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Commentary

The rain and Pope Francis

04:17 AM January 21, 2015

The estimated six million Filipinos who flocked to Luneta to see Pope Francis and attend the final Mass of his visit are being touted as a record-breaker. But what makes it more remarkable is that Tropical Storm “Amang” notwithstanding, and despite our tendency, for health reasons, to shy away from the rain, Filipinos came in the millions.

Since time immemorial, rain has been seen in the Philippines as a cause of illness, and hence to be avoided whenever possible. Prof. Michael Tan writes: “We do have a morbid fear of rain, thinking it causes respiratory ailments. Medically speaking, there is no basis for this belief, but even physicians have been known to bring out their thick medical books to cover their heads when it begins to shower. The rainy season does result in more colds, not because of the rains but because people tend to crowd together when they seek shelter from the rain … sometimes still clutching the wet books and newspapers they used to cover their heads.”

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In the clinics, we doctors see this belief being articulated by mothers who would often explain their children’s cold or cough as a result of getting caught in the rain (“naulanan”) or even just a drizzle (“naambunan”). Patients of all ages might begin their illness narrative by saying, “It all started when it rained last week…”

Outside the clinics, we see this belief manifesting in the way people respond to rain: using an umbrella even when it’s just ambon or even though it’s a very short distance from the car to the door. It is not unusual for people to cancel or postpone events, or defer their plans for the day, because of rain.

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  1. Landa Jocano framed this belief within the “hot and cold syndrome,” which is “a binary system of opposition that is one of the most important conceptual frames of reference in understanding the man-nature relationship.” In other words, in Filipino folk medicine, many illnesses are explained in terms of the body’s exposure to “hot” and “cold” (lamig). Rain and wind are considered cold. Given this context, Jocano said, the back (likod) “is especially sensitive to cold. Thus, an overexposure of this part of the body to rain, cold wind, draft, cold water (as among the fishermen), and other similar elements of nature brings about chest cramps, … colds (sipon), tuberculosis, asthma, pneumonia, and other physical infirmities.”

It is not just the back that is vulnerable to the cold elements. The bumbunan or the crown of the head is also seen as prone to the intrusion of lamig. This belief likely draws from the fact that the bumbunan remains soft during infancy, closing only after 36 months. This explains why some people would shield their head from the rain, never mind the rest of the body.

Of course, not everyone holds these beliefs about rain. Personally, I’ve always defied my mother’s admonition to always bring an umbrella. And, more broadly, rain itself is viewed not only as a bringer of illness but also as a blessing. Greeted by rain as I was about to climb a mountain in Zambales, an Aeta man told me that rain is heaven’s way of welcoming a visitor.

But what does the papal Mass show us, in light of long-held beliefs that link rain and illness? Two things come to my mind.

First, our relationship with nature—rain, wind, flood, typhoon—continues to define our experiences as individuals and as a nation. It was a typhoon (“Yolanda”) that brought the Pope to our country, and it was another storm (Amang) that came upon us during his visit. That Amang came this early in the year suggests changing weather patterns that we have to deal with in the years to come.

Second, the papal Mass shows us that many Filipinos can overcome this fear of rain for the sake of something they deem important. The current discourse dwells on the fact that Filipinos came in spite of the rain, and that the Pope, too, braved the rain and wind. The personal accounts of the pilgrims, including the elderly and children, include enduring hours of rain but finding the ordeal worth it, with the fleeting encounter with the Pope a just reward.

Indeed, there are events and commitments that we simply cannot afford to miss, and we must not allow the rain to stop us. The tardiness, the so-called “Filipino time” that is often blamed on bad weather, can be dealt with; despite the rain, life can still go on, especially if the government is prepared.

This makes me wonder: Would government action, too, avert the inevitable cancellation of classes and work that marks every year? This would require much more than yellow raincoats: We need flood-proof roads, and better transport systems, to ensure the safety of everyone. After all, it is entirely understandable for people to be late if there is an actual flood between them and their destinations. And rains and floods do pose real health threats, not least of which is leptospirosis.

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But if we are to be fully liberated from the tyranny of rain and flood, we have to work on a change in attitude toward rain, accompanied by the government’s commitment to make it possible—and safe—for people to go about their daily lives without being threatened by rain and flood.

In our age of persistent typhoons and worsening floods, and of climate change to which our archipelago is particularly vulnerable, the image of Pope Francis wearing a raincoat, unfazed by the rain, speaks volumes. Perhaps he has left us another timely lesson: Rain is not something to fear, but something we can overcome.

Dr. Gideon Lasco is a graduate of the University of the Philippines College of Medicine and a mountaineer. He is working on his PhD in medical anthropology in Amsterdam.

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