(NOTE: This was written in February 5, 2006 as a reaction to the Wowowee stampede. It evolved into a discourse on politics, economics and poverty. This summarizes that the end goal of any government, no questions asked, is to enable its people to live well. The Wowowee disaster shows you what happens when you leave poverty alleviation to the charlatans.)
“It is not the P47 to the dollar that matters, but 70 lives to the peso.” “Superficial lang yan [the P47 to $1 rate]. Marami pa ring naghihirap sa Pilipinas.” All the headlines and stories on the Wowowee stampede disaster can be best summarized as “74 dreams crushed” which is how the Inquirer headlines actually goes. But what all these highlights is the true, imminent danger that poverty faces: the desperation of the spirit.Just imagine what they were all waiting in line for:
A P2.5-MILLION house and lot package, P1 million in cash and a passenger jeep were to be the top prizes in what would have been the first-anniversary celebration yesterday of “Wowowee.”
A “home partner” was to win the same prizes as the studio contestant winner through an electronic raffle system involving text messages sent to a designated cell phone number.
A minor raffle would have also given away P10,000 in cash each to a number of people in the audience. (italics are mine)
The daily show draws around 5,000 people to the ABS-CBN studios, with the main attraction being a “Pera o Bayong” segment where they could win up to P2 million instantly. Everyday. So for the planned anniversary show yesterday where the stakes were much higher, a crowd ganged up on the Philippine Sports Arena (formerly Ultra) in numbers much higher as well.
Rene Luspo, the ABS-CBN chief of security worked with the assumption that there could be about 25,000 people in attendance. The arena, from the all bleachers to the covered areas can accommodate 17,000. At the moment the stampede occurred, there were 30,000 people waiting in line, roughly 13,000 more than what the stadium can hold. “Our priority was to make sure that we can only accommodate what the stadium can hold.”
So at around 6:30AM yesterday, the guards announced that they were about to hand out stubs. There will be one for each person and only those with stubs will be allowed inside. Inevitably, this crowd of 30,000 pushed forward to the front (and only) entrance gate, wedging those first in line between a mass of people and the perimeter gate until it eventually fell. Additional reports added that the sound of the gate crashing sounded like a bomb exploding, thus intensifying the mass hysteria and amplifying the disaster itself.
74 people died and 500 are left injured, all for a stub that would guarantee them at most a chance at winning something big. But can we really blame them? Where did things go wrong?
In my social science classes, we spoke of how rebellions and revolutions in history, particularly those in China, can be fueled by desperation. Whether we look at the Taiping or Boxer rebellions, the result can only be tragic no matter how noble — to reform society — their cause. While yesterday’s stampede is no revolution, people were deperate as well and had only one cause: to change their lives for the better. They all held on to an ideal — a house and lot package, or a jeepney that would give them steady, daily income — that led them to camp outside of Ultra for three days and to rush to the front when the guards started handing out stubs.
We have long known that most of our fellow Filipinos live in abject poverty. “The reality today is that there are plenty among our countrymen who are poor,” says ABS- CBN vice president for entertainment Charo Santos-Concio. “We only want to give them hope. We’re all human, and I think most of us have tried our luck in games of chance. But we are not encouraging mendicancy, [the state of being a beggar].”
Yet, when the survivors were asked about their future, there are two basic answers: (1) “what happened isn’t Willie’s fault” and (2) “we hope there is another one next week.” They hold on to their heroes and look forward to another chance. This, more than the fact that they’re willing to gamble their lives on a game show, is what desperation in poverty means. I am sure that the suits in ABS-CBN know that evil persists when good men do nothing, but good is often in the eye of the beholder. Regardless of their good intentions, they feed into a desperate people’s need to satisfy their most basic needs. They supply fuel to the fire of their idealism.
Earlier on, as has been running since yesterday, celebrities and sober politicians appealed for sobriety, due process and anti-politics. I actually salute Erap for once; he didn’t launch an anti-government tirade after the tragedy, but simply offered mass for all those affected. And as I was writing this on the way home, Mayor Lito Atienza most recently appealed that this event not be used for politicized ends. He even went on to deliver a [flawed] comparison of other stampedes in history, and claimed [in an ad hoc manner] that too much politicking has kept our people in poverty, therefore leading to tragedies such as this. He ends by reiterating that we stay politics free.
Looking beyond the hypocrisy of his statements, I will have to disagree. This event needs to be politicized, but not in the typical trapo manner where we start pointing fingers. Now, more than ever, our government has an impetus to address the problem of poverty head on.
Our people have been desperate for far too long. Ironically, it has been easy for me to excuse our country. We are a fledgling democracy, we have bad leaders and the burden of our colonial history bears down hard. However, these shortcomings, mistakes and setbacks at the expense of the lives of 74 people and 500 others are utterly inexcusable. I have long lost my rage to raison d’etre; now I have found it again.
At this point, the “high” peso-dollar rate is moot, more so the question of charter change, if we cannot carry our people out of a lifestyle of desperation. I still agree with leaders and commentators such as Lee Kwan Yew and Kishore Mahbubani that we need economic reform first, but only insofar as those are means and not ends. P51 to a dollar means nothing if it doesn’t translate to cheaper goods, services and facilities for 80% of our people. Higher foreign investment inflows mean nothing if it can’t guarantee jobs to the economic classes C, D and E. And lastly, a federal-parliamentary system is nonsense if it doesn’t guarantee that politicians and civil servants can become more responsive to the needs of our people.
We know too well the effect of poverty on our people. The Wowowee disaster only reminds us that poverty costs lives. Our country may go to hell, but damn us twice if we have the death of our helpless people on our soul.