for their lack of preparedness even in the face of an impending “supertyphoon” whose path had been tracked across the Pacific days before; for their inability to act with dispatch and visit the most hard-hit of the places visited by Odette; and for their reluctance to release the billions in excess or parked funds scattered all across the government for the immediate rescue, relief, and rehabilitation of the disaster survivors. Reluctance, that is, except when face to face with political allies whose smug smiles seem to promise even more largesse for them for the wind-up before elections.
These are decidedly “un-Christmassy” thoughts on a day meant to celebrate faith, devotion, and familial love. But part of the challenge of Christianity, and thus by extension of Christmas, is the prophetic duty to call out the guilty and neglectful, the greedy and indifferent.
Our prayers for those suffering from the whiplash of Odette’s winds, floods, and misery. Our sympathies for their loss and mourning, and their continuing struggle to return to life as they knew it. Our wishes for a brighter future for them and for all of us as we embark on our shared journey.
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