We called the poor resilient as if they had a choice

Anyone in the Philippines has seen it before: a picture of a man, or a woman, or perhaps a family, wading through floods, their belongings tied to rafts, smiles spread across their faces. The headline below is optimistic, proud even. “Filipinos are the most resilient people in the world,” or “The Filipino people are known for their natural resilience.” The Filipino is shown as a person who’s strong, indomitable, with an unconquerable spirit. As a Filipino, I’m inclined to agree.

But it’s not like they had a choice.

Now, I’m not here to call out optimistic behavior. There are those who are able to keep their chins up high during times of crises. Sometimes it’s all that some can do to cope with disaster. What I’m saying is that we often fail to empathize with the suffering that many of our countrymen – most especially the poor – go through during times of disaster.

The remains of a giant tree, twisted and torn up, lies on the side of a country road in Occidental Mindoro.

I was in Mindoro recently. Much of the countryside was crushed farmland, leveled during the one-two hit of Typhoons Tisoy and Ursula. Lost livelihoods, harvests that never made it to market.

In the coastal town of Sablayan I spoke to a fisherwoman who’d lost a boat during the Christmas storm. She toured me around the town – fallen trees perched precariously on hollow block houses, a vessel that had all but lost its entire front half. She told me about a fisherman who’d gotten caught out in the storm when it hit. They hadn’t seen him since, not even his boat.

Typhoon Ramon had been much worse for her, she said. Back in 2017 when Ramon had torn through Mindoro, her family had been unable to fish for almost an entire year. The dusty remains of her boat’s motor now lies tucked away beneath her kitchen counter.

We made our way down a shadowy alley. At this point she turned and faced me. “Do you know how much a new boat costs?” she asked me. I shook my head. I didn’t.

“More than one hundred thousand pesos. I don’t have the money for a new boat,” she said. She smiled at me, but it was a weak and pained smile. Not a smile of resilience. A smile of exhaustion and frustration.

Meager earnings was why she wasn’t going to afford a new boat. Insufficient livelihood support and creeping corruption was why she might not get a new one, not for a long time. And the thought that she had to go through this once again, so soon after Typhoon Ramon, was reason enough for anyone to be exhausted. She lacked the livelihood resilience that many of us enjoy.

A boat lies amid a pile of rubble, left destitute after Typhoon Ursula. Natural disasters spell catastrophe for rural livelihoods.

That same trip I sat in on a meeting between municipal fishermen and the local government. There was a flurry of questions. Where’s our financial aid? Why hasn’t it come yet? What about new boats? We can’t afford those. It wasn’t resilience that I heard during that meeting, it was pleas for help from a sector of people who ran the risk of losing their whole livelihoods. Such is the reality, and the suffering, of disasters in this country.

So yes, by all means, think that the Filipino is spirited and hardy and “resilient,” so to speak. But just like how we’re told to acknowledge when we’ve had enough and we need to rest, we need to learn to recognize when that poor aren’t just “resilient” in the face of disaster – but rather, that they are suffering, suffering greatly.

Don’t just write them off as resilient. Fight poverty. Make them resilient.