From my window (Part 3)

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

Excuse the week’s delay in this article. No opinion pieces were released on Good Friday and Holy Saturday. My request to have this posted last Monday and Tuesday was not successful.

COVID-19 Lesson #1 – the natural potential and need for equality are being hammered into the consciousness of humanity by the global pandemic when rank and money does not excuse anyone from the novel coronavirus (yes, it can sometimes buy a little time), where death and a powerful, transmissible illness that can lead to quick death can level a playing field that had always been severely uneven.

COVID-19 Lesson #2 – a national epidemic within a global pandemic shows that families are not enough to sustain themselves in a lockdown or national quarantine situation, and neither can a central government respond with quickness and accuracy (of those in urgent need) that the situation calls for. Even under an Emergency Act that is close to allowing dictatorial powers, the central authority cannot execute effectively from its chosen national agencies without the communities, barangays, towns, cities, and provinces intimately involved in both decision-making and distribution of essential goods and services. Yet, this same set of provincial to barangay units cannot be effective as well without having the perspective and culture of self-sufficiency.

COVID-19 Lesson #3 – describing and teaching society about the features of a new normal, the inevitability of cyclical patterns from climate changes to pandemics and how to prepare for them, the substantial rearrangement of our value system to hue closer to the essential rather than the accessorial, and prioritizing a focused national drive for productivity as the cornerstone of self-reliance. Self-reliance is not a political format. It is a way of life that makes sacred the essentials without which we cannot live. The personal ability to produce goods and services essential for survival must become a family, community, academic, political, religious, and economic mantra more than anything else.

I know that the ideal state of society’s existence is more theoretical than actual. No matter how radical the disruption and cost in lives, the economy and the national psyche caused by COVID-19 have been, learning from painful lessons does not necessarily jumpstart a pearl of collective wisdom. When things normalize, the default is to return a failed system with the hope that global disasters such as this pandemic will not happen again. We can be lulled into complacency when anticipated cures or vaccines become available as they have done before. But then again, in just the last thirty years, how many new viruses have erupted and resisted old vaccines?

The Philippines cannot just dismantle a traditional mindset even its consequences so far have been largely bitter – like the level of poverty, hunger, and lack of opportunity for a great number of citizens. It has also been extremely beneficial to some, and they will not just give up their advantage for the sake of equality. How can the rich and powerful surrender wealth and power to a greater number – even if that is the essence of democracy? That will seem unthinkable to them, and even to us.

There is wisdom in moving towards an egalitarian state. The few good examples in the world, mostly in Scandinavian countries of Old Europe. They are among the most envied countries in terms of development, education, health, and happiness. They experimented with political hybrids of democracy and socialism. I hope their success will encourage other nations of the world to follow.

COVID-19 continues to show us today how the small, ordinary people of society are the ones that keep a nation moving. Yes, businesses are continuing to support as many employees as they can despite the shutdown. The government is pumping in hundreds of billions of pesos from both the national and local levels. Yet, money is not truly the factor that keeps society moving. It is people. It has always been people. And the availability of food.

Money may motivate people to share their time and talents but caring for others can even be a stronger motivation. The doctors, nurses, and hospital staff take care of us when we are sick. The garbage collectors, transport drivers who deliver the goods we need to live, farmers and fisherfolks, policemen and soldiers, and all the other frontline make collective life possible. It would be the greatest insult to claim that money is the one making them do all their work.

COVID-19 has made this simplistic statement full of natural wisdom, enough to bring some sense into what is happening today. “All the money without food cannot save us, but all the food without money can.”

When made me learn Lesson #1 is precisely the dramatic reminder that it is all of us that is the collective mechanism of community and societal life. It was never money. But it was money that rearranged the natural equality of man, money that built categories making some very important and many with little value. In this 21st century, COVID-19 signals a great rebirth of forgotten values and priorities.

When there has been a global behavioral pattern established throughout the existence of human societies, where might is right, where nature’s wealth is controlled by the more powerful, where the tip of the pyramid rules the whole pyramid, any radical change will be fiercely resisted. If not for nature intervening with a power that can make the totality of mankind look helpless, there will be no hope of change so radical that can make the bottom of the pyramid represent the governance of the whole. But COVID-19 is here and forcing us to learn new things to survive.

If COVID-19 fades away and does not resurface, humanity will more quickly forget the new lessons than reform the way societies conduct their lives. The odds are, however, that COVID-19 will not go away fast. Even if it does, we can anticipate new viruses to emerge. Life has become a very strict teacher, it seems.

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