The government, NGOs and media must fully understand and respect the reasons why a big number of refugees in the ongoing Taal volcano disaster would want to get back to their homes and farms/local sources of livelihood ASAP, despite the risks. 

It’s because these local folk, mostly farmers and fisherfolk (or other people with livelihoods somehow tied to the land in the affected communities), are trying to rescue or recover parts of their lives that they were forced to leave behind, including animals, and are trying to find out if and how and when they can return the earliest to rebuild their lives and livelihoods. 

This is not an issue that the volcano-affected folk can cheerfully postpone for tomorrow or next week or next month. It’s an issue that they would want done or resolved now. Yes, their own safety is always a factor. But reviving their daily sources of livelihood, securing the precious resources they left behind, are equally heavy on their minds. If you are poor, you will quickly understand this equation. Which is not to say that the masses, through their own local organizations, should also plan for concrete and doable rehabilitation programs, and think of long-term solutions even now. But the quickest possible return home is utmost in their minds, for very valid reasons.

I know how it feels to want to return home despite the risks, having personally gone through the 1990 earthquake when many households camped out in Burnham and were told not to return to their homes until these were declared safe, and having gone through the same internal and public debates in other similar refugee situations.

If I were on the ground with them (perhaps as a barangay captain or NGO supporter or community organizer), I would lead those who want to want to hold organized and well-planned visits to check/rescue/feed/retrieve what they left behind. We would ask the government, media and NGOs to support these mass-initiated and organized visits while reminding the folk to reassemble at specified times to designated safe pickup points for the return trips to the refugee centers. 

The least that government can do is not to use armed police and troops to block the roads, and not to forcibly hinder the people who are trying to find ways to do such visits. The media and the general public should not presume that the local folk are too stupid to know what’s good for them and thus to justify methods such as lockdowns, which are adopted during security emergencies, in which imminent or ongoing violent attacks threaten public safety and so become the main urgent concern.

It remains fresh on people’s minds how they were cajoled and forced to leave their homes after Yolanda, during the Zamboanga siege, during the Marawi siege, how they were prevented from going back, and when it was clearly safe enough to return, were told that it was no longer practical to return because their former communities are no longer livable, or declared as “hazardous zones” or “no man’s land” and therefore they should rebuild their lives in some other refugee camp or resettlement area elsewhere. This is a profound socio-economic and even political issue, not a mere technical or police question.

Oh, by the way: “lockdown” is such an incredibly wrong and misapplied term, a confused concept, and as a slippery set of policies to use in the current Taal volcano disaster. If we look at the history of the term, lockdowns, in almost all cases, are adopted by schools to keep their students, teachers and staff safe from active shooters or other similar imminent threats of violent attacks. 

Due to the nature of armed civilians going berserk as seen in Western countries such as the US, lockdowns are typically localized or at most city-wide. Boston authorities declared a city-wide lockdown in order to keep people safely indoors while the Boston Marathon bombers were being hunted down. Paris, Brussels, Christchurch, etc. also declared city-wide lockdowns vs terrorist attacks. They were clearly anchored on the requirements of ongoing security operations. When a volcano in Iceland erupted, European aviation authorities imposed a shutdown of airports and thus a virtual lockdown of air transport. But it was nothing as drastic and all-encompassing as what’s now being imposed in several Batangas towns. 

In the Philippines, lockdown mania became popular among AFP-PNP and LGU authorities in response to the Zamboanga (2013) and Marawi (2017) crises, with city-wide lockdowns implemented in Zamboanga, Marawi, Iligan, and Davao. But these were tolerably accepted as necessary measures to pin down and isolate the sources of violence and presumably to keep the public safe by strictly limiting movement and ingress-egress. 

Review all previous media reports on volcanic eruptions here and abroad: Lockdown was never considered an option in such disasters, until some Philippine military-technocratic geniuses thought of invoking it as a convenient overkill mechanism to show their expertise in draconian measures, as if that would relieve the people’s most urgent concerns in the ongoing disaster. #