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January 15, 2014

The Long Road Back

In the past two months, the topic foremost on the national consciousness has been the trail of devastation left by Typhoon Yolanda. And for good reason. It was, after all, the strongest storm in history to ever make landfall. It has caused untold suffering for which there has been no apparent reprieve. And as it turns out, Typhoon Yolanda has been a baptism of fire for a government that, until Yolanda, was popularly viewed (if mainstream media were to be believed) as one that could do no wrong—or at least that’s what all those well-timed surveys told us. And so let me add to the on-going discourse.

Much has been said about the blunders committed in the handling of the aftermath of Yolanda. There have been many. None of the excuses and televised statements have proven sufficient to justify the acts and omissions in response to the disaster; or appropriate to alleviate the anguish and loss felt by so many. After all, what consolation can be had from never before heard bureaucratic terms such as “legalizing” aid before it can be given? Or the abhorrent practice of selective and prioritized distribution of aid to allied mayors (to the dismay of an opposition Mayor in Cebu, for example, whose town was equally devastated)? Don’t even get me started on the government’s declared policy of keeping the number of casualties as low as possible, such that they have stopped counting the number of dead.

One particular statement perfectly encapsulates, and perhaps explains, the manner and the nature of government’s response to Yolanda and its victims: “Bahala na kayo sa buhay niyo”.

The-Long-Road-BackWhen those now infamous words were broadcasted on Youtube, thanks to one courageous journalist, it was literally painful to watch. I almost regret clicking on the link that led me to witness such display of sheer, unbridled arrogance matched only by an equal degree of callousness. Those maestro-like hand gestures didn’t help either. How could one be so blind as to not notice that the entire orchestra had just lost not only all of its instruments but also all of its limbs to play along to his charade?

A quick televised response to the video followed soon thereafter. No, it was not a mea culpa, but an attempt to rationalize. It is claimed that the statement was taken out of context.

So let us examine the context.

By now, the world has come to know of the anguish and desolation that the victims of Yolanda have had to endure. CNN’s no-holds barred coverage put things in the kind of honest, biting perspective never before seen on local television.

But there is nothing quite like being on Ground Zero to really understand, in clear and unequivocal terms, the exact context in which, “Bahala na kayo sa buhay niyo”  was said. Over a month after Yolanda, I went to Tacloban with my husband, cousins, and companions from Liloan, to hold a simple gift giving for kids and distribution of relief food packs, water, and sacks of rice to families in various evacuation centers there.

I had been to many other areas ravaged by Yolanda. Nothing prepared me for what I saw in Tacloban. The entire city was in ruins, cloaked with a shroud of despair. In one breath, I could smell the sea, in another, a whiff of death and decomposition.  The enormity of the troubles facing the local government and the people that remained there was magnified by the palpable void left by a national government that should be perfectly capable of undertaking comprehensive relief and rehabilitation (especially with the billions of dollars in aid that has poured in), but has been utterly wanting in performance.

And so, after all, it was not that “Bahala na kayo sa buhay niyo”  was taken out of context that made it so offensive. It was that the statement was said at all. Plainly, there is simply no context in which one is permitted to be so inhumane and dismissive of the suffering of others—especially when one purports to be there on a mission to alleviate.

So where does this leave Tacloban and its people? On a path, one would hope, to reclaiming their lives and their broken city, aided by those, local and foreign, who have walked with them since the typhoon, to fill the void left by those (one in particular) so hopelessly blinded by the lure of another path—the one to 2016. Will the latter path lead to redemption? Well-timed surveys aside, one can harbor a guess.


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