I am writing this installment, the first of the business year, in a curiously yoga-like position at my desk at home: Facing about 45 degrees, with my left leg resting on the corner of the desk so my knee is about at chest level, my left thigh providing a comfortable place to rest my right hand as I type.
The reason I am obliged to maintain this odd-looking but deceptively comfortable posture is that my left foot is swollen to about one-and-a-half times its normal size and is an angry red color, while the middle toe on that foot, at the moment covered by a thick gauze bandage, is a much more alarming shade of purple and appears to have exploded.
All of this graphic horror was caused by a four- or five-inch long little monster common to the Philippines, the Vietnamese Centipede, which apparently decided my toe either looked like food or a threat to the Socialist Way of Life while I was napping on New Year’s Eve.
It took me until early Saturday morning to figure that out, when I was finally able to visit my very old and very wise local doctor who’s seen it all and rendered a confident diagnosis with just one look at my mangled flipper; I might’ve known sooner, but my visit to the emergency room on the way home from the office on Friday night (yes, I went to work, having very much been brought up in the “walk it off” culture of personal health care) was frustrated by my being continually bumped down the line of patients to be examined by a steady stream of incoming fireworks victims. I counted seven—at least two of whom almost certainly left the hospital with fewer parts than they arrived with—before I gave up and went home.
Despite Health Secretary Janette Garin and President BS Aquino 3rd prematurely congratulating the PNP and themselves for the ‘massive’ reduction in fireworks-related injuries over the weekend, it appears the toll is set to nearly equal or even surpass last year’s official total of 814 (the latest reports as of this writing put this year’s tally around 760).
Virtually unnoticed by the official statistics is the considerable collateral damage from fireworks-caused fires—more than 1,000 shanty houses in just one of several blazes in Manila, and fires in other cities, including one that wiped out 70 homes in Tacloban, the third such fire in as many years since the city was wiped out by Typhoon Yolanda.
Every year the result is the same: The government dutifully issues warnings about the dangers of fireworks, makes some effort to remove the “illegal” ones from general circulation, and then watches as several hundred Filipinos are maimed or killed, and hundreds or even thousands more burned out of their homes by accidents.
Every year, a mild appeal to ban all fireworks is made, and just as casually dismissed, and the whole weird cycle repeats itself. “It’s tradition, you can hardly stop Filipinos from celebrating,” some say, while others point out that banning fireworks altogether will ruin the livelihoods of some entire towns (a great deal of the local economy in Bulacan seems to be based on things that go boom).
The fireworks business is not the only one in the Philippines wherein some fairly consistent level of collateral damage is viewed as society’s laudable pus. (“Laudable pus” is the watery discharge from an open wound, something most modern-day medical professionals would point out is not really a good thing, but which was formerly believed to prevent “ill humors” from accumulating in the body.) Trading a few hundred shattered appendages and burned-down squatter houses for the economic activity is considered acceptable.
The same could be said for the tobacco industry—a 54.5 percent explosion in monthly ‘sin tax’ revenues (which hit P12.59 billion for tobacco products alone in November) does a lot to quiet any nagging concerns about the longer-term costs of smoking-related illnesses. And of course, the granddaddy of them all may be that backbone of the Philippines’ public transit infrastructure, the jeepney, which is stubbornly retained despite being laughably unsafe, inefficient, and only slightly more environmentally agreeable than a tire fire.
None of the ill effects are any more beneficial or worthy of a trade-off than the watery slime leaking out of my overripe toe, but they’re tolerated out of a misguided belief that ‘tradition’ and once ad-hoc economic activities that have become institutionalized are essential. The Philippines will never do away with fireworks or jeepneys or become a society of non-smokers so long as it cannot even envision what an alternative to the status quo might look like.
If the country lacks the courage to explore just a little bit of the unknown in these kinds of small areas, it is little wonder that it hopelessly trails the world in things like innovation, R&D, and venture capital investment.
And unfortunately, there’s no quick solution to it; one will certainly not be found in the same crop of tired old pedants being offered as candidates for next year’s elections. Like my wounded foot, the only real cure may be time—the maturation of a generation evolved enough to be able to decide not to go down the same path as their forebears, and strong enough not to let their enthusiasm and courage wrung out of them along the way.