By Denis Murphy
Philippine Daily Inquirer
Now that the worst is over in Tacloban and some other typhoon-devastated areas, it may be time to look not only at the awful tragedy there but also at the last six months, which were marked by a series of manmade and natural disasters seldom seen together in such a short period. It may be good to look at them now because people are quick to forget, especially with Christmas just a month or so away.
Midyear, economists criticized the national economy for creating “growth without jobs,” which meant that the rich got richer and the poor remained mostly stuck in poverty. It wasn’t an accident; the economy was designed by our business leaders and policymakers to operate in that way. Such an economy, dividing the population even further into rich and poor conditions of living, is at war with notions of solidarity and compassion, which should be guiding norms. (Economist Cielito Habito wrote in this paper on Nov. 12 that it was not enough that we have growth: “It must be growth that produces jobs and livelihoods for as many Filipinos as possible.”)
Then came the disclosures on the pork barrel scam involving leading politicians. In an estimate, a government official claimed that the P10 billion allegedly stolen by Janet Napoles was a trivial matter compared to the P1 trillion (12 zeros) stolen from the government from 2001 to 2010.
Next came the battles in Zamboanga. People have wondered how a small ragtag militia could gear for war and march on that city without the Armed Forces being aware of it, especially since there is a heavy military presence there. People also wonder why the military can’t find criminals, such as former general Jovito Palparan, And even more important: Why can’t the military find missing activist Jonas Burgos?
And then there was the 7.2-magnitude earthquake that jarred Bohol, Cebu and other areas.
Then came “Yolanda.” Day after day, as people watched the news on TV, they saw sorrow and pain, how fiercely men and women can love their children and one another, and how perishable we all are.
We saw people half-crazed with thirst in Tacloban and bodies of beautiful children lying dead by the roads. We heard of looting, and of a new species of criminal, the looter-rapist. Who would have imagined Filipino men taking food and whatever they wanted from poor women in a time of calamity—while dead bodies lay all around—and then raping the women? Many people simply sat and waited for death. And where was our Church? Where were the priests to bury the dead and console those laid low in sorrow? Bodies lay everywhere as if they were the usual garbage.
Some may ask, as Jewish people asked at the time of the Holocaust: Where is God? God was there in Tacloban, receiving the dying children, the young parents and the aged into His arms. He was wiping away all their tears, as we are told in the Book of Revelation, and bringing them to their true home where there “shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away” (Rev. 21:4).
If our economic elite, military, elected officials, and even the Church can disappoint us, to whom will the people look for leadership? To the same institutions—where else?—but these must recognize their weaknesses, and begin anew with the intention to reform. There is an old saying in the Church, older than the Reformation: “The Church must always be reformed.” The same need exists for all our institutions. If the Holy Church needs constant reform, surely our human institutions do, too. There are enough decent, hardworking people in government to do the job.
Reform should include the willingness to listen to all groups of citizens, including the poor. We should remember that in a democracy, policy is a matter of compromise. It is also said: “In a democracy, reform comes from the ballots of the poor.” To help shape the future, the poor must have better jobs and education than they have now.
At a meeting on Nov. 13 at the Ateneo de Manila, the urban poor of Metro Manila and fishermen from Laguna Lake began to play their role in this renewal. The participants covered three matters: 1) what to do when there is conflict between government and poor people’s plans; 2) what to ask of government, now that it is clear there is much more money available than they previously thought; and 3) what service will the poor offer society in the settlement of the pork barrel disarray.
The poor do not expect to become another Neda (National Economic and Development Authority), but they have the skills to analyze government plans and sort out what is good for themselves and the common good, and what is not. They limit their advice to those matters in which they have direct knowledge. The fishermen of Laguna Lake have begun to do this by rejecting the ring road dike around the lake that will require the relocation of 45,000 families, and the shorter Laguna Lake Expressway Dike that will affect about 10,000 families. They will examine alternatives and support those remedies for flooding on the lake that treat them fairly. They will oppose solutions that do not. The fishermen who were at the meeting are from the Calamba-Biñan area. They have fished in those waters for generations, or at least since the time of Jose Rizal, who wrote about how much he enjoyed the fish caught in that part of the lake.
The poor realize that government has much more money than they ever imagined, so instead of pork barrel they ask government to widen the benefits of PhilHealth to include medicines, lab tests, ambulances, and other out-of-hospital expenses at affordable rates. They ask government to please improve the schools in poor areas, and give poor groups funding to begin to upgrade their areas—for example, their drainage. They ask government to review its economic policies and direct the economy to creating jobs. Finally they ask the government to make food available at affordable prices.
In return, the poor will organize to vote out of office all politicians found guilty of involvement in the pork barrel scam. They will make citizen arrests of people they know are guilty. They will cooperate with other groups in these matters.
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For many years Nandy Pacheco and others have urged Filipinos to accept Christ’s peace in their hearts. This peace is the love, forgiveness, compassion and strength of Jesus. It is well described in St. John’s Gospel (Chapters 14 and 20). Christ’s peace takes away our hearts of stone and gives us hearts of flesh. It takes away the sorrows of Tacloban and gives us Christ’s joy.
Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (firstname.lastname@example.org).