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The mask

/ 06:51 AM January 05, 2014

It took Yolanda to unmask not just Tacloban but all of us. For we too have our own marginalized poor living in slums along the coastline. And we might as well rid ourselves of the notion that a typhoon does not select its victims. The poor are the first to die and suffer the most after everything falls apart.

It is not just the simple fact their flimsy houses are more vulnerable. There is also the fact they have little potential to store the most basic human needs: food, water, medicine, etc. Thus, “looting” became inevitable a few hours after the typhoon struck. Many business establishments chose to open their stores to the public. Rice, canned goods even pharmaceuticals were free for the taking  to those who walked through the wreckage in the streets the short hours before darkness came. Most businesses hoped that though they might lose their stocks, their buildings would at least be safe.

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Police and other officials of government were victims themselves. It is possible a number of them joined in the looting. But there should be a distinction made between those who looted for survival and those who looted for profit, “professional looters” who carted away appliances in trucks. It was clear the typhoon had brought about a breakdown of everything. The survivors communicated with each other only by word of mouth. Other forms of communication became quickly inoperable. The local government structures completely fell apart. As was predicted by international media, Tacloban became “uninhabitable.” And so the exodus of everyone who could. And yet, only the rich and the middle class have the option of escape. The poor have nowhere to go.

The poor of Tacloban are still there along with a few local heroes who though they are well-off chose to stay even so. If we ask whom we should listen to when we determine how Tacloban should recover, these are the people to ask. Not government. The task of recovery starts by retelling their stories or allowing them to tell their story themselves. It is not a simple story. We would all learn a lot. For we must not forget that Tacloban after Yolanda is the story of all Filipinos. The same universal history of quarreling political dynasties, the same torn out fabric of governance, the same social divides, the same topography of human misery, the same slums, the same poverty, exactly the same vulnerabilities just waiting to be unmasked by the next cataclysm.

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And in the middle of all these, a small layer of well-educated people, civil society, who see all sides of their city. They are middle-class professionals, people who own businesses but are not as well-entrenched in politics as the local politicians. The politicians have a long history of failure here. They continue to play the game of Manila-centered politics. They plot their political trajectories along lines of a particular reasoning: Is the choice of Panfilo Lacson for rehabilitation czar the result of a decision made to appease the Chinese communities? Is he making a play for the presidency? Will he succeed in rehabilitating Tacloban?

But how should we define success? Even now, Tacloban is slowly being cleared of garbage which earlier covered everything. The typhoon buried the downtown area under feet of muck which looked and smelled like greasy sewage, the very same sewage the city had been dumping into the sea from time immemorial returned to it within the few short hours of the storm. This muck is gone. The streets have become passable but just barely so. There are still debris and refuse by the roadside. There is a smell about them which suggests they might still contain buried dead. But this will all be cleared eventually. The people are moving.

There is a resolve not to allow the poor to build in the coastal areas. It is close to 4 weeks since Yolanda made landfall here. There are makeshift shelters everywhere. They are the poor’s alternative to the tent cities which have also grown where slum houses used to be. But if former residents are not allowed to rebuild their houses here, where will they go? So far, there is no talk of resettlement areas. The work of rehabilitation has not yet gone that far. Who finally decides these things? What precisely is the process of decision making? It will be a sad thing if this will be left entirely up to Tacloban’s traditional politicians. They would all be content to return Tacloban to a semblance of what it was. That, after all, was the Tacloban who elected them.

The better goal should be to make Tacloban a better city than it had ever been, to make it a city where the most essential things are in their right places and there would be less of the old inequalities which exacerbated this tragedy and made it worse than it should have been, a model perhaps for other Philippine cities. In the story of Tacloban’s recovery we could find the true logic of how a city can improve itself. And this might give us all exactly the thing Tacloban needs for herself: Hope.

(To be concluded)

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TAGS: disaster, Yolanda
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