While scanning the news the other day, a friend of mine made a rather glib remark. She said that Filipinos have lately been so fixated on their petty politics — the bickering among politicians and justices over the jurisdiction of their respective offices — that the only way to force people to step back from all that and get a bit of perspective will require no less than “another Ondoy”. And then Typhoon Sendong (international code name “Wasi”) strikes. In one night, flash floods caused by heavy rains snuffed out more than 400 lives in northern Mindanao in and around Cagayan de Oro City.
Just 24 hours ago, our concerns were about how the impact of the sort of political pettiness we’ve seen in recent weeks and the disruption to the normal operations of the affected government agencies would play out over the next several months — its impact on a neglected economy and the demoralising effects on Philippine society of the instability the conflict was causing. All of a sudden the issue had become acute and singular, and the answer to the question of whether or not politicians — Filipino politicians — really do make a difference in Philippine society where it counts becomes clear — crystal clear to people like the father of the dead little girl in that photo (not the one included in this article) being passed around all over the Net.
To make the perspective we gain out of the appalling tragedy of Typhoon Sendong more relevant, I defer to what my colleague Ben Kritz wrote earlier, where he points out how the current government of President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III responded to the disaster using a three-pronged approach: (1) order the relevant agencies to assist the victims, (2) order a review of disaster response procedures to identify where the lapses occurred, and (3) identify and highlight where local officials and residents were negligent in mounting a proper response to advanced warnings issued by the national government.
This is pretty much a textbook approach to how an all-too-typical Philippine government would manage public relations in the aftermath of a disaster in which it was seen to be ineffective. As Kritz points out, for a government that ran on a platform premised upon being no way like the previous administration of its nemesis, former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (and continues to campaign to that tune today), the point of how Presidents quite simply do not matter to the average Filipino was called out as loudly as ever. Back in 2009 Ondoy left Arroyo’s government looking like an ineffectual lump of bureaucracy and bad policies. Aquino’s looks no better (and probably fares worse) in the aftermath of Sendong today.
Next president, plez.
Perhaps because of how it was the national capital city that Typhoon Ondoy struck back in 2009, the loud soul-searching and Bayanihan grandstanding was a lot more perceptible then. But Sendong struck some city somewhere in the “southern Philippines”. So perhaps the vast distance from Imperial Manila implied by the fact that the disaster happened somewhere in the south gives President Noynoy Aquino the option to visit the calamity area sometime “shortly after Christmas”. Indeed, he reportedly may just do that.
Whatever the case, finger-pointing and blame-mongering have never been in short supply whenever disaster strikes. What is glaringly lacking are results and improved approaches to mitigating risk given the nature of the country’s geographical location and climate. And we see now how despite politicians selling to their voters the notion that they are different — even special — the reality is a lot starker: they are all essentially the same. And because we latch on to the same things over and over, we can expect the same things to happen again and again.
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