A greater disaster than Yolanda


The entire world has seen the devastation that swept through central Philippines eight days ago. The death toll has been estimated by the United Nations at 4,460 as of Friday, and that figure could go higher as more bodies are being washed ashore. Many towns and cities, especially those situated close to the shore, were flattened by super typhoon Yolanda. Hundreds of thousands of victims were left wandering through the rubble, hungry, cold and frightened. So many cadavers still litter the landscape. For the victims, it was like the end of the world had come.

The victims’ plight was worsened because it took the national government almost a week to get its relief operations going. President Noynoy Aquino, stung by criticism in the world media that the relief efforts were moving too slowly, flung the disaster relief machinery to the badly-hit areas where people had gone without food and water for several days. But while the relief operations had begun (aided in large part by the arrival of the American Navy, Canadian military, the Germans, Israelis and other contingents), the distribution of food packs failed to reach everybody. Still a good number of towns complained they had received nothing.

Obviously, the government just went into action without much planning. The President sent his buddy, Mar Roxas, and Voltaire Gazmin, to Tacloban purportedly to assess the situation and make sure things were running smoothly. Unfortunately, it wasn’t what happened on the ground. Mar Roxas, perhaps thinking it was now the campaign period for the 2016 Presidency, went around shaking hands and telling people not to worry: help was on its way. Then he posed for the cameras with grandiose-looking gestures. When he left, the typhoon victims could only stare at him. Roxas didn’t bring food and water for them. He only left a message of hope for them, a dream of food and water to come.

That display of incompetence and insensitivity was a crime against the typhoon victims. It characterized the bungling and fumbling reactions of the Aquino administration to the gargantuan problems that faced them. Instead of calling everybody into a huddle, Mr. Aquino sent the likes of Mar Roxas to waddle around like a duck, essentially doing nothing and getting in the way of those trying to help. Mr. Aquino himself broke several days of staying hidden in Malacanang on Thursday night to visit relief goods repacking stations, exhorting volunteers about the need for the bayanihan spirit. Obviously, Mr. Aquino didn’t know enough about how to deal with the situation other than PR stunts like that.

While the relief operations of the foreign governments and the private sector whirred smoothly, that of the government remained to be tentative steps. The entire machinery of government wasn’t even ready to go into overdrive. It’s a good thing the entire world had come to our rescue. And it was heart-warming to see thousands of people contribute cash, food and used clothing for the victims. Without them, the hunger would have driven tens of thousands to death by starvation or disease.

The fumbling hasn’t abated. Mr. Aquino had scheduled a trip to Tacloban today (Saturday). As I tweeted on Friday afternoon, that kind of activity wouldn’t accomplish anything. Mr. Aquino should stay put in Malacanang, calling his Cabinet and other government leaders to a huddle. He needs ideas, suggestions. He should even reach out to the opposition, particularly to political leaders in the badly-hit areas and solicit proposals on how to better carry out the relief operations.

But Mr. Aquino is too proud. It’s a good thing he didn’t blame this one on Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. But he did blame the local officials for failure to respond quickly, obviously blind to the fact that most officials were still in shock from their own experiences. He also got entangled with a dispute over the casualty figures. Mr. Aquino was displeased when a police general told him that based on the magnitude of the disaster, the death toll could reach 10,000. He insisted it was only 2,000, with 2,500 at the most. It was a useless exercise. It only diverted time and attention from the urgent task at hand: the relief operations.

There’s now a growing public perception Mr. Aquino is being too defensive about the government’s response to the crisis. He is being accused of trying to look for excuses for the lapses than coming up with solutions. That is not totally baseless. One only needs to look at the slow pace of the relief operations. Even the U.N. has expressed frustration and consternation.

Unless Mr. Aquino wakes up from his slumber, it just might happen that he will be labeled as a greater disaster than Yolanda itself. It doesn’t help him that he is surrounded by a bunch of amateurs trying to look like experts. If that happens, his own Presidency would be put at risk, as more and more Filipinos are expressing an anger that could force him to step down.

About Manuel "Boy" Mejorada
Manuel "Boy" Mejorada is a journalist and social media activist. A former Iloilo provincial administrator, he is now waging a crusade against corruption and narco-politics.

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