WORM’S EYEVIEW: What do you do if there’s no government to speak of or turn to?

CAGAYAN DE  ORO (MindaNews/27 December)–As far as I can tell, this is a question that no one has bothered to address, thus one to which we have no ready answer.

Suppose a catastrophe wipes out the officialdom and government is inoperative? What should citizens do, individually or collectively?

This was the case in Tacloban and other places for days or weeks after Typhoon Yolanda struck

The officials, civilian and police, were blown away, swept aside by the storm surge or incapacitated. Those who survived, deprived of means to keep government operational, were unable to function.

Their buildings and offices were shattered, reduced to rubble. The personnel were injured or killed. The bureaucracy was rendered inutile. Facilities and equipment were smashed, files in shambles, operational capability decimated, communication cut off.

In other words, there was no government to speak of, a problem that has arisen in many localities in the past but which no one has raised.

Nothing dramatized the absence of government as the sight of hundreds of dead citizens of all ages on the streets, scattered willy-nilly, untended, decomposing for days.

It took the entry of national agencies to address the chaos and devastation wrought by Super Typhoon Yolanda. It took even longer for any mobilization to take place, as people were left without recourse, dumbfounded, unable to act, unable to take coherent measures. This led early responders from the outside to remark that they seemed like zombies, passive and paralyzed by the sight of utter devastation around them.

Failure to Learn from Experience

The lurid spectacle brought to the fore how, after countless years of recurring calamities and emergencies of all kinds, our society and government, local or national, have failed miserably to learn any lesson in preparedness or coping with emergency.

We all know how regular and predictable calamities occur annually. They strike parts of our archipelago two dozen times yearly on average. The lives lost, the infrastructure destroyed, and the losses to our economy are more or less predictable, as is their regularity.

And yet, all that the resources of government and all that the imagination of government leaders and bureaucrats can muster are weather reports and ineffectual warning systems.

You’d think contingency planning and mitigation systems and structures would have been established by now. You’d think the citizenry, individually and collectively, starting with its first line of defense—the barangay community—would have been capacitated by now with the skills and techniques of responding or coping with emergencies. And you’d think there would be regular drills and simulations in every community by now.

Then they would not be so utterly helpless even without a bureaucracy to rely on. They would exercise initiative and take independent action as circumstances demand.

Failure of Self-Governance

With the formal government knocked out of action, all Tacloban and similarly battered communities could do was watch helplessly and await succor from the national government and external aid. Even for the elementary task of tending to the cadavers or clearing and cleaning the passageways to make way for assistance teams and rescuers to enter, they waited and relied on outside help.

Without the usual command-and-control structures, without officials or persons in authority to guide them, to lead the way, or to give instructions, they were reduced to a pathetic state of helplessness.

Their lives shattered, their institutions and service agencies gutted, their offices unmanned, the survivors had no one to turn to, no barangay or municipal officials, not even the usual politicians with handouts or patronage.

Too stunned to move in any coherent manner, many could only stare at the devastated landscape, transfixed amid the ruins, moving about aimlessly in hopes of finding succor.

They did not organize or confer, or even assemble, to consider what could be done under the circumstances. No one took charge, everyone was left to fend for themselves.

What Citizens can do

When that happens, one tack citizens can take is to invoke their sovereign power to govern themselves or to establish government no matter how temporary or transient. This is a reflex act that citizens or a community ought to develop in order to establish or maintain order, to mobilize and call on one another to undertake contingency planning, generate emergency responses, or utilize what’s available in terms of manpower or resources.

Who else to rely upon but one’s self, then one another, then immediate neighbors and what’s left of the rest of the community?

But this reflex requires a developed sense of community, the communitarian spirit needed for a group to rise in order to secure its collective welfare and security.

Sense of community is something our government and society—battered by two dozen typhoons yearly plus other disasters and cataclysms—should take pains to develop and foster in anticipation of the inevitable emergencies that annually visit us. This may be done through regular simulation or drills in the barangays—where people power and sovereignty are embodied in the convening of the Barangay Assembly which is literally a constituent assembly, the source of all government authority.

But no one takes the initiative, not even the Office of Civil Defense. So our society carries on like Sisyphus year after year as it clumsily tries to cope with disaster, failing each time, losing lives and property every time, and somehow stumbling back on its feet until the next inevitable devastation occurs.

In fact, our communities are badly organized and ill-prepared. Though we manage to survive, we’re not geared for progress, for improving our chances of survival progressively. We do not take pains to learn the lessons to be had from every cataclysm. We’re stuck on accepting the inevitable devastation, just coping with it by improvising.

When do we learn?

We ought to learn the lessons to be had from every cataclysm and hone our ways of coping so that there will be zero fatality at least.

Ours is supposed to be “a government by the people, of the people, and for the people.” So if a unit of government like a barangay or city is rendered inoperative, it ought not to be an insurmountable problem—unless there are no people around. The survivors can form a new government and make it operative even for a short period, if only to secure peace and order, or discourage looting and lawlessness.

It is our failure to take self-governance or autonomy seriously that makes us unable to do so. Time and again, this issue emerges in certain parts of our archipelago. But we do not measure up; we thrive on dependency.

It is time we learn to become less dependent on outside help and be more self-reliant.

The utter destruction and disarray in Tacloban made observers remark that it had no government. They were only partly right, because the survivors, no matter how dazed and overwhelmed, were still around, still on their feet, still able to function with whatever little energy or motivation they had left.

If they had had the motivation and the training, or the habit and the urge to spring to action amidst adversity, they could still have assembled and considered ways of coping with their predicament and carry on as a community.

They would not have had to feel so helpless or so paralyzed; they could still pool whatever individual or group capabilities were at hand, be the government of the people, and organize or start the clean up.

Which of our communities today has bothered to take initiative and prepare itself for such recurring, inevitable contingencies? Which ones today are accordingly organized and disposed to cope with emergency, able to meet the next round of devastation caused by a Sendong, a Pablo, or a Yolanda?

In other words, where can one find a government by the people, for the people, and of the people among the 42,000 barangays, and the hundreds of municipalities, cities, and provinces above them?  (Manny Valdehuesa writes from Cagayan de Oro and is the president and national convenor of Gising Barangay Movement Inc. He can be reached at valdehuesa@gmail.com.)