THE AFTERMATH of disasters in the Philippines is in many ways a media event beyond the disaster itself. But not only is the day after a disaster reported without context; it is also an occasion to celebrate Filipinos’ view of themselves as possessing, among other virtues, those of civic-mindedness and selflessness.

Neither the media, officialdom nor ordinary citizens have tired of declaring, in the aftermath of any disaster, that adversity brings out the best in the Filipino. It’s one of the most enduring clichés in these isles of typhoons, landslides, earthquakes and floods of near-Biblical proportions.

But like all generalizations, the claim is only partly true. Disasters also bring out the worst in the people of these isles, including the poor who are themselves the first and worst victims of Philippine disasters — the very same individuals who end up homeless and even poorer than before, and whose children are captured on video swimming in disease-infested waters, or dying of respiratory ailments in evacuation centers.

The usual anti-social tradesmen also see nothing wrong and everything right in jacking up the prices of prime commodities. To the reality of suffering and need they respond with price gouging — as do some taxi and tricycle drivers, who see rain and flood as opportunities for easy pickings rather than threats, or as a chance to reconnect with the rest of humanity.

As for civic mindedness, surely the persistence of the practice of throwing one’s garbage out the window and into the nearest creek, river or ocean must rank among the most telling indicators of its total absence. And then there are those developers who build along riverbanks or on hillside slopes who make a killing at the expense of their fellow Filipinos, who end up during the monsoon season on the second floor roofs of their multi-million peso houses or buried in landslides.

As bad as these instances of anti-social behavior, irresponsibility, self-centeredness and profiting from suffering are, the practice of some politicians of distributing, among the masses huddled in evacuation centers, relief goods with their names and faces prominently stamped on the usual bags of instant noodles and sardines, is arguably in the same category, primarily because it is not only an attempt to curry votes during a calamity; it also targets people at their most vulnerable.

The media have since learned not to give these eminent examples of bad taste and worse politics either space or time. The result is a waning of the practice except among the most stubborn of local politicians, some of whom, during the monsoon rains last week, insisted still on putting their names and faces on everything from bags of rice to bottled water.

What the media still cover are celebrity relief efforts as well as their own — and most especially the latter. Although this time the reporting of the monsoon floods was as complete and as relevant as the circumstances permitted, some media organizations’ focus on their own relief efforts in the aftermath revealed that a disaster may not be as much an opportunity to respond to human need as a chance to project themselves – and through their own news pages and news programs too.

These efforts are as self-serving as those of the politicians’, but have not met with the same contempt. Relief goods recipients declare that the presence of celebrities and of media representatives among them has lifted their spirits, for example, while, on the other hand, the same recipients have expressed their dismay over politicians’ using disasters to advertise themselves.

The obvious question is whether, in the context of disasters as colossal as last week’s was, the motives behind relief efforts by whatever group or individual matter. It should be evident that every effort to ease suffering should be welcomed. But there is a difference between politicians’ using disasters to advance their electoral aims — and what’s more, most probably using public funds in the process — and such private efforts as those of celebrities and media organizations.

One suspects that although unarticulated, the sense that in the first instance disaster victims are being made to feel grateful to this politician or that for being provided relief — and with public, meaning their own, funds — drives the disdain for such efforts among the victimized.

Meanwhile, acceptance of media organizations’ providing relief is consistent with the widespread perception among the public that the media can and should do more than provide information, as has become evident in the popularity of the public service programs to which citizens appeal whenever they feel aggrieved, or expect government action on matters that concern them.

Approval of celebrity involvement in relief operations, which the media dutifully cover in conjunction with their own efforts, is an extension of citizen perceptions of these personalities as the true-to-life heroes and heroines they portray in the movies and television dramas. It explains the noticeable absence of movie and television villains in the relief operations the media cover, and the overwhelming presence instead of young, up and coming stars and TV anchors – in general, the well-scrubbed ideals of popular culture.

In addition to the instant noodles and sardines they dispense, these pop icons do provide additional relief in the form of momentary escape from the reality of neck-deep floodwaters, congested evacuation centers, ruined lives, and an uncertain future.

Into this mix the media and much of officialdom — especially those anxious to evade responsibility for, say, the government purchase of useless rubber boats — throw those clichés of evasion and denial that claim to see the best rather than the worst in that segment of humanity known as Filipinos.

The result is a state of denial among most Filipinos particularly the most victimized – and the near-impossibility of ever addressing the causes of, among other torments, the disasters that periodically afflict this country and its people.


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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