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The Yolanda of our lives

One year later. It sounds so important today, at least media-wise. We use dramatic events to create milestones – and then their anniversaries as continuing threads for more stories. Yolanda is no exception. It still is fresh enough to remember. It is the beginning of a new political season. What better motivation to use Yolanda to gain credit, or inflict blame?

Yolanda was a great tragedy. It killed so many, mostly the poor. Though there is a stunning silence from all concerned, from government to media, about key specifics of death toll, and the remaining missing, on whether they were rich, middle class or poor, that very silence tells a story by itself. I can only conclude that those who died were mostly poor, almost all poor.

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Almost all poor. That says a lot if only government, traditional media and social media would focus on it. This is one of those times when I want to be wrong. But the very silence about who died, considering that every 1 percent represents 63 persons, leads me to conclude that more than 95 percent were poor.

And that is the real story that needs to be told, that Yolanda can tell in a very dramatic way. While it is still fresh, while politics will make it fresh over a longer period, like the formaldehyde that preserves embalmed bodies. I hope Yolanda can tell its story like no other tragedy before it. Because the story is about natural disaster and the cost to lives. Because the story is about climate change and the cost to lives. Because the story is first and foremost about poverty and the cost to lives.

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Who remembers the deadly Ormoc flood in 1991? Who remembers that 5,000 died, not in one province, not in ten provinces, but in one city? Even Yolanda did not manage to kill 5,000 in one city or town. Yolanda was a super typhoon, Ormoc only a flood. It did not even deserve a name except Ormoc where it happened. Who were the 5,000 who died in Ormoc? How many were rich, middle class or poor? Take a guess, make your conclusions, and just remember every 1 percent meant 50 people. If we have no names, or too few names, only the poor can remain nameless.

Of course, despite the silence on the statistics, we know that it was mostly the poor who died – both in the Ormoc flood and Yolanda. Guess who died in Typhoon Sendong, in Typhoon Pablo? What great calamity that killed many lives did not kill almost always the poor? I remember only one – the Ruby Tower incident caused by an earthquake in 1968. Of the 268 who died, many were not poor because many were the families who lived in that building.

This is why we must address the real issue. Poverty kills, climate change kills and kills mostly the poor, and we forget the tragedies because the victims are mostly poor. Our forgetfulness will kill thousands more. Our low regard of the poor will kill thousands more. And we do not want to do that, I am sure. We just do not want to inconvenience ourselves, we just do not want to make sacrifices for the collective good – which means mostly the good of the majority poor. We just do not care enough.

This is like a recurring nightmare that even I find difficult to continue writing about – that poverty kills. How can we make ourselves understand that our landless poor have no right to be anywhere so they must go to land that nobody cares about for the moment? It does not need great imagination to know where the poor can go.

Seashores, where the beaches are not white and have no commercial value – yet. There, the great storms will kill them. Riverbanks and canals, where they can be near water to live. There, the great floods will kill them. Hillsides, where they can plant their daily food. There, the landslides will kill them.

Where the poor live dictates what calamity will kill them in bulk. This is why climate change threatens the poor in a very special way. Typhoons and floods, which we have plenty of, will be the serial killers as they always have been. And those they spare go hungry, then migrate to the city. It is not laziness, excuse me, or because they are bobo, as many above their status would like to claim, that keeps people poor. It is the non-poor, because of apathy first of all, and greed next.

The rehabilitation of people and places gravely affected by Yolanda will be a first national attempt to draw both public and private attention, and even some focused international concern. The rehabilitation plan of Yolanda will matter greatly to the poor if the ones who do the planning and approve it have the poor front and center as key beneficiaries of the rebuilding and eventual development. That is why the poor have much to thank Yolanda for. Yolanda gives them a chance to find a rare sympathy from many. That is the great blessing of Yolanda.

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Government, too, despite whatever criticisms, will deliver to the poor what has never been delivered in scale. It may not have the right motive for doing so, but it will deliver resources and development because the eyes of the world are upon us – thanks to Yolanda again. And because the 2016 elections are coming.

If Senator Grace Poe stood up to question government plans and programs related to a hunger situation that does not subside, Yolanda now makes its own privileged speech about a poverty that does not subside either.

Both Grace Poe and Yolanda question our very value system, how we can sustain failure yet sleep well at night. They know it is because the poor are not like family to us, that we can forget them in our day-to-day lives, and that their pain is an imaginary one to us.

We, the Filipino people who can help, we are on deck here. We, and the government who is supposed to serve us, we are all on trial here. This may yet be the greatest performance of our lives. So I pray.

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TAGS: Government, natural disaster, social media, traditional media, Tragedy, Yolanda, Yolanda aid
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