PGTW: Dead to rights

POP GOES THE WORLD By Jenny Ortuoste for Manila Standard-Today, 30 October 2014, Thursday

Dead to rights

“The Navotas municipal cemetery is located in an area of crippling poverty. Pictured are human skulls lying in mud.”

This caption accompanies a photograph in a photo essay dated 28 Oct. 2014 bylined Corey Charlton that appeared on the UK Daily Mail’s website.

The article’s title sums up the content: “Playing among the stacked graves of a Manila slum, the children preparing for annual Filipino Day of the Dead festival.”

This particular image (all photos are credited to Ezra Arcayan/Barcroft Media) is a closeup of a cemetery lane, awash in black mud and garbage. In the background are rows of graves stacked four or five high, “condominium-style.” In the foreground are two cracked human skulls lying on their sides.

Next is a photo of two ill-clad boys of seven or eight, one carrying a bamboo ladder more than twice as tall as himself. Their bare feet sink into the filthy, decaying matter on the ground.

The other images are as harrowing – a man climbing a stack of graves, Spiderman-style; a family relaxing in their shack of galvanized iron and fiberboard; a child dancing in all innocence. All these happen on top of or against a background of tombs and grave markers.

Nearly everyone is barefoot. The few who are shod wear flimsy rubber flip-flops.

These scenes of life amid death, worse than in any in a horror movie because they happen in real life, are played out in many public graveyards in the metropolis.

A cemetery’s denizens may earn from collecting and selling junk and garbage, or from services such as gravedigging, maintaining graves or mausoleums, and praying for the dead. Like other slum dwellers, cemetery folk suffer from a lack of or inadequate sanitation, employment, shelter, education, and healthcare.

Public awareness about this issue is not lacking. Each Undas will not be complete an article or news feature related to this in the local and foreign media. A brief flurry of attention, a spurt of indignation – then the moment dies again, and is buried, to resurrect next Halloween.

Thomas Hobbes postulated in Leviathan that in without a government – what he called “a state of nature” – human lives would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Under such a condition, people would not have access to the things that assure comfortable living.

Hobbes wrote this in 1651, 363 years ago. But for these people in the present-day, living with the dead in, to quote Charlton’s article, this “human-remains-strewn cemetery” and others like it, “one of the country’s worst slums,” in “crippling poverty,” having a government has not improved their plight.

In fact, their condition is worse – because a political community should be able to assure the basic needs of its members.

The United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides, in Art. 25, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care and necessary social services…”

How does our government interpret these basic human rights? This endemic poverty is our national shame. For January to June 2013, poverty incidence was at 24.9 percent. For the same period in 2012, it stood at 27.9 percent, a three percent reduction.

In the Philippine Development Plan for 2011-2016, under the government’s Millenium Development Goals, the aim is to bring poverty from 33.1 percent in 1991 to 12.6 percent in 2015.

Given these figures, can the government reduce poverty by around 12.6 percent by next year, to meet this goal? A 10 percent reduction would be a huge achievement – but is it likely? Is it doable?

Meanwhile, the graveyard inhabitants plod along as best they can, scrounging their subsistence from the opportunities that come their way, living among the dead.

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