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We should be moved

At this writing, aftershocks continue to evoke the terror of the April 25 earthquake in Nepal, and the death toll is catastrophic. Having once walked in the ancient squares of Kathmandu, I am pained to think that some of those monuments are gone forever. But much more than the loss of cultural heritage or the destruction of property, it is the devastation of the people that bespeaks the magnitude of this earthquake, the strongest to hit Nepal in more than 80 years.

Though more known in the global imagination as the home of the Himalayas, Nepal is also home to over 27 million people with a long and storied past. A monarchial system survived until 2008, but for much of its modern history, the country has been in a state of political turmoil, much to the detriment of the people. As in the Philippines, many Nepali men and women are driven by lack of employment opportunities to work all over the world, especially in the Middle East. Tourism has translated to local jobs, but the United Nations estimates that 40 percent of the population continue to live below the poverty line. This is significant when we think about the earthquake’s impact: As we can validate from the calamities in our own country, disasters disproportionately affect the poor.

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Understandably, among our immediate concerns is to look after the safety of our loved ones. As in almost every part of the world, there is a Filipino community in Nepal. One of the Filipino women I met, Salve, speaks today of homeless people in the streets, lack of electricity, and poor conditions. Still, she remains optimistic: “We’re bracing ourselves, keeping the faith. A big thank you to all our friends and relatives for all the positive energy.” There is also a growing number of Filipinos going to Nepal to climb mountains and trek the Himalayas, particularly in the Everest and Annapurna regions. Thus, it is a relief to hear Filipino hikers and expats reporting that they are safe.

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But whether or not Filipinos were affected, the earthquake should concern us—for two reasons.

First, the earthquake should remind us, once again, of the vulnerability of our cities to a similar catastrophe. As the memories of the 2013 Bohol earthquake and the 1990 Baguio earthquake fade away, our sense of urgency for disaster preparedness should not be lost. Those two earthquakes are just the latest in a long list of quakes that have ravaged our country. The Jesuit priest Miguel Maso identified 203 earthquakes from 1599 to 1909, and the one in 1645 was most ominous: “The most terrible earthquake recorded in the annals of the Archipelago. It might almost be said that from Manila to Cagayan and Ilocos Norte it left no stone upon the other… The destruction was frightful.”

In 2004, a study by the Japan International Cooperation Agency cited the vulnerability of Manila to earthquakes. It estimated that over one-third of all public buildings in the metropolis could be destroyed or damaged should a 7.2-magnitude earthquake strike. Though this study has been revisited many times in the past decade, we should redouble our efforts to prepare for earthquakes—not just in Manila but also in Baguio and the rest of the Philippines.

Second, the Nepal earthquake should move us to help in whatever way we can. The Philippines has benefited much from international aid and we should pay it forward by helping others in turn. It is true that the international aid apparatus has never worked perfectly. The need for a rapid response has often led to logistical failures and misguided efforts. Moreover, corruption in many levels has disenchanted foreign donors and local recipients alike. But for all its imperfections, there is still much good that international aid and relief can do. As organizations like the Philippine Red Cross mobilize to give assistance, one way to help is by supporting their efforts.

In the wake of Supertyphoon “Yolanda,” the Netherlands was one of the countries that made a substantial contribution to the relief effort. But more significantly, the Dutch citizens themselves, through various NGOs, raised over P1.5 billion. As I was in the Netherlands at the time, my barber in Amsterdam told me that the reason that the Dutch contributed a lot was this: They suffered a lot of flood-related calamities in the past. Having experienced the horrors of natural disasters first-hand, they can understand our suffering. Our collective experiences in dealing with natural disasters should likewise give us the empathy that can inspire solidarity and action.

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Nature is powerful, but humans are not powerless. We can prepare for the next disaster through urban planning and strict implementation of rules like building codes. As individuals, we can also do our part by learning more about disaster preparedness. Earthquakes may be “acts of God,” but it is acts of humans that make ourselves vulnerable to calamities, and ultimately it is also our actions that can help us stay safe.

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Humans have recovered from innumerable disasters throughout centuries. Just as the Nepali themselves withstood the 1934 earthquake that claimed thousands of lives, I am sure the Nepali today will be able to rebuild their lives. Still, we should extend whatever support that we can. Aside from helping others, our contributions help build a global culture of giving and helping each other that our world badly needs today.

Indeed, earthquakes like the one in Nepal should move us to action, empathy and solidarity.

Gideon Lasco is a physician and medical anthropologist. Visit his website on health, culture and society at www.gideonlasco.com.

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TAGS: Calamities, disaster response, Earthquake, Japan International Cooperation Agency, Nepal, supertyphoon ‘yolanda’
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