Profiteering from disasters

By Reyshimar Arguelles

After four decades, Mt. Taal is on the verge of erupting. The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology estimated that the process can span from three days to seven months. Either way, this recent calamity will leave much of the CALABARZON blanketed by ash.

And it did after Taal on Sunday spewed tons of volcanic debris into the air in a spectacular yet terrifying show of force that only nature is capable of producing. No casualties have been recorded as of press time, but thousands of residents have already fled the surrounding area as they expect a larger eruption to take place.

Equally dangerous are the ash clouds that are threatening the inhabitants of nearby provinces and going as far as Metro Manila. People are advised to wear N95 air filters to keep themselves from inhaling the debris and acquiring an obscure illness that happens to have the longest name in English lexicon.

But what’s more infuriating than reading pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis is the tenacity of some businesses to capitalize on the calamity. To their minds, of course, any form of human tragedy can be profitable. Such a disgusting display of sleaze can be a good reason for any well-meaning consumer to erupt.

Indeed, there is no damning example of disaster capitalism at its worst quite like jacking up the prices of N95 masks. Vigilant social media users derided stores and pharmacies reported to be selling the masks at twice the retail value, with some establishments selling these effective life-saving devices for P200 a pop. Apparently, not dying from respiratory illness has become a luxury.

What is even more petty is the attempt to rationalize the unreasonable price increases using the law of supply and demand. It seems understandable since markets operate under such a terrible principle, but when you are looking at a humanitarian crisis that cost the lives of thousands, losses to the bottom line shouldn’t be a burden to your conscience.

For its part, the Department of Trade and Industry is constantly checking the market prices of masks and running after those establishments that have the shameless audacity to profit from Taal’s wrath.

Disaster capitalism doesn’t just stop there. Some big businesses in Metro Manila were requiring their employees to brave the lethal ash in the air and commute to work. Not once have these establishments considered that they are violating Republic Act 11058 or the Occupational Safety and Health Act. The Palace and Senator Risa Honitiveros have separately called on the private sector to suspend work until the air quality improves.

Then again, the government cannot easily force the firms to make that call. While the Department of Labor and Employment has issued an advisory telling businesses not to sanction employees who refuse to work due to hazardous conditions, the same advisory also states that the management of these companies still have the prerogative to decide.

It is appalling how disasters are not enough to recognize workers as human beings and not as disposable cogs in a machine that grinds them until they become rusty and dull.

The Taal eruption is a humanitarian disaster in itself, but it is also an opportunity to critique a system that thinks it’s okay to expose laborers and the rank-and-file to health hazards in a bid to generate as much surplus value as possible.

There is no justifying the act of using disasters as a means to turn a profit. And there is no justifying how companies treat people as if they were replaceable parts, not only in times of disaster, but also on normal days when profitability is more important than the need for self-actualization among laborers and the safety of the general community.

For now, let Taal and other disasters not be used for profiteering. But it’s better there will be no profiteering at all.