Editorial: After Ulysses, after Yolanda

·3 min read

WE RESPOND to the pain of others in different ways.

Since last Wednesday, when typhoon Ulysses swept across four regions of Luzon, we’ve seen different responses that ranged from shock and anger, to grief and compassion. It is not at all surprising to see people feel some combination of these powerful emotions.

In the small patch of the Twitter-verse where I sometimes linger, the dominant response seems to be active compassion. These past two days, various donation and fundraising campaigns have raised millions. People are sending food, water, blankets, toiletries, and clothes. Citizens have been sharing information about which villages the floods have hit hardest and pleading with government officials to send help.

Of course, there are the recurring arguments about how well or how poorly national officials like President Duterte are responding to these calamities. This is more than partisan bickering. Even if these arguments can often feel frustrating, these are necessary.

In a country that often endures more than 20 tropical cyclones in a year, the climate emergency and disaster preparedness need to become more prominent parts of the public’s conversation.

We have a lot of work to do to educate ourselves, for example, about the connections between the climate emergency and the increasing risks of infectious diseases and respiratory ailments. This year, the Covid-19 pandemic reminds us just how frail some countries’ public health systems are, how ill-equipped to bear humanitarian crises. If we truly valued our health care front-liners, we would make additional support for our health care systems and medical research part of the national conversation, too.

There’s just so much to distract us, though, isn’t there? There’s only so much suffering one can regard.

“We would rather push it away and pretend that the ubiquitous grief of the world has nothing to do with us,” wrote Karen Armstrong. “But if we do that, we will remain confined in an inferior version of ourselves.”

In the last two months, some communities in Luzon have been visited by no less than five typhoons. Typing that sentence, I felt gratitude that the places where my loved ones live and work have been spared from those calamities. So, what now? What else can one do to put that gratitude to good use?

Seven years ago, in another November that now feels distant, this was the part where an outpouring of compassion and support held us together. We had just heard the stories of thousands who lost a parent, child, sibling, or spouse at the height of typhoon Yolanda. We had just seen the footage of bodies out in the streets, saw the looks on the faces of those who had survived. We wept, feeling helpless.

And then we put that sense of helplessness aside and got to work. For many weekends, the streets leading to the devastated towns in Northern Cebu were jammed with wing vans and large trucks, all weighed down by the help that millions had scrambled to send. Companies and extended clans agreed to celebrate Christmas more simply that year, and to spend their holiday budgets instead on food, water, and other essentials to help anonymous families who had lost everything.

That’s what I remember most vividly from that time. Not the arguments that eventually broke out among some Facebook friends over the way the disaster response was managed. Not the confusion nor the grief that, on some days, felt like they would never lift. But we got through it, didn’t we? As wonderful as it is to know that we can recover, it’s also what keeps us from making our communities safer. Regarding the pain of others, we need to learn to ask: so how are we going to keep others from having to suffer the way we just did?