Editorial: Learning from lines

·3 min read

Filipinos have learned to queue despite flare-ups of bad habits like cutting into lines; allowing friends and even strangers to insert in the queue without considering the others who also wait in line; and most frequently ignoring the courtesy of lining up by insisting on the importance of one’s time or one’s connection to this or that official.

Lines reveal the realities and priorities of Filipinos. For months, there are few lines of citizens seeking first or second booster shots to protect them from the coronavirus disease (Covid-19), less feared than economic survival or enforced quarantine.

On Saturday, July 23, 2022, chaotic lines crisscrossed and looped around the Lapu-Lapu City Hall, a scene replicated across the nation as citizens sought to register on the last day for the registration of voters. One hopes the turnout was motivated by civic duty and not an interest to cash in on vote-buying.

Citizens also line up for aid: senior citizen’s financial assistance and pandemic “ayuda” in cash or kind from the local government, as well as free food and other basic goods from the community pantries that citizens put up when government aid trickled and vanished.

Even without a costly transport study, government officials have only to join the millions who queue up to commute for work and fall in line again to return home. If officials want to solve the challenges citizens grapple with daily, the snaking lines that trail jeepneys, buses, and other vehicles for hire will accommodate them if the technocrats come early and are armed with patience and perseverance.

Fortunate citizens spared from the necessity of lining up can observe how their fellow Filipinos queue with a variety of “attachments”: umbrellas for rain or searing sun; water bottles, fans, hats, and shades for fighting dehydration, headache, and heatstroke; wheelchairs, canes, and folding stools for those facing mobility challenges; and infants and children attached to mothers and solo parents.

The spectacle of human lines draws a variety of responses. While community lockdowns forced businesses to close and hundreds of thousands lost their job or were furloughed, the crisis drew out the empathy of citizens who also faced the same constraints posed by the pandemic and lockdowns but shared their resources with those who were more vulnerable in the crisis.

Despite lack of preparation, community pantry organizers around the country commonly experienced having unanticipated offers of goods to be shared, as well as time and helping hands.

Yet, the lines of people drawn to community pantries concerned authorities. The National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NFT-ELCAC) scrutinized community pantries, sniffing out conspiracies in some organizers’ penchant to quote Karl Marx (“from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”) and the “real intent” of community dole-outs to shame and taunt the government for its far from adequate efforts to plug the holes in the local economy and the Filipino psyche laid bare by the pandemic and the government’s quasi-military response to a health crisis.

People forming lines, or not, may be politicized. Commuters snaking and looping around transport terminals and roadsides are apparently not manifestations of gaps and failures in mass transit and urban planning.

Yet, queues of neighbors clutching bags of vegetables, rice, and food stuff can so alarm the police they sent plainclothes officers to profile the organizers of community pantries, as well as the hungry, the unemployed, and the needy who “threatened” public health by failing to maintain physical distancing while in line.

When the news media reported the red-tagging and profiling that harassed organizers and closed some community pantries, the authorities decried the sensationalism and fake news stirred up by journalists.

A line that begins with human A and ends with human X is far from neutral. We can, if we want to, learn from a line or two.

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