Crossroads (Toward Philippine economic and social progress)
Philippine Star, 20 November 2013


Few nations can cope adequately and timely with the human and physical havoc that the likes of Yolanda’s cataclysmic fury have brought to us. If it were confined to a local geography, like Tacloban only, it would have been manageable. But many areas in the Central Visayas beginning with Samar and Leyte, stretching to the other inhabited islands were simultaneously devastated.

No match: far beyond national capacity. No disaster relief system could possibly cope with a calamity of biblical proportions stretched over many places. A nation’s ability to solve its own problems generally improves in increments over time, helped along the way by lessons provided by each preceding experience.

But the scale required to deal with the immediate aftermath of Yolanda’s damage is many times over that capacity – in terms of logistics, resources needed for disposal as relief, and personnel. Thus, we see the government almost paralyzed in the first few days after Yolanda struck.

To save the survivors of Yolanda’s onslaught from further peril required immediate availability of provisions of food, clothing, medicines and shelter from the elements. In a short moment of time through the impact of wind and sea surges, many families along the coast lost their only possessions and their ability to cope was put to the limit of helplessness.

How Tacloban became the picture of the disaster. As the massive storm system swept across the Pacific Ocean and approached the Philippines, some storm chasers positioned themselves ahead of the landfall in Tacloban.

Simultaneously, CNN foresaw the newsworthiness of the mega event and sent its advance party of journalists to cover it. This was probably both prescience and good luck. As the super-typhoon hit landfall, professionals were in place to record the event.

The sweep of wind and gusts were caught on record both by storm chasers and TV journalists and transmitted for the world to see. Thus, since the day after the typhoon had passed, Tacloban’s catastrophe had become the center of global attention.

It was clear, of course, that Tacloban was only a segment of that path of destruction. However, its geographic characteristics exposed it to the worst possible damage arising from the storm surges because of its large population living along a long low coastline. It was also the first major center of population to face a mega-typhoon on its early landfall.

In no time at all, the more experienced news crews of CNN, and then of other international news organizations, covered the field with reports of the disaster. The world’s attention was hooked and international support would flock to aid the country in response for the government’s call for help.

The government’s response was slow and inadequate. CNN’s Anderson Cooper, reporting on the fifth day of the aftermath, observed the limited presence of government on the ground, prompting him to compare what he saw with the more instant response of other governments during other disasters.

In particular, he referred to the recent earthquake-and-tsunami case in Japan in 2011. By the second day, he had noted that the government was already collecting and removing dead bodies and clearing debris. He did not see this activity in the confusion of the aftermath in Tacloban. Of course, Japan, being a highly sophisticated industrial economy, was more able and effective in dealing with such disaster.

In fact, just two days earlier , the weakness of the state’s response was highlighted by what ensued when President Aquino visited Tacloban and tried to have a hands-on influence on events. Such personal visit should have projected a calming and reassuring image for government but it was mishandled. It failed to produce that.

During the consultations with local officials and other citizens, the President reacted testily with suggestions made in a public exchange with local people. It was reported that he balked and left the meeting momentarily in disgust when strong government control of the peace and order situation was suggested. In the wake of looting and the possibility of food riots, someone directly urged that martial law be imposed.

Such reaction appeared extreme and unfortunate. Politics might have reared its ugly head in a time of tragedy. What was needed was a strong show of unity and common purpose by the central government and the local government officials. There was not even any photo opportunity showing that cooperation and single purpose.

The Aquino administration and the local government in Tacloban come from opposite political camps. Tacloban is Romualdez country, hence Marcos country. When suggestions were made to maintain law and order – poorly conveyed to the President as a suggestion for martial law – President Aquino’s gut reaction was to disapprove and almost to ridicule it.

The occurrence of a major disaster for the people, calls for the closing of ranks and cooperation on the urgent measures that needed to be done. It appeared that local officials were being isolated from the actions of the central government. Thus, we saw the local mayor more concerned with telling his survival story to international television rather than being immersed in the efforts to mobilize relief operations.

Yolanda’s main message to the nation. Of the many themes that could arise from Yolanda’s aftermath, the singular message that strikes me as paramount is that we must find ways to strengthen our capacity to deal with future calamities. That, however, points the way toward strengthening the nation’s economic muscles, a long term task.

As a nation, we need to build domestic capacity to help ourselves. Lack of capability to deal with large disasters makes us dependent on the world community for assistance. But the most important channel is to strengthen ourselves.

That means essentially that in normal times we are working toward wealth accumulation, capital formation, experience formation, and improving management systems. It means using and conserving the nation’s resources to attain a high level of economic growth. This is the agenda for raising the development capacity of the nation.