It’s an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. The feudal mindset values conformity with, and loyalty to, one’s collective, while individualism prizes the interests of the individual above everything else. But that paradox was evident in at least two instances as 2021 ended and a new year began.
Neither the injuries or even deaths, nor air pollution, the cost to public health, and the fires they often cause have deterred most Filipinos from meeting every new year with the explosives they aptly call paputok. Not even poverty or the pandemic has stopped them from buying up the entire inventories of the manufacturers of those incendiaries.
They have to have something to celebrate with, and only firecrackers, the more powerful the better, will do. But what is it they want to be happy about — is it the passing of the old year or the coming of the new, about which they’re always hopeful but which, once old, they’re glad to see go?
Or is the seriousness with which they pursue merry-making just one more indication of the live-for-today-forget-tomorrow mindset that momentarily provides some distraction from their desperate straits?
It doesn’t matter, one can almost hear them saying, it’s the fun of it that counts. And never mind the dozens of people, most of them minors, injured in firecracker-related incidents in the poorest communities in which, on New Year’s Eve, the loudest firecrackers were being set off. Forget those with asthma and other respiratory ailments for whom surviving the smog that blankets entire cities every December 31st has become an annual predicament. Never mind everyone else — the children, the neighbors, and the community. What matters is me, myself, what I want.
If no sense of community is evident in the yearly orgy of noise and mayhem that New Year’s Eve has always been in this archipelago, neither was it present in one balikbayan’s allegedly buying her way out of mandatory quarantine in a Makati hotel so she could party.
The COVID-positive traveler from the United States —presumably one of the many who immigrate to that country yearly — described herself as “with connections,” and seems to have infected 15 of those she came in contact with. The latter could have spread the contagion to their own contacts, raising the possibility that she could be responsible for transmitting the disease to a hundred people or more.
As reprehensible as it was, hers could have been only one among many other cases. It raised the possibility that other travelers, of whatever nationality, entering the country could have also paid off the hotels where they were supposed to be quarantined for at least 10 days.
There was already anecdotal evidence in 2020 to suggest that that indeed was going on. But such returning and visiting Filipinos’ escapades are only among the various reasons for the spike in COVID cases, which from a low of 200 or so daily in the first weeks of December had surged to nearly 4,600 by the second day of 2022.
Equally party-loving Philippine-resident Filipinos are even more the cause as they ate out, visited resorts, flew to this or that local tourist destination, and, with the coming of the Christmas season, shopped in this or that mall or in markets such as those in Manila’s Divisoria, and made merry with kin and friends on Christmas Eve and the day itself.
But whether they’re driven by home-grown irresponsibility or by emigrant entitlement, the government response to these latest expressions of the individualism that co-exists with the values of feudal culture was to wash its hands of any responsibility and to put the blame entirely on the seeming offenders.
As usual, government agencies urged the citizenry, as the old year was ending, not to greet the new with firecrackers, even as the police released a list of those firecrackers allowed the public. That list did not prevent the usual injuries and the other harm firecrackers do from happening, underlining the imperative of totally banning citizen access to them, since, obviously, half-measures won’t do.
The same half-measures were evident as the case of the balikbayan party-goer who ignored quarantine protocols went public. Government filed charges against her after an investigation into whether the hotel where she was billeted (as well as others similarly designated as quarantine sites) indeed allowed her, and were allowing others, to come and go as they pleased.
Completely unnoticed and unmentioned were those belated measures’ being an indication that the compliance of both those quarantined as well as of the hotels where they’re billeted are either haphazardly monitored or not at all.
Government sources have hardly budged from their usual recourse of blaming the offenders against this or that policy whenever things go wrong. They lament that Filipinos are “undisciplined,” and “pasaway” (disobedient) rather than reviewing what in existing policies needs revising or even changing completely.
Not that the “undisciplined” and “pasaway” labels often flung at Filipinos are inaccurate. They are among the indicators of the complexities wrought on their psyche by the feudal relations dominant in the Philippine countryside and by the colonial and imperialist occupations of their homeland.
Both petty defiance and self-indulgence are indeed among the external expressions of Filipino psychology. They are as obviously evident as the sun at nine in the morning — and therefore should have been factored into any policy on issues of public concern, such as, for example, banning fireworks completely, seeing to it that the limits in the number of people in public transport and in places like malls and markets are observed, and closely monitoring whether the hotels designated as quarantine sites are in compliance with their mandated responsibilities as well as with health protocols.
The consequences of the failure to do so and of the half- measures in place are currently being demonstrated. More than 150 people, many of them minors, have been hurt by firecrackers and other fireworks that included both those banned and those allowed the citizens whom government spokespersons habitually describe as “irresponsible.” Meanwhile, on the pandemic front, a surge to 20,000 to 40,000 new cases daily by mid-January has been predicted.
But the worst of the consequences of the ineptitude that plagues the governance of this country is its running in place and going nowhere fast. The reason why should be as clear as crystal. No government has ever quite understood the particularities of their constituencies that’s vital to harnessing citizen energies in the making and implementation of the policies that can address this country’s needs.
Arriving at that understanding appears to be the first order of business for any administration committed to bringing about the changes that can lift this country out of the abyss of mass poverty, injustice, and despair to which it has been condemned for decades. There are many instances that validate the need for it: one is the case of President Rodrigo Duterte’s favorite country.
Its understanding of the aspirations, perspective, and psyche of the mass of its citizens was among the factors that enabled the leadership of China to begin that country’s transformation from the basket case of Asia in 1949 into what it is now: an economic power, and a contender for the United States title of global overlord.
Filipino hopes are far more modest than world domination. But as humble as they may be, realizing them will still depend on whether a half-way decent, competent, and incorruptible regime armed with the same level of understanding of its constituents can ever come to power in these troubled isles.
Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).