WE are a nation accustomed to disaster. Whether the calamity is natural or manmade, it hardly seems to matter. We are as used to earthquakes and typhoons as we are to overloaded ferries sinking and badly constructed buildings collapsing. For sure, many of our disasters are world class. The sinking of the Doña Paz ferry in 1987, when some 4,000 died, is described as the world’s worst peacetime maritime disaster. As many as 5,000 to 8,000 were believed to have perished in a flood that hit Ormoc, Leyte in 1991. Just over a year ago, some 1,500 people were buried in mudslides in Aurora and Quezon. The list is long and the numbers are just one indicator of how horrible these disasters were.
Tragedy struck again at the Ultra stadium in Pasig City today, when 73 people, many of them women and elderly, met their death in an early-morning stampede while lining up to be admitted to the first-anniversary celebration of the wildly popular TV game show, "Wowowee." Although the casualty count is far smaller, this disaster is as horrific and as senseless as any of those on the list above. What makes it particularly poignant is that the casualties were poor people lured to the stadium by the prospect of winning P1 million. The news reports (see here and here) have noted this, citing the desperation of poor Filipinos, some of whom have been lining outside the stadium for three days.
The responses so far have been predictable. President Arroyo ordered a probe and was seen visiting the victims in the hospital a few hours after the story broke. Government agencies were quick to respond and ABS-CBN, the network that produces the game show, mobilized all its resources, including some of its most high-profile talents like Kris Aquino, to respond to the tragedy.
The news cycle as far as disasters go is predictable: First the story breaks, followed by heartbreaking scenes from the disaster zone, an estimate of the casualty count and then reports on the government’s and citizens’ response. The next phase of the news cycle will likely be the blame-throwing, the attack and the defense. After about a week or 10 days, the story will likely slide out of top of the newscast and the front pages. The media will move on to the next headline-grabber and the tragedy will be recalled maybe a year after, on its first anniversary, or will merit a one-liner the next time a similar event occurs. Such is life. Such is news.
We have been here before. For sure, there are few things sadder than this: poor, old women being stomped to death while lining up for a chance to escape poverty. The pundits will probably make commentaries on how television, the profit-hungry peddler of dreams, can also be the purveyor of disaster.
But the greater tragedy is really the poverty and despair that haunt so many Filipinos every day, whether or not disaster strikes. Wowowee is only the latest in a series of poverty-induced disasters. Most of those who died in Ormoc, for example, lived on Isla Verde, a sliver of land by the Anilao river, in an area where the trees had been cut to make way for sugar plantations. These people shouldn’t be living on Isla Verde at all, but they were too poor to go anywhere else.
Many of those who perished in Aurora and Quezon were poor as well and lived on fragile, logged over slopes. In both these cases, a combination of unusually heavy rainfall in environmentally fragile areas made poor people victims of disasters of unusual scale.
But the underlying cause is that the poor are so bereft of options that they build their homes where there is land available, even if these places are unsafe. They risk their lives by squatting on shaky riverbanks and eroded slopes, under bridges and alongside railroad tracks because they have no choice. The poor board unsafe ferries, eat and sleep in fire hazards and take rickety trains that fall off the tracks because this is all they could afford. Is it any wonder that they will also line up for days in the rain and hot sun for a one-in-a-million chance to get out of the poverty trap?
The biggest tragedy of all is that it is only when something like Wowowee happens that we realize the depth of their despair.