The moments that I was truly disgusted with the 2014 State of the Nation Address of the President was when he (and his speechwriters) decided to rewrite what we know of the nation, as if we weren’t looking with eyes wide open at the poverty that surrounds us, as if we weren’t witness to how this government let politics get in the way of relief operations in Tacloban post-Haiyan. As if we didn’t see the people of Tacloban and the rest of Leyte living with the dead on their city streets, asking for food and water.
As if none of us brought relief operations there, only to find that none of what we could do was enough. As if we did not know that this government’s goal has not been to build better—for were that the goal, why waste millions on inhumane and unlivable bunk houses? Why not build better the first time around?
It is because this government – more than any other – is in the business of writing-off poverty. And no, it’s not to eradicate it on the ground. It is to re-tell it, to talk about it differently, to make it seem like it doesn’t exist. Walking the streets of Quinapondan, Lawaan, and Balangiga in post-Haiyan, it was clear to me that these were impoverished communities before Haiyan, with make-shift homes without toilets, with no accessible health services. It begs the question: why would the government want to build better here after the storm, when it had so little to begin with?
Too: why should they have been showered with relief goods in the aftermath of the storm, when they’re used to living with so little?
This government is not the first to do this, to play with the poverty threshold to make sure that fewer might be called poor. Right now that threshold is at P53.
That is, if you earn P53 a day, you will not be considered poor according to this government.
That’s P53 for food needs, as well as everything else one might need to be a productive citizen for a day. Transportation expenses, clothing, shelter, electricity and water. It includes personal and possible health care needs. And all anyone needs is P53 a day for it.
What does P53 buy? IBON Foundation Executive Director Sonny Africa says that’s about enough for a kilo of rice and three to four pieces of pandesal. That, of course, is if any of us will have that complete amount to spend just on food. Because there are the rest of the things that we do need to spend on, like water and electricity, transportation, and whatever else we might need.
That’s also if P53 a day were for merely one person. But what of a father who earns just that amount for his wife and three kids? Even if the mother were earning as much per day, that still means no P53 a day for each of their kids.
One of course can already hear The President’s Men and Women —and I mean including his social media trolls—saying, well, if they can’t afford it, they shouldn’t have any children!
That is how idiots miss the point.
We would be told that from the beginning, what this government was very conscious of during Haiyan relief operations was protocol. There is a system for distributing relief goods, a system for recovery, a system for rehabilitation and rebuilding. Government follows protocol to the letter, and therefore it does its job well.
In the face of the strongest storm to EVER make landfall in the world, of course, protocol shouldn’t be held up like a badge of honor; it should be seen as a system that might be proven dysfunctional in the face of what is unexpected, i.e., a typhoon like Haiyan.
Because the idea that relief goods should be distributed from the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) to the local government unit (LGU), for distribution to the people affected by the typhoon and in dire need of goods, might look good on paper. But days after Haiyan it should already have been obvious that this system was not responding to felt needs. After all, the moment people realized that they could not get in touch with their relatives, and that there was no food or water where they were, they started walking to the city centers, no matter how far.
Were this obvious to government, which was in Tacloban at the onset of the storm, it should have revised this system—and quickly!—because to tell people they would only be given relief goods by their LGUs, when they have traveled far and have no means of going back, was not just insensitive. It was an injustice.
That seven months after the storm, in May, what one saw in Eastern Samar and Tacloban were tent cities and not homes built better, is telling of how much this government cares for those massively affected by the storm. It makes me believe that giving these impoverished towns and communities new homes and better services is not the goal of government.
It makes it easy to imagine that with a poverty threshold of P53 a day, government allows itself to believe that it has given these communities enough. That is also why government gets over tragedy easily enough.
The fictional nation
When PNoy talked about Haiyan in his SONA, he mentioned it to thank the members of his Cabinet, in light of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) saying that they’ve never seen recovery happen so quickly after a tragedy the magnitude of Haiyan. That is, entering the recovery phase eight months after the strongest storm to every make landfall is an extraordinary thing.
And yet the interview with the UNDP official who said this was actually focused, not quite on what government had done, but on how the survivor-communities of Haiyan have gotten on their feet on their own. “I have never seen a people so resilient, so positive, matter of factly getting on with the recovery on their own, frequently in a self-organized fashion, without anybody else organizing them. I have truly come to admire the regular people in the villages, in the cities and towns, and how they just recover and get on with their lives,” said UNDP’s Yuri Afanasiev (PDI interview, 12 Jan 2014).
When PNoy mentioned poverty, he talked about how much lower the poverty incidence is now, from that of last year’s.
That’s because as far as this government is concerned, if you have P53 a day, then you’re not poor. That’s practically saying that the watch-your-car-boy and the tindera of yosi in front of your office building, who walk home to the informal settler community where they’ve built their make-shift homes, who do not have health services and nutritious food in their bellies, who are the most endangered by rains and floods, and every other tragedy: They are not poor.
The fiction continues.