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There’s the Rub

Tale of two woes

/ 10:43 PM November 18, 2013

The bad news is the culture.

Some days after a tsunami struck Fukushima and swept everything away, a boy stood at the tail end of a long queue to get his rations. A cop who had been patrolling the area spoke with him and learned that the boy had lost his entire family and was being cared for by kin. Taking pity on him, he decided to give him his own rations—yes, cops were on ration too—so the boy could go home. To his surprise, the boy went to the head of the line and asked the supervisor to distribute his manna so others could partake of it. The gesture brought tears to the cop’s eyes, and gave him the assurance Fukushima would climb out of its tragedy.

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Some days after “Yolanda” struck Tacloban and swept everything away, people rioted. Hungry and desperate, they broke into groceries and supermarkets and shops carting away what they could find. Guards were powerless to stop them, as were cops who gave way to them, if not joined them themselves. They were hungry and desperate too. The rioters did not just cart off food and medicine, some carted off TV sets as well.

In Fukushima, the fear of radiation from the leaking nuclear plants kept the population at bay, if not sent them away. But the engineers at the plants refused to go, the leak posed a danger to the community, they had to do something about it. Despite appeals from family and government itself, they stayed on, risking radiation that stood at twice past the danger levels. It was their duty. We do not know what happened to them, the symptoms of radiation poisoning are supposed to appear only years from now. We do know they saved their community from a bigger disaster.

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In Leyte, the spectacle of hunger, disease and ruin and the specter of more to come sent local officials scampering away. Of course it had fallen on the national government to come to the aid of the Warays in their hour of need, in their hour of depletion. But only to a point: Their local officials needed to be there for them too, they needed to lead them too, they needed to show them an inspiring example too. It was their duty.

But they were gone. It gave whole new meanings to “Waray,” which is what Warays call themselves with self-deprecating humor. “Waray” means “wala,” or none, or nothing. A word has taken on macabre irony in the wake of Yolanda. The Warays have been left with nothing: No home, no loved ones (for some of them), no future (for many of them). And no (local) government: Waray upay, as they say. Walang pakinabang. Useless.

Hours after a tsunami leveled Fukushima, Japan Inc. was there. You were hard put to distinguish private from public, corporate from government, as heavy machinery and equipment rolled in, as food, medicine and portable shelters tumbled in. Nobody complained relief couldn’t be ferried to the disaster area, there were no transports to transport it; nobody complained the roads were blocked, there was no equipment to clear them.

Days after Yolanda, relief—and people—still couldn’t get through to Leyte because there were no transports to transport them. A group from Doctors Without Borders couldn’t cross the border from Cebu to Tacloban for lack of a ferry to ferry them. Days after Yolanda, relief—and people—still couldn’t get through to those that needed them because the roads were blocked, there was no equipment to clear them.

Where was the private sector? Where were the aircraft, ships and trucks of the corporations? Where was the machinery of the mining companies that bore through the earth and the logging companies that mowed down forests and cleared the way to get there? More to the point, why didn’t government commandeer them? Property rights are swept to the sea by catastrophes such as this.

The good news is the culture.

A week after Yolanda struck, it’s not just goods that are flowing into Tacloban, it’s people too. It’s the relief workers too, it’s the volunteers too, it’s ordinary people too. The last is phenomenal. It’s not just schools and offices that are raising funds, packing goods, and going to various parts of Leyte and Samar to help as best they can, it’s everyone. The country has been galvanized into action. Everyone has a “We Are the World” concert, a Christmas activity, a project with which to help Leyte and Samar.

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Disasters do have a way of bringing out the best in us.  It was so then, it is so now. It was so when the heavens wept for 40 days and 40 nights in July and August of 1972, turning Metro Manila and environs into a bizarre Venice, navigable only by banca without singers singing “O Sole Mio,” turning the Central Plains into one vast lake. Which sent the activists in particular braving wind and water to bring help and comfort to the victims. It is so now when the Furies screamed across Leyte, turning a once lush and happy place into a pit of grief and desolation. Which has sent the volunteers at the head of the pack, braving adversity and anonymity to help where help is needed.

P-Noy has praised the people power that has arisen from the howling wilderness, and true enough it is people power. Which has always been there for him, except that he hasn’t always seen it, preferring to entrust his cause and government to the politicians rather than the volunteers, to the few who act without conviction rather than to the many who toil without pay, without reward, and often enough without recognition. Who knows? Maybe things will change yet. But right now it is the spectacle of the people and their determination, the people and their enthusiasm, the people and their power, surging across the land more powerfully than any storm surge, that gives tears to the eyes and hope Leyte will climb out of its tragedy.

That gives hope the country will rise like Lazarus from the grave.

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