Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Pope and the government cover-up


THE magic of Pope Francis is that he seems to have his feet firmly planted on the ground, and his heart for the poor and oppressed in the right place. He is no Pope who stands at the pulpit and is content with the power and authority that this pedestal affords him. He is one to engage with the current state of things, and put these into question, shaking up the status quo, using his position of (Catholic) power to change what we think about the world, as he reassesses and reconfigures our notions of sin and forgiveness, difference and inequality.

Coming to visit the Philippines in January 2015, it seems important that Pope Francis find out how badly government is running the preparations for his visit, and how they are missing the point. Not just the point of the visit – which is to speak to survivors of Haiyan, and see firsthand the landscape of its aftermath. But also the point the Pope makes about inequality and poverty, about the marginalization of people who are left with no way out. He could only be speaking of those who have survived Haiyan, but who have suffered not just the loss of their families and homes, but also have suffered in the hands of a government that lacks compassion and kindness, that has committed countless injustices against these survivors.

With the Pope coming to visit, you would think it would mean this government reflecting on what it truly means to help Yolanda survivors. Instead it has taken this opportunity to reveal to us how the injustice continues.

The culture of exclusion
In November 2013’s Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis spoke of the economy of exclusion and inequality, the marginalized and the powerless.

“Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.”

He could have very well been speaking about the Philippines, pre-Haiyan, and certainly post-Haiyan.

Because in truth survivors of Haiyan have nowhere to go for the help that they need. And contrary to Aquino government officials’ declarations about how much money they’ve put out, how many bags of relief goods they’ve distributed, how things have normalized in places like Tacloban and across Eastern Visayas, anyone who listens with heart wide open, who hears what is unsaid, if not who goes to this region, would know of the dire needs still. Yes, Tacloban might be “normal” because there are students going to schools and employees going to work everyday, because hotels are open and being renovated, because restaurants and bars are sprouting up in the small city.

But also one knows these are industries that are alive because of the influx of relief and rehabilitation workers, where the hotels and streets and restaurants are filled with foreigners, where the disparity is in the fact that as you go further away from the city, the more you will see the tents and the poverty, the neglect and the sadness. There are schools, yes, but these are students who continue to suffer a heavy heart from memories of Haiyan. There is work, yes, but these are employees who struggle to make ends meet, with the price of goods still higher than normal, with “normal” living not quite normal still.

The beautification project
Pope Francis coming to visit was about touching base with these people, and seeing the context within which they live, within which they continue to suffer. One had hoped that the Pope’s arrival would mean a real change in the plight of Haiyan survivors, where the government could have used the past year to build back better, to give citizens their due.

Alas, it has turned into the most superficial and shallow of beautification projects, where even those who live off Manila’s streets, where the Pope’s convoy will surely pass, are being told they will be relocated elsewhere, given homes, yes, but disallowed from selling their wares – or begging – on the streets.

And in Samar and Leyte, where things are bad to begin with, the Pope’s arrival only promises more suffering.

In Palo, Leyte, which is near the Tacloban Airport, residents who own and live in ancestral homes that survived Haiyan are being told to vacate their homes as it is to be demolished for a road widening project. These are Palo homes that have been there for hundreds of years, and residents who have lived there all their lives.

Seven thousand families in Tacloban are set to be displaced as well, for another road widening project that is said to have been planned even before Haiyan hit. One would think though that since Haiyan hit, these plans should be put in the back burner, as the last thing survivors need is to be displaced again, a year after the storm.

In Palo, there is news of relocating Haiyan survivors to permanent housing built for them, which is to happen in November, a year since Haiyan. But one can’t help but wonder what these permanent homes look like, and how livable these actually are, given the fact of that first batch of bunkhouses judged as unfit for humans. And what happens to people who have found whatever work they might in Palo, or Tacloban, who are to be relocated elsewhere, farther away from where they have begun to live their lives again?

The Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) has asked the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) to beautify the Tacloban airport, as this is where Pope Francis will be welcomed. They forget that the Pope would appreciate seeing how bad things still are at the airport, and he needs to know that so many residents of Leyte and Samar wouldn’t be able to afford the flights back to their homes these days, what with jacked up prices that all but allow only the wealthier among us – if not the foreign aid workers – to avail themselves of the few flights there are to Tacloban.

More than this government missing the point of this 2015 Papal Visit, what this reveals close to a year after Haiyan, and four months before Pope Francis visits, is this government’s continued and utter lack of compassion for these survivors. They do not care about what these survivors need, they remain deaf to their pleas.

One hopes the Pope will know enough to see behind this government’s grand and Imeldific beautification project.

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