Perception amid tragedy

MST column, published 16 Nov 2013

An interesting yet sad sidelight to the Yolanda crisis is how perception seems to matter a lot to our national leaders. 

It started even before the super typhoon made landfall. President Aquino announced that the government was aiming for zero casualties as the areas expecting to be hit by Yolanda started their preparations. 

This sounded good. Everybody wanted a zero-casualty incident. Maybe we were learning a few things about managing disaster risk, even if we cannot do anything about the fact that our country sits on a very dangerous part of the planet. 

We also liked the sound of the government sounding as though it was acting in anticipation, not in reaction. 

But on November 8, everybody was overwhelmed by the strength and the fury of Yolanda. If people were not killed or injured by the wind gusts, they were caught by surprise by the storm surge that approximated a tsunami. When the water receded, the sky cleared and the sun shone the following day, it was then the rest of the country realized that what happened was just unprecedented. 

In fact, a senior police official from Palo, Leyte, Chief Supt. Elmer Soria, said the number of the dead could easily reach 10,000. 

President Aquino also went on air and immediately said that local officials in hard-hit Tacloban and other places were not prepared for Yolanda. 

A few days later, more foreign journalists came to Tacloban and elsewhere, and they were astounded not only by the death, devastation and desperation of the people but also of the apparent lack of organization in delivering much-needed relief to the survivors. 

Corpses still lay on the streets and people still had no access to food and water. In fact, there are reports of looting because people did not know where they and their families would get their next meal. At the airport, there are scores of people pleading to be taken out of Tacloban into anywhere else. 

CNN reporter Anderson Cooper said that he could not see any organized effort to provide food, water and medicine to the survivors. “Miserable, miserable,” he said, as if one “miserable” were not enough. Immediately, a broadcast journalist from ABS-CBN, Korina Sanchez, took issue with Cooper’s observations, saying that the latter did not know what he was talking about. 

The social media went abuzz, pointing out that Sanchez was sitting comfortably in her studio in Quezon City and that, more importantly, she was the wife of Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, who is supposed to be at the forefront of the administration’s relief efforts in the Visayas. 

In a subsequent interview with another CNN reporter, Christiane Amanpour, President Aquino tried to sound upbeat about the progress of the relief efforts of the government. He pointed out that Filipinos in affected areas have been “reassured” by the government’s response thus far and that we have been able to demonstrate collectively that we are able to take care of each other.

He also denied the estimates that 10,000 people have died. “That number is too high. We are looking at 2,000 to 2,500 dead,” he added. Later this week, Soria, the police official who gave that too-high estimate, was sacked. 

And now there is talk that the President is ready to spend a night in Tacloban City to show solidarity with the people there. 

Now also, we are seeing photos of packed goods bearing the names of some politicians. Clearly, epals are not typhoon-proof. 

We seem obsessed with being seen as not remiss in our jobs and as having deep compassion for the people. Shouldn’t these things be a given? 

This is not a publicity stunt. This is a real and heart-wrenching tragedy that needs action. If one were doing the right thing, the right way, who would care about critics? Who would care that people knew, or not, that you were helping? 

In social media, there has been a debate as to whether we should even criticize the things that the government is doing wrong. “Shhh...tumulong ka na lang,” (Hush...just help) is a message that tells us not to be negative anymore because being so would not be able to accomplish anything. 

Instead of blaming, complaining and criticizing, we are told, we should simply find ways to help in big and little ways. 

Indeed negativity has a counterproductive effect. But being negative is different from caring enough to point out where we need to do better, and what we need to stop doing. 

We look to Mr. Aquino and our other leaders to set this example. We don’t want you to fail – your failure would be ours, too. We just want you to do a better job. 

We have less kind words, however, for those who are using this distribution of relief to make themselves look good in preparation for 2016 – heaven help you, you miserable, miserable opportunists.