A WEEK into 2015 and our news is filled with you. Which is to be expected of course, and you’d be happy to find that the phrase “Mercy And Compassion” has become part of the narrative of your visit, the declared theme of the five days you will spend in a nation that declares itself as predominantly Catholic whenever convenient.
And there’s no other time like the present really, what with your coming visit. Upon the request of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), the President has decided to grant clemency to a yet undecided number of sick, old, and abandoned prisoners. That seems to be the limit to this government’s mercy and compassion – they are consistent about refusing to discuss the plight and release of our 491 political prisoners.
It has also become obvious with this new year: mercy and compassion are only possible when it is easy and convenient for our leaders to espouse it. It does not go very far.
Dear Pope Francis, while the world welcomed the new year with your words about justice and love and the end to slavery, we in the Philippines began the year feeling more enslaved than ever.
We could talk about the majority of our workers who are hired on a contractual basis, and are thus enslaved by employment that is unjust, with no social security and health benefits, on minimum wage or less. As it is, our minimum wage is not enough for daily food and non-food needs, and even for those who are on regular employment it is difficult to make ends meet.
But we do what we can. Many of us know to be thankful for whatever employment we might get, knowing how so many others have so much less. It allows for the injustice to continue, but it ensures the survival of many. Besides, in a nation where people turn to faith in the face of misfortune and want and need, there is always something or someone to be thankful for.
At the very least though we expect a government that will not rub salt into the already deep wounds that our labor system and conditions inflict.
But we are not so lucky. Government welcomed us all to 2015 by giving us a fare increase on our trains, the same trains used by a majority of our working class and students.
This, after a 2014 where these same trains endangered the lives of commuters, stopping in the middle of its tracks, and once even getting derailed and landing on the highway that it traverses. This, after these trains were found to be in “alarming condition” and “in an emergency situation.”
Our government insists that this fare hike is precisely for fixing the trains. But does it not behoove this government to care for its citizens, ensure the public’s safety, by first investing in making public transport safe and up to standard? Is it not government’s responsibility to care for those who are already getting the short end of the stick, and are suffering under the current status quo?
The fare hike as such was no surprise, dear Pope Francis, because this is a government that seeks to earn as much as it can from its citizenry, no matter how little some of its members earn, no matter the lack of just wage and social security. And what is the fare hike but a way to earn from the thousands of Filipinos who use the trains every day, to get a bigger chunk of their hard-earned money, even when public transport is a public service we all deserve.
“A savage capitalism has taught the logic of profit at any cost, of giving in order to get, of exploitation without thinking of people… and we see the results in the crisis we are experiencing.” You said this in 2013, dear Pope Francis. Filipinos of 2015 know this to be true.
Smoke and mirrors
Your visit could not come at a better time. But also, it seems important that we see how your arrival is also precisely the distraction our leaders need at a time like this.
Because on the day when we were all reeling from the fare hike, what we heard from our government was what they had to say about securing you during your visit. They called on us to be calm, and much was said about making sure that we are at our best behavior during your visit.
As I write this, our news programs and media sites are filled with news about the preparations for the Papal Visit. The police is making sure that people welcome you, hear Mass with you, in an orderly fashion, within tightly guarded spaces. The health department will be caring for all those who might be injured or fall sick in the crowd.
The roads you will be passing are being cleared as we speak, both in Manila and Leyte. And when we speak of clearing, we mean cleaning and beautification, in all its forms including erasing the hunger and poverty that we see every day. We hear that rerouting schemes are already being implemented this early, two weeks before you even arrive. Tarpaulins welcoming you were already up on our highways in December.
It makes sense that while Mercy And Compassion are terms that we will hear and see a lot of in the coming weeks, it is really all smoke and mirrors, this Papal Visit a way to distract us from the real conditions of our existence, the real injustices that we live with.
According to the evening news on Tuesday, you have requested that there be no State Dinner in your honor, dear Pope Francis. One can only hope that you continue to see beyond the trappings, the pomp and pageantry, the government putting its best foot forward for your visit, and know that the real state of nation is to be found among those that your visit silences.