Opinion

As the world burns

Written by Reuben Pio Martinez

Photo by Juan Sebastian Evangelista

Photo: DUSK BEHIND THE ASHFALL. The clouds of ash expand and cover the skies of Calamba City, Laguna, Its plume can be seen dispersing northwards, affecting Northern Laguna and Cavite.

2020 started with a bang, but not the good kind. As the New Year’s fireworks burned-out, it didn’t take long until Australia is suffering the worst bushfire season in the continent’s history. Later, news reached the Internet, about a drone strike which sparked mass panic over a potential war. Now, Japan, Mexico, and the Philippines are at the mercy of the always active Pacific Ring of Fire, as volcanoes cloud the countries with ash.

This year was not the first time the Philippines bore witness to the dangers of Taal Volcano, as there have been a total of 33 eruptions recorded according to the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHIVOLCS). In fact, the deadliest took place in 1911, when 1,335 people were killed in the disaster. However, something managed to display much more cruelty and exert much more pain than what the volcano, the ash, and the magma could bring.

Our world is on fire, and there are those who rejoice at the heat this chaos brings. They are the disaster capitalists.

Some like it hot

As clouds of ash continue to cover the Philippine lands, citizens flocked to the nearest stores to purchase as much as necessities as they can, such as easy-to-cook food and clean water. Ash is harmful upon contact with the respiratory system (which is also the same for animals). The market saw a rapid increase in the demand for medical masks, especially N95 versions. With an increase in demand comes a decrease in supply, which leads to an increase in prices. In simple terms, this is “disaster capitalism,” where companies grab calamities as opportunities to gain more.

It sounds reasonable enough, doesn’t it? No, it’s not that simple.

There are ethical grounds to consider as well. Imagine if you are in need of a mask, not only for yourself but also for the other members of the household. Masks normally priced around 20 to 50 pesos, but due to the crisis, they are now amounting to 200 pesos a piece. Those who have enough would most likely purchase more than what they need for the sake of “having reserves,” while everyone else can simply pray for a good Samaritan to hand over freebies, hoping that the bits of glass and granite don’t kill them first.

This is now where the problem with disaster capitalism lies. Wealth is prioritized over health, a human right.

It doesn’t end there. Masks are not the only ones being price-gouged, as even some canned goods have had an increase in prices. Some stores remain active, capitalizing from the chaos by forcing employees to crawl through dusty winds and dirty roads or even by turning the whole scenario into a farce. How did the government respond? They, specifically Department of Interior and Local Government Secretary Eduardo Año, asked for donations, despite the fact that they receive money from the people. This decision brings to mind how the national disaster fund was dwindled down to 11 billion pesos, and how the 2020 General Appropriations Act gave 2 billion pesos to the Armed Forces of the Philippines, and a billion more for the Philippine National Police.

There is also the overzealous belief that Filipinos are resilient enough to push through any calamity that is often used by disaster capitalists as an excuse for their actions, and sometimes by the most naively optimistic. Even though there is some room for praise, this must be discarded. Just because there are those who have the capacity to lend helping hands, and just because there are those are lucky enough to thrive through it all, neither negates the fact that there are lives and properties damaged or lost.

Getting warmer

Human safety is not a privilege and it should never be in the first place. It is a human right that each one of us has, and each of us should respect. Though the Department of Agriculture is offering to provide loans of 25,000 pesos to affected farmers and fishermen, there is a pressing responsibility to address the immediate needs. 

As previously mentioned, those who took the time to help are deserving of praise, but we must not pretend as if we Filipinos are resilient from head to toe. Donation drives have been formed by both local government units and cooperatives, and others have participated in cleaning-up affected areas. Some companies have taken it upon themselves to even honor the Occupational Safety and Health Law by closing down stores to have both customers and employees stay with their families (though extra effort should be given by still paying employees who are on leave). Drivers working for the motorcycle transport service Angkas drove around dusty streets to give free masks for citizens. Meanwhile, even the  Communist Party of the Philippines have mobilized their revolutionary forces in planning mitigation measures and cleaning-up severely affected communities. In a country in crisis, party and commercial lines should be insignificant.

This evident unity in people might indicate something of interest, in that the people are close to reaching a fever point of intolerance with the government’s inaction in a time of need. To quote a Facebook post, this proves that people do not have to be governed if everyone is willing to play a part in the grander scheme of things. On a personal note, this should be a wake-up call to all disaster capitalists to put aside their finance-fuelled desires, and place empathy back into the equation.

With all immediate needs being addressed, one has to wonder what lies ahead when the dust clears. This brings to mind the song by Billy Joel titled “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” which reminds us that even though nobody most certainly did not cause Taal Volcano to spew steam, we all have to make it our responsibility to care for the common man as the world burns. [P]

UPLB Perspective is the official publication of the University of the Philippines Los Baños, established 1973. It is the first campus publication established during the Martial Law in the Philippines.

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