Starting right

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Fun is one of the few things–the uncharitable say it’s the only thing–most Filipinos apparently take seriously. Celebrating the Christmas season is thus serious business, an event to which virtually all the energy of the entire populace is focused for months, and from which no one will be deterred.

The focusing begins as early as September, when the radio stations start playing Christmas songs, and accelerates right after November 1, when some homes start putting up Christmas lights to make even longer what’s already one of the longest celebrations of Christmas on the planet.

Officially the Christmas season begins only on December 16, and ends on the Feast of the Epiphany on the first Sunday of January, which made the season seventeen days long this year. But as early as the first week of November, things begin to slacken as office workers begin thinking bonuses and parties, and students become nearly impossible to motivate, part of the reason being the second semester’s being so ill-timed as to begin in the same period.

There’s a seeming correlation between the Christmas season’s coming earlier and earlier and the worsening of the Philippine economic, social and political crises. Social psychologists will probably say that the eagerness with which much of the populace anticipates Christmas has less to do with religion than with a national desire to escape lives full of strife, disasters both man-made and natural, uncertainty, despair and fear.

As eagerly as they anticipate it, just as eagerly do Filipinos try to halt the Christmas season from passing–to stop time by getting as much fun and revelry out of it as possible.

It’s a “tomorrow will take care of itself” and “let’s live for today” attitude that’s been this country’s undoing because it doesn’t count the consequences the day after. It wouldn’t be so bad if it were expressed only in gift-giving, feasting, family reunions and get-togethers. The trouble is it isn’t, and while it’s evident throughout the season, it is most pronounced on New Year’s eve, when, as midnight approaches, all hell breaks loose as thousands upon thousands of fireworks and firecrackers are lit, supposedly to ward off unfriendly spirits.

For decades the costs of warding off those spirits have been higher than whatever mischief they could have unleashed on a country which doesn’t need such spirits to assist its yearly dance with disaster. Indeed the effort pays off only in adding to the harvest of misery in this archipelago, in terms of injuries, deaths, man-hours wasted, pollution and garbage.

So used has the country been to injuries from its continuing tolerance of the sale and distribution to the public, and its use of firecrackers during the Christmas season, that the annual toll in limbs and lives lost is assumed to be an indivisible part of season of peace. Some 500 people had been injured nationwide as of January 1, 2005, with 27 of them losing limbs to make them severely handicapped. “Only” eight people died in the 2004 revelries compared to 21 in 2003. The most injuries were due to firecrackers; 22 were due to fires; and 35 to stray bullets.

These–and the pollution that on New Year’s day hangs like a shroud over Philippine cities, as well as the garbage that litter the streets–all have a cost. Besides the medical bills to be paid and the property losses people suffer (some New Year fires are caused by firecrackers), there are also the man-hours lost each year by workers too injured to report for work, about which, unfortunately, there are no statistics.

What the statistics for 2004 do show so far is that there has been no appreciable change for the better compared to past years. The injuries and deaths followed the usual warnings from the police threatening the prosecution of anyone who manufactures and sells illegal firecrackers; an announcement, also from the police, that the public may explode firecrackers only in “pyrotechnic zones;” and the much-publicized “sealing” with masking tape of the muzzles of police service pistols.

On the basis of the injuries sustained by the usual idiots who insist on exploding extra-powerful, illegal firecrackers, the only conclusion one can make is that no one’s really paying attention to any of these warnings, among them one policeman who fired his gun during New Year’s eve anyway, and seven other semi-morons who, for some reason, had access to firearms. But one other conclusion can be made, given the fact that most of the injured were children: it is that fireworks and firecrackers are devices too dangerous for the untrained to handle.

No firecracker-related injuries were reported in Davao because the sale and personal use of firecrackers has been banned there since 2003. No one seems to have bothered to check in Cotabato and General Santos City, where the same ban was also imposed in 2003. For 2004, Koronadal City also banned the personal use of firecrackers; no statistics have so far been made available on the results of the ban.

The likelihood, however, is that even if there were firecracker-related injuries in the three latter cities, they would be considerably less than the national figures, or those in metro Manila. Allowing the personal use of firecrackers just doesn’t make sense from either a health or economic point of view–and never mind the self-serving arguments of the firecracker manufacturers whose antiquated manufacturing and distribution processes take their toll every year in terms of explosions and fires, and some of whom manufacture those bombs they call firecrackers which tear limbs from bodies and eyes out of their sockets.

There is no arguing against the harm caused by the personal use of fireworks and firecrackers–in contrast to their use by professionals hired to put on public shows, as happened in Makati last week under the auspices of the city government.

The US Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control reports that in those states where fireworks are legally available to the public (some US states prohibit their personal use), injuries ranging from the mild to the severe have been common.

The NCIPC says that about 45 percent of those injured are children, while 72 percent are males. Most of the injuries occur on the Fourth of July (US independence day) and New Year’s eve. Hands and fingers are most commonly injured or lost, followed by eye and head and face injuries. Fireworks also cause fires, says the NCIPC.

These fireworks include the sparklers most Filipinos think are harmless, as well as rockets and firecrackers. In the US, says the Center, most injuries to children were caused by sparklers. Wayward rockets also cause injuries and fires.

The Center’s findings indicate that injuries are inevitable whenever fireworks are handled by people untrained in their use, particularly children–indicating that efforts to reduce or eliminate injuries will fail even if the police were dedicated to the task, which it isn’t, so long as fireworks including firecrackers are accessible to the public.

Children, says the Center, don’t have the physical coordination needed to safely handle firecrackers and fireworks. Even adults, especially those who’ve had one beer too many, have also been known to hold on to a firecracker and to instead throw away the cigarette with which they lit it.

In the Philippines as in the US, the accessibility of firecrackers encourages children and the irremediably stupid to make one big firecracker out of unexploded firecrackers–an experiment that more often than not leads to disastrous results like the loss of an eye or fingers.

The solution may not be to ban fireworks altogether, given the cultural undertones they have in this country, but to limit their use to firms whose personnel are trained to handle them, and which can put on fireworks displays on such occasions as New Year’s eve, instead of allowing the public free access to devices that in many ways are deadlier than guns (the legal possession of which requires a license).

Such a policy if adopted could reduce if not eliminate the injuries, man-hour losses and other costs the country has been starting every New Year with since God-knows-when. While it may be too late to start this year right, it isn’t for 2006. And unlike such hopes as “acting like one nation,” it’s actually doable, for a change.

(Today/abs-cbnNEWS.com)

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