Home Commentary Sight: Power, invisibility, and solidarity

Sight: Power, invisibility, and solidarity

"I thought I saw one open in an unlikely place — “under the bridge,” literally and metaphorically"

(This is the third and last part of the lecture “Surviving the Pandemic: Solidarity at the Margins” in St. John’s University, New York on December 6, 2021.)

Read the first part: Taste and smell: Hunger and the Eucharist
Read the second part: Touch and Hearing: Incarnation and the groaning of creation

COVID-19 also shows the following damage to our sense of sight whose symptoms are sore eyes, blurred vision, light sensitivity, eye irritation, and conjunctivitis in 81 percent of the patients, one research says.

  1. The Social Gaze

While perfect vision can be restored to patients two weeks after, a different kind of “social gaze” has been exercised by governments on people. The French philosopher, Michel Foucault, analyzes how modern society casts its controlling gaze on the population by acts of control and surveillance. While medieval society banishes the sick and the insane (e.g., Ship of Fools, leprosarium, penal colonies, etc.), modern society controls them and masters them through surveillance like it does quarantine. This is not new; it harks back to the early 18th century during the plagues that stuck Europe.

This is also how the Philippine government exercises control of its people during the pandemic. The picture of military men guarding checkpoints in each and every village is a symbol of the President Rodrigo Duterte government’s militarized approach to a medical problem. The heads of the COVID-19 task force were retired military generals. The main metaphor is that of war. President Duterte did not mince words in his command to the police.

“My orders are to the police and military… that if there is trouble or the situation arises that people fight and your lives are on the line, shoot them dead. Do you understand? Dead. Instead of causing trouble, I’ll send you to the grave.”

Manila lockdown
Armed policemen man a checkpoint in the Philippine capital Manila after the government declared a total lockdown of several villages in the city on April 25, 2020. (Photo by Basilio Sepe)
  1. The Invisible Poor

The surveillance described by Foucault has been applied to all districts and villages. Police power overseas locked down communities. Hungry people who violated the quarantine protocols were arrested, charged with crimes, and some even shot. As of this writing, this violent control continues.

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For this, the poor are sent into hiding, for fear of the virus but more so, for fear of the police. I have journeyed with these people living in the streets. Before the pandemic, they live on carts, they collect garbage in houses and sell them to get little money for their food. But they could no longer do that during the pandemic. The government policy is to “stay at home.” What if they have no homes? Since they have no face masks, no IDs, no vaccination, they are feared to be virus spreaders. Since their loitering around are also seen to be health hazards, their carts are also confiscated.

There is no way for them but to hide under bridges. There is no way for them but to become invisible — to avoid police surveillance, to circumvent the social gaze. But is this not the same logic that operates in the world’s vaccine inequity. We are driving the world’s poor to invisibility.

A homeless person rests inside the De La Salle University, a Catholic institution in Manila, which opened its doors to house homeless people during the duration of the government lockdown against the spread of the new coronavirus disease. (Photo by Mary Joy Visaya)
  1. Invisible Solidarity ‘Under the Bridge’

Yet it is among the invisible that real solidarity shines for us—something which the mainstream Church and society do not see since our social and ecclesial power chases them towards invisibility, some under bridges.

Let me go to one community “under the bridge” whom I have journeyed with since the start of the pandemic. And this is my last story.

This specific bridge has about 15-20 persons under it. They do not come to one family. They do not even know each other that much. They just met there to seek shelter and protection from the police. Since we were giving food packs every week to these communities, we assigned one person to take care of the distribution. Her name is Maribel (that is her real name). To be able to economize, she volunteered to cook for all of them daily. But each time we come back to bring in supply, she would complain that the food was not enough. She would demand for more since there were more people who arrived under the bridge the week before. Who these people are, she does not know. One couple are drug addicts, she said. And in the Philippines, drug addicts can be shot. Two guys just came out of prison. Several others who came just left in the middle of the night, and stole their personal belongings.

A group of homeless people receive food from Kalinga Center, a church institution that offer food and shelter to street dwellers in Manila. (Photo by Marielle Lucenio)

So, I asked her: “But why do you have to feed them, if you do not even know them?” She looked at me in the eye and said: “But Father, can you manage to eat alone when others would just look at you? They are hungry too.”

That strikes me hard. I thought to myself this is the meaning of solidarity—not that they are worthy of one’s kindness, or their lives are blameless; not that they are friends, family or citizens; not even camaraderie; not even as “brothers and sisters, too” (as the Church discourse of “fraternity” sometimes encourage us to see). No. Even if they are different, even if they are “other,” even if they can do you harm or steal your belongings, it is their hunger and pain, their defenselessness, the nakedness of the “face” that stares at you, that demands an ethical response, that puts you into question, that obliges you.

For Maribel, regardless of the risk and the threat from those people who come under the bridge, whose names she did not even know, she needs to feed because they are hungry. She needs to feed them, not because they are worthy or they are her friends, but because their hunger, their weakness, their nakedness, obliges her to do something.

Then I remember the Lithuanian philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, who talks of the ethical demand of the face of the other: “The first word of the face is the ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ It is an order. There is a commandment in the appearance of the face, as if a master spoke to me. However, at the same time, the face of the Other is destitute; it is the poor for whom I can do all and to whom I owe all.” (Ethics and Infinity 89).

When I went home that night, even as the big churches were closed during the pandemic, I thought I saw one open in an unlikely place — “under the bridge,” literally and metaphorically.

Father Daniel Franklin Pilario, C.M. is a theologian, professor, and pastor of an urban poor community in the outskirts of the Philippine capital.

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