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Save our people

/ 08:55 PM December 12, 2013

Supertyphoon ‘‘Yolanda’’ is like tropical storm ‘‘Ondoy’’ in a very special way. As natural calamities, Yolanda and Ondoy affected a wide area that both rich and poor – and all in between – were adversely affected. Yolanda hit several provinces while Ondoy flooded Metro Manila – and Metro Manila as the imperial metropolis of the Philippines, is equivalent to several provinces in importance.

Most other times, natural calamities are quite selective. They hit mostly the poor, or only the poor. Remember the Ormoc flood, or typhoon ‘‘Sendong’’ at Cagayan de Oro and Iligan? Thousands died, but again mostly poor, maybe upwards of 95 percent. Only if a calamity covers a wide area, like Yolanda in the Visayas and Ondoy in Metro Manila, will there be a more proportional damage between the poor and non-poor.

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Of course, the poor are already the majority of the population. But government figures like to keep the numbers of the very poor down, except when relief goods have to be allocated. Then, the budget goes up because the numbers of the poor go up – and correctly so. DSWD has reported that it has distributed 2.7 million food packs in Leyte and Samar, and I am sure that almost all of these went to the poor.

There is an inevitable connection between natural disasters and poverty. And the poor do not stay at 25 percent, or 30 percent. When disaster strikes, it is more like 97-100 percent. Natural calamities like typhoons, floods, landslides and even urban fires are particularly destructive to the poor simply because poverty puts the poor in harm’s way. It is as if the poor are offered as sacrificial lambs to appease the wrath of nature.

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It does not take a genius to understand that the poor are most vulnerable to natural calamities. When typhoons come, those who live along the shores will be the first to die. When flood comes, those who live along river banks, canals, drainages and crevices will be the first to die. And when landslides come, those who live along the slopes will be the first to die. In other words, the poor who live by the sea, near the rivers and canals, and along the slopes in rural areas will be the first to die, as they always have.

But because the poor never had proportional value to Philippine society, they have to die by the thousands before the same society is shocked. Modern communications technology, too, has begun to play a serious role in aid of the poor. When thousands of the poor die in terrible disasters, technology brings the news of the horrible death tolls to a national audience. In the case of Yolanda, the audience was global.

Thousands of deaths and a global audience of hundreds of millions are a powerful combination, the body count with graphic images brought to the living rooms of nations around the world give the poor a kind of value that otherwise they never had. Every major disaster in the last several years have brought the issue of poverty to a level of awareness that it now is fashionable to spend big money to help the surviving victims.

I remember the series of typhoons that struck Luzon in late 2004, four typhoons in three weeks, affecting the whole of Bicolandia, Southern Luzon and Mindoro, Central Luzon and Northern Luzon. Its most famous face then was Infanta (in Quezon province) where many died as well. Floods from the mountains met high tides driven by strong winds, the waters from rivers and the seas carried logs that battered and bludgeoned Infanta.

As a result of those calamities that claimed lives and destroyed properties in almost all areas of Luzon, government agreed to experiment with building houses and villages for some of the poor. The agreement was with Gawad Kalinga where private donations were matched by government money to split the cost of the homer and communities between the two sectors. A big disaster covering a wide area and affecting tens of millions moved government to flex its imagination a little, and its first foray into building communities was born by partnering with Gawad Kalinga.

In the succeeding years with succeeding disasters, a similar pattern of house and community building continued. This post-Yolanda reconstruction program will yet be the most massive effort that government and the private sector will take, as partners or separately.

Ten years should be enough, though, to make everyone reflect why so many poor people have to die, and why government begins to do the right thing only after thousands of lives are first lost. The reason why people die is because poverty forces them to play Russian roulette with typhoons, floods, and landslides. And despite greater awareness on our part and the part of government, if we are not alarmed, thousands more will die in a global climate that breeds harsher calamities as part of a new normal.

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If a natural disaster does kill thousands in the future, are we absolved from the responsibility to try to prevent it, or from accountability if they will die from our inaction or apathy? Is it not like a homicide that, even if we did not plan to kill, we caused deaths to happen? How much longer can we be like this, knowing they will die with the next storm, the next flood, the next landslide, yet not care enough to speak up for them, to move for them, to save them?

Yolanda is a serious experience, especially after Sendong and Pablo. The landlessness and homelessness of our people condemn them to stay in areas that force them to be the perennial victims of continuing calamities. They have to be brought to safer ground, and humanely sheltered, not after the storm but before. We are not only saving them from a horrible tragedy but also from an inherited poverty that kills. We are all Filipinos, bound by heritage and duty to do so.

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