A fiery January

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

I have not lived in a war zone and consider myself extremely blessed because of this. Even though the Philippines has not been at war with a foreign adversary, not since World War II, pocket wars have littered our motherland for over 50 years. The communist insurgency and the Muslim secessionist movement have not allowed internal peace, so to speak, and hundreds of thousands of Filipino lives sacrificed to promote, or to defeat, their causes. It would have been as easy for me as any other Filipino to have resided and experienced the kind of life so interconnected to violent activity around it.

This January, though, has not spared us from conflict or conflagration, directly or indirectly (but still affected). The bush fires were raging in New South Wales, Australia but it seemed as though one continent was burning. The smoke and heat went beyond the territories where the actual fires where ñ and I am not even considering global warming. While much of the world had been experiencing winter of a lowering of temperature because of the season, affected Australian territories were ablaze. Around 29 people have been killed and 2,500 homes destroyed. The cost to land and biodiversity is unimaginable as of yet.

As Australia burned, the US and Iran heated up the world even more. After the US assassinated a very important Iranian personality accused of having carried out death and destruction to American lives and facilities, the world braced itself for the retaliation of Iran. And Iran did not disappoint. It fired missiles towards American military bases in Pakistan and panicked a whole community of nations. Even though the retaliatory strikes were meant more to satisfy an angered people, basically because the missiles hit their targets but did not cause American casualties, It did manage to frighten people from many countries.

If the US responded militarily to the Iran missile strikes another war would have broken out immediately. Other countries would have been drawn in the conflict ñ armed and not just political. Even a nuclear alternative must have crossed the minds of those who have nuclear weapons in the first place. Thankfully, from both sides, intelligence won over emotions. The world has not seen the end of it, but both Iran and the US prevented World War II from being triggered. The Philippines, in fact, was so vulnerable to the attendant dynamics of a war between the US and Iran where their allies could also join in. With our OFWs generously spread out in the whole region, there would have been havoc on Filipino lives.

Taal Volcano then goes into a frenzy, bringing alert Level 1 to Level 4 in a matter of hours on a lazy Sunday afternoon last January 12. Teaching Filipinos and the world about the unpredictability and awesome power of natureís forces, real panic overtook the lives of millions and caused hundreds of thousands to flee from their homes and towns located within a certain distance from the angry volcano. Fire, smoke and ash shot up to 14 kilometers above the ground and blanketed the most populous region of Southern Tagalog and Metro Manila.

The fear of the affected ones was palpable in the evening of January 12 up to the morning of the next day. The ash was everywhere and differed only in volume from around the Taal Volcano towns in Batangas to nearby provinces including and beyond Metro Manila. Thankfully, it was at its worst already and things began to settle down by the day up to today.

The fear, though, triggered an outpouring of sympathy and support that had, over time, become less visible in Philippine life. The vaunted bayanihan spirit erupted as fast as the deadly Taal Volcano tantrum. I did not know how to take the contrasting emotions of deep, fearful concern about everyoneís security and the astonishment at witnessing the spontaneous generosity and nobility. People opened their homes, local governments immediately mobilized and supported their evacuation centers, food and relief supplies arrived from a thousand and one sources. A peopleís fear was met with a peopleís love. Everybody, but just everybody, wanted to help and did.

The Taal Volcano brought out the best of the Filipino in the worst of time. How can we miss this lesson ñ that our being one with the highest spirit trying to help those in need is our strongest resolution to the worst of problems? We must rethink our national posture and truly understand the deadly consequences of any sustained movement driving divisiveness in our society. Even the nature of unmitigated competition can be counterculture against a peopleís strength rooted in family, community and bayanihan.

Now, we face another fearful situation when we have not even written a finish to the Taal Volcano threat, this time going by a temporary name ñ new coronavirus. Yes, so new that it has no name yet unlike its predecessor, SARS. In our consciousness, it started as the Wuhan virus because it was identified as having started there. Now, it is the new coronavirus because it is identified to be from that family. It should have a name soon but it spreads itself and global panic even before that.

Many Chinese cities are on lockdown mode, just as a few Taal towns the last two weeks. Just being on a lockdown status already indicates an emergency. That means this new virus has an extreme capacity to contaminate others. Tens of millions of Chinese citizens cannot leave, or enter, specified cities, so much is the appreciation of Chinese authorities on the capacity of the virus to spread. Several countries have also identified people who carry the virus, most possibly because they had come from Wuhan or interacted with others who did.

The Philippines, though, is in a strange position. The authorities cannot say that the Wuhan or new coronavirus is here ñ and cannot say either that it is not. We just do not have the technical capability and facilities to ascertain the identity. What a scary scenario. What a January.