The advent of a new year and the end of the old should be an occasion for assessing what has gone before as well as for looking into what could happen in the next. But the second task is more difficult than the first for being the opportunity for the usual cheer mongers to once more predict that despite its foundations in yesterday, tomorrow will inevitably be better for everyone.
The year 2020 is unprecedented in the horrors it inflicted on this already prostrate country and its people. It practically began with a disaster — the eruption of Taal Volcano on the 12th of January after 42 years of dormancy. It led to the lockdown of several Batangas towns. The ash fall reached Manila and adjacent provinces. Its effects continued to be felt until January 24, among them losses in crops, livestock, and, with the destruction of fish pens, in tilapia and milkfish estimated at over Php 500 million. But far more distressing was the death of and injuries to dozens of people.
The Taal eruption temporarily diverted Filipino attention from disturbing news in early January of an unusual, “pneumonia-like” disease in Wuhan, China that some epidemiologists were saying could spread to other countries. Within a few weeks the Philippines recorded its first cases among Chinese nationals who were visiting the country, after the World Health Organization (WHO) had confirmed the existence of a new strain of coronavirus. It was followed by the WHO’s declaration of a global pandemic of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus whose origins had been traced to the wildlife meat and seafood markets of Wuhan.
From an initial handful, the number of Philippine cases began to mount into the hundreds as February ended, prompting lockdowns in March of the most affected communities, among them the National Capital Region.
The lockdowns cost millions of workers their jobs and forced the economy into a recession. But as in other countries under strongman rule, the pandemic became the excuse for government to expand its powers by militarizing what passed for its response to it.
In the months after March, not only the health and well-being of millions were increasingly endangered as the number of infections multiplied to eventually reach, in December, nearly 450,000, and counting.
Human rights became a major casualty of the contagion, as police and military empowerment led to arrests and the dispersal of demonstrations demanding government assistance; the drivers of “traditional” jeepneys — some of whom were forced to beg in the streets for food and other forms of help government was not too eagerly providing — were prevented from plying their accustomed routes and were arrested when they protested; and the harassments, arbitrary arrests and killings of human rights defenders, independent journalists, farmer and Lumad leaders and activists surged.
Despite the national health emergency, Congress denied in May the ABS-CBN network’s application for the renewal of its franchise while approving posthaste the applications of “friendly” networks. The harassment of the online news site Rappler continued, with the cases against it and its executive editor Maria Ressa prospering in the courts.
The trolls and print and broadcast media hacks of the regime, together with the State media system, predictably extolled those assaults on press and media freedom, while either defending or totally ignoring in their issuances any mention of those agencies of government whose officials had been accused of corruption and other wrongdoing.
Those agencies included the Bureau of Immigration, where a so-called “pastillas” scheme (pastillas are sweets that are among Filipinos’ preferred take-home gifts from their travels) allowed visitors from China who were willing to cough up Php 10,000 in bribes entry into the country; the PhilHealth insurance system, in which an overpayment conspiracy with favored hospitals cost the tax payers billions; the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), in which, said the government’s own Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission (PACC), only 50 percent of the budgets allotted for the construction of infrastructure projects are actually spent for them while the rest go into the pockets of DPWH officials; and, of course, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), which squandered Php 389 million on the “white sand” beautification of Manila Bay, and damaged the environment in Cebu where the crushed dolomite rocks that were soon gone with the first high tide had been sourced.
Meanwhile the pandemic raged, the capacity of the health system was severely strained, and thousands died. Despite the life and death need to contain the contagion, the regime practice of labeling this or that organization or individual a front, a terrorist and/or a member of the New People’s Army (NPA) reached the heights of absurdity in late October when it “red-tagged” celebrities, to whose defense responsible journalists, actors, singers and others in the communication and entertainment fields quickly rallied.
It stopped momentarily only when four devastating typhoons smashed into the country in early November, but immediately resumed even while many communities remained under flood waters, millions had lost homes and livelihoods, and as the floods aggravated the flaws of the distance learning system that had been hurriedly put in place and haphazardly implemented despite the inadequacies of the country’s WiFi connectivity, the unpreparedness of parents and students, and the computers and Internet accounts that poor families could not afford to pay for. At the same time, the arrest and harassment of government critics and of political and social activists continued, with, at one point, President Duterte threatening to defund and shut down the University of the Philippines (UP) for “doing nothing except recruit communists.”
As the year winds down, what has become obvious is that it is not so much volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, floods or even the pandemic that are the major sources of the Filipino affliction. It is the uncaring bureaucrats the voters put in office who cannot abandon their ideological biases, their obsession with pelf and power, and their misplaced priorities to pay some attention to the plight of their long-suffering constituencies.
But most Filipinos— and the year-end surveys are likely to confirm it — will nevertheless tell the polling firms and anyone else who cares to ask that they will face the coming year with hope and even the certainty that their lives will somehow be better than what they had been in 2020. They said the same thing in 2019, in 2018, in 2017, in 2016, etc., and they will be saying that again when 2021 ends even if the year turns out to be another disaster.
Conventional wisdom has always looked at Filipino optimism as a good thing, but is it? By preventing many from taking a long hard look at the social and national predicament rooted in the poverty, bad governance and worse leaders that it has been their misfortune to have, it prevents things from improving, and contributes to their being worse. It is precisely the kind of “positive thinking” that, because it helps prevent change — if the future will be better, why do anything? — the ruling oligarchy approves of and encourages.
What has been happening in this part of the planet over the last seven decades since 1946 should be enough of an indication that the cult of cheer that survives every disaster and resurfaces every year-end serves only the powerful, and least of all those who subscribe to it. But that is a lesson that will take generations to learn, like the many others in the sorry history of this country of willful optimists.