Last Saturday’s stampede at the PhilSports Arena (formerly Ultra) in Pasig, Metro Manila during what would have been the first anniversary of the ABS-CBN noontime TV show “Wowowee” has been aptly described as a sign as well as consequence of how desperately poor most Filipinos are.

Despite government statistics claiming economic growth, the class structure in this country bars the poor from benefiting from it enough, or even at all. The unexpected increases in productivity last year were thus pleasant surprises only for government economists, but meaningless to the legions of the poor, for many of whom hunger is a daily visitor.

But though the Ultra tragedy was obviously an indication of bad times and the desperation they breed, it was also the inevitable result of a culture, or a way of doing things, that encourages people to believe in luck and in getting something for little or nothing— in miracles, instant cures and sudden wealth rather than in hard, painstaking work, planning and discipline.

Forged in the Philippine colonial experience, this culture, once described as “damaged”, is grounded on low expectations of one’s self, of others, and of society as a whole. More than anything else in this country, this mindset has made change–the kind that can only be achieved through painstaking effort–0nearly impossible. Thus are the recipients of OFW largesse content with their relatives’ remittances, and leery of engaging in productive enterprise. The wife abroad (or the brother, sister, uncle) will provide.

The perspective is evident as well in Philippine “revolutions.” The 1896 Revolution collapsed not only from internal squabbles but also from the betrayal that comes so easily to those without the will to see it through. The four days in which they kept vigil at EDSA were enough in 1986 for Filipinos to think they had done their part. It was enough that Marcos had been overthrown; the future would take care of itself.

The other side of these low expectations of themselves and others are the high expectations many Filipinos place on the heavens and their goodness. God–and the Lotto draw, or the “Wowowee” raffle– will provide, or take care.

Both the “Wowowee” crowd and the show sponsors shared the same perspective, bred as they were by the fatal assumptions of the same culture. While the tens of thousands at the Ultra were hoping for a bit of good luck, those who should have been responsible for their safety were also relying on luck. They had no contingency plan, or even a written one, and had not even the imagination to have an ambulance or a first aid team nearby, in case someone among those thousands fainted, or was in some kind of distress.

As it turned out, someone didn’t just faint–74 people were crushed to death while some 200 were injured badly enough to be hospitalized.

Disaster preparedness is not this country’s strong suit. No matter how many people die and are injured in fires, sea disasters, earthquakes, landslides, typhoons and other catastrophes whether man-made or natural, it’s a rare hotel owner who remembers to put a fire exit in his establishment, and even rarer for domestic shipping owners to take on only the mandated number of passengers.

Recall such fires as the one at Quezon City’s Ozone Disco and Manor Hotel where some 400 people died, and which led to the sudden but only temporary enforcement of the building code, specifically that part of it that requires fire exits.

Remember the many shipping disasters–from fires onboard to collisions at sea, among the latter the collision between the oil tanker Vector and the passenger ferry MV Dona Paz in 1989–that have claimed thousands of Filipino lives, but which have not prevented shipping companies from packing as many people as they can into their rickety ships.

Greed and the profit motive are easily identified as the culprits in these disasters. But usually unnoted is the failure of imagination, and the mindset and perspective that assume that if no disaster has so far happened, it’s not going to happen. Add the disdain for the poor and the contempt for their lives that allows shipping companies, building owners (and TV networks) to treat people as disposable cattle, and you have people dying in disasters that with some planning could have been avoided, or their impacts lessened.

Both poverty and the damaged culture pay. Every Philippine government especially the present one has counted on the grinding poverty of the Filipino people to earn it the billions officially-sanctioned gambling brings in almost daily. The Church prates against gambling and condemns it. But some of its bishops accept gambling money, and cardinals have been known to justify it, while the media offer prizes in game shows and raffles to the desperate poor, who in their eyes are no more than numbers in the ratings war.

If blame must be assigned, and someone held accountable, it must first fall on those responsible for the event. It was their responsibility to keep order and insure the safety of those whose patronage boosts their ratings and advertising revenues, but who, in their daily shows, their asinine hosts treat with absolute contempt.

Blame must rest on the poverty rampaging throughout the land, but even more on the uncaring government that denies it. It must rest as well on the media, the Church and every other institution that, in fear of change, encourage among the poor the lethal dependence on luck, prayer, the sweepstakes and the Lotto, and the goodwill of church charities and TV stations the nation saw at work at Ultra last Saturday.

(Business Mirror)

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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