The politics of compassion

Carla Montemayor
Even as we tap into our collective compassion, zeal and resourcefulness, we come up against a wall of pettiness, ineptitude, self-interest and warped priorities

ABSURDIA by Carla Montemayor

There is, indeed, a time and a season for everything. For acting swiftly and decisively in the face of an emergency, for burying the dead and finding the missing. That time has passed. Now is the time for helping the living rebuild their futures, for confronting failures and wrongdoing, for taking part in change. All at once. One cannot be done without the others. 

I say this from where I sit, worrying about loved ones, begging for help from friends and strangers, and absorbing grim news about how a storm ravaged the homeland and laid bare the pathetic irrelevance of its leaders. The information I have received is incomplete, cobbled together from the media and from accounts of friends on the ground, but it is enough. Enough for me to make judgments, enough for me to clarify where my sympathies lie and where I should direct my energies and my anger. 

The last two weeks, and the months before these when we grappled with the enormity of plunder and patronage, have shown us beyond doubt how broken our systems and institutions are and how unreliable, inadequate, short sighted, self-interested and incorrigible our leaders can be.  

We learned in detail how our elected representatives had been robbing us and how wrong it is to let their interests and whims dictate how public money should be spent.

We feel the depravity of this system more acutely now that we scrounge around for resources to deal with the devastation of Yolanda. If in the past, various administrations were able to excuse themselves by pleading lack of funds, we can’t and won’t buy that now. There IS money. Billions of it. The question is whose pockets it lines and how the rest of it is dispensed and accounted for. 

We also saw—however much we want to trust a government struggling with the terrible legacy of the past —how misplaced that trust is. 

There was President Aquino refusing to declare a state of national emergency and blaming some local governments for being “unprepared.” Local governments whose personnel were either dead, dispossessed, injured, grieving or isolated. Then it was the Tacloban mayor’s turn to defend his administration’s preparedness—after having waited out the storm at his beachfront mansion.

To tell you the truth, I wanted to drown them together in a storm surge of their own spit.

There was Secretary Mar Roxas insisting during an interview that the uncollected corpses along Tacloban’s streets were different from the ones the journalist had seen over the last 6 days since the storm hit. All this while survivors scavenged for food as tons of donated meals sat in warehouses, and slept among the dead who had lain in the streets for nearly a week. 

Meanwhile, the Vice President—in a relief effort separate from those of the administration in which he is second in command—was distributing relief goods with the OVP’s seal on it. Congress agonized over which bit of the budget to cut and reallocate for reconstruction efforts. But PDAF had just been ruled unconstitutional and so the halls of Batasan were nearly empty the next day. 

Even the death toll was muddled as attempts to halt the official count surfaced. To save face, to suppress the truth, to minimize tragedy? I don’t know or understand. Eventually it emerged that there was no single individual in charge of the national relief effort; they were employing a “consultative process” to deal with the crisis.  

Yes, the typhoon’s strength was unprecedented. Yes, its impact was far worse than anticipated. Yes, some local governments fell apart and were not able to perform their duties. Yes, social workers, soldiers and civil servants are breaking their backs coping with the situation. 

Wall of pettiness, ineptitude

What I don’t accept or comprehend are the excuses of top decision-makers about how their hands were tied, how impassable roads and toppled communication networks were preventing aid from reaching the living. Because I know a group of civilians who were able to pool resources, coordinate with local contacts, hire a helicopter, and do air drops into Antique. I know of another group that got relief goods into remote towns in Capiz. I have heard of the legions of volunteers that sprang into action at Villamor Airbase to welcome and care for evacuees (only to be told that the entire operations were being moved to Camp Aguinaldo and back again). I have learned of the “informal supply chain” that gets food to those who need it most. 

How is the national government, with billions of emergency funds on hand, the legal mandate to step in during emergencies, expert and experienced staff, not able to perform these crucial services and marshal abundant domestic and international assistance?

Is it unreasonable to expect that the authorities commandeer ships, choppers, planes and amphibian vehicles, re-deploy police and military personnel, and adjust protocol during a crisis of this magnitude? To expect them to stop jockeying for turf, set animosities and rivalries aside, suspend their fixation with rank and procedure, suppress their appetite for credit-grabbing and media exposure? Just for a couple of weeks after this calamity. Just a couple of weeks. Parang awa niyo na.

“Ordinary” citizens mobilized, gritted their teeth and carried on—we expect the same from our leaders. Just as we manifested our outrage against corruption and thievery, we have been galvanized by the grief and loss of our countrymen. Yet even as we tap into our collective compassion, zeal and resourcefulness, we come up against a wall of pettiness, ineptitude, self-interest and warped priorities.  

We cannot go on like this. It simply is untenable. We can donate what little we have, we can pack relief goods until we ache, we can build houses for the survivors but in the end, we need to speak to power.

I have heard admonitions for “negative” and “critical” people such as myself to quit being know-it-alls, to stop scoring points for the opposition, to “shut up and just help.”

I’m sorry, you are mistaken. I’m sure that many volunteers who give generously of their time and resources don’t give a damn about the “opposition,” they know what role they play in this catastrophe, too. I’m no disaster management specialist but I’m not speaking out of my ass, either—most Filipinos have lived through many calamities and been in crisis situations where being quick, flexible and inventive is a requirement or else people perish.

No to silence

And this is one instance where shutting up does NOT help. No lives are ever saved by being silent or by making meek, polite pleas to our leaders whose ways and ambitions are too ossified to be moved by the suffering of their constituents. 

What’s the alternative? I don’t know. What I do know is that we have no one to rely on but ourselves; that under the most desperate of circumstances, we can and will take care of each other and by doing this, we give voice to the disappointments and aspirations we share.  

The only casualty of this disaster that I’m happy about is the kind of politics we detest: the politics of money and old surnames, of cacique-style “management” that brooks no criticism, of blind partisanship that prioritises pissing contests in the midst of death and devastation. We have dealt it a severe blow with the politics of stepping up, of challenging ways and systems that don’t work, of cooperating despite our differences, of protecting the most vulnerable. This, too, is unprecedented. This, for real, is doing our best.

What shape it will eventually take will be up to us. It has always been up to us. We will fend for ourselves, just as we’ve always done. –

(The author works and lives in London.)