THE Philippines is well known for the risks it faces from natural disasters, and in the aftermath of a succession of tragedies culminating in 2013’s Typhoon Yolanda, has demonstrated a remarkable commitment to better prepare and respond to them.
We think it is long past time to apply the same focus to reducing the risks of man-made disasters as well.
Over the past three months, an alarming rash of serious fires has grabbed the headlines. A few examples: In March, more than 10,000 people were left homeless when fire swept through the densely-packed Parola Compound in Tondo. In April, the landmark Savory restaurant in Chinatown was destroyed by fire. And just Wednesday, a tragic blaze in a factory in Valenzuela City killed as many as 65 people, the worst fire death toll in Metro Manila since the 1996 Ozone Disco fire, which claimed 162 lives.
The Parola fire was attributed to arson, and to add to the tragedy, one of the suspected arsonists was captured and brutally killed by a mob of enraged residents. The Savory restaurant fire was attributed to faulty electrical wiring. And so far as is known now, the latest inferno in Valenzuela was caused by accident when sparks from a welding torch ignited some chemicals.
Each of these three fires – three among many – is in one way or another an indictment of the appalling complacency this country has towards public safety risks. According to most sources, about 30 percent of Metro Manila’s residents live in densely-packed slums of “informal settlers” or squatters. Even though these areas are prone to frequent, large-scale fires that wipe out hundreds of homes at a time, efforts to move the residents into safer housing routinely proceed at only a casual pace. Inspection and maintenance of existing buildings, particularly the many thousands of older buildings in and around Metro Manila, is as a rule either non-existent or cursory at best. And as the latest fire demonstrates, the country obviously has a long way to go toward making basic safety a part of the culture of the workforce.
Or for that matter, making basic safety a part of the overall culture of the nation. Agencies such as the Bureau of Fire Protection, the Department of Health, the Department of Labor, the Metro Manila Development Authority, the National Housing Authority and others charged with the responsibility for protecting and improving public safety are fighting an uphill battle. Promulgating sensible rules and regulations to help people protect not only themselves and their own property but the wider public as well is largely useless in a society that is strongly inclined not to follow rules. Pleading poverty, ignorance, or inconvenience, many Filipinos simply ignore even the simplest, most sensible guidelines, yet are confused and angered by frequent tragic fires, hopelessly congested and dangerous roads, and frequent floods caused by trash-choked drainage systems.
Government can legislate lawful behavior but it cannot legislate the people’s frame of mind, and without the latter the rules simply do not work. And we see the tragic results of it more often than we should: Disasters like the Valenzuela inferno are the bonfires of our vanity that we are somehow charmed enough to be able to ignore everyday safety risks, because calamities only happen to other people.
We would hope that tragedies like the Valenzuela fire would be more than enough of a lesson to inspire our people to be more safety-minded before they fall victim to a man-made disaster themselves. Likewise, the concerned government agencies should take a hard look at their programs, because no matter how well they may have responded to the Valenzuela fire, 72 preventable deaths were not prevented.