MANILA // Filipinos like to celebrate New Year with a bang - preferably a volley of really big bangs made by fireworks or guns. This, traditionally, is supposed to scare away evil spirits. But every year hundreds of people are injured, maimed or on occasion killed by exploding fireworks and stray bullets from guns fired into the air. This New Year celebration promises to be no different.
During the last holiday season, between December 21 and January 5, the health department recorded one death and 733 cases of people injured in celebrations involving fireworks or guns, of which 716 were due to fireworks and 17 due to stray bullets. Those were only the recorded cases. Firecrackers are the favoured fireworks, because of the noise they make. Young boys usually start the celebrations early - around mid-November - by letting off the occasional firecracker under the feet of passers-by in the streets. From then on there is a crescendo of detonations, culminating deafeningly as the old year ends at midnight, when the streets are filled with smoke and the stench of burnt gunpowder.
In the meantime, hospitals begin to fill up with victims of the improper use of fireworks. Often they are children. They suffer burns, shattered hands and sometimes even poisoning from ingesting the chemicals used in some fireworks. Some lose one or both eyes. Some lose limbs. So far during this holiday season, between December 22 and December 29, the health department has recorded 165 injuries caused by fireworks, and one caused by a stray bullet. The figure is nine per cent higher than in the equivalent period last year.
In eight cases, amputations were necessary. Nearly half of those injured are children aged nine or under. One was only two months old. The doctors and nurses in government hospitals have to cope with this annual bloodbath. The health secretary, Francisco Duque, is hoping that this New Year will not see an upturn in the final number of casualties, which has been declining in recent years. "We are prepared for the celebrations of New Year's Eve. I'm crossing my fingers that there will be a decrease in the number of cases of fireworks-related injuries," Mr Duque said. "We are appealing to the parents or the guardians of children to advise them not to use firecrackers and other related devices."
The government has tried to limit the injuries by banning the more dangerous kinds of fireworks and trying to catch people - often policemen or soldiers - that fire their guns in the air. The government encourages people to make a noise by playing loud music or banging on cooking pots or buying cheap paper trumpets or whistles. But such appeals have fallen on deaf ears in the past, and this year the pavements are lined with just as many temporary stalls selling fireworks as there were last year. Anybody can buy fireworks, quite legally.
Asked how was business, one stallholder said: "It's good. It's New Year. Everyone must have fireworks for New Year. Here, you try these. Very good. I'll give you a discount." Even vendors are in danger. In the southern city of General Santos, an explosive inferno in a row of fireworks stalls killed three people on Christmas Day. The firework makers are on the defensive. They try to put the onus of teaching firework safety on to the government. "If people are aware of the proper handling and storage of pyrotechnics, similar accidents will be reduced or avoided," said Celso Cruz, the former president of the Philippine Pyrotechnics Manufacturers and Dealers Association. "There should be a clear programme all year round on the proper use and handling of pyrotechnic products and devices."
The health secretary has said he would like all firecrackers to be banned. But he will probably be overridden by popular resistance. This week a computer hacker or hackers broke into the health department's website and defaced it with obscenities. So Mr Duque has to be content with trying to shock Filipinos into taking more care with fireworks. At a press conference, he showed off various kinds of surgical instruments - including bone saws, pliers and drills - that are used in treating firecracker casualties.
The government has had some success in stopping people firing their guns in the air. In Manila, policemen have the muzzles of their firearms sealed with a piece of sticky tape that is then signed by their commander. Those found to have fired their guns without proper reason face disciplinary action. The armed forces are also under orders to keep their fingers off the trigger at New Year. "Soldiers found firing their weapons not in the line of duty will be discharged from the service," said the armed forces spokesman, Lt Col Romeo Brawner.
However, there are hundreds of thousands of firearms in the hands of private citizens, whether legally of illegally, the police estimate. And private citizens are not subject to the same kind of discipline as the uniformed services. @Email:email@example.com