There was something powerful about Congresswoman Lucy Torres-Gomez having herself interviewed on television about the distribution of relief goods in her Ormoc, almost two weeks since it was hit by Typhoon Yolanda on November 8.
Of course it has everything to do with her as pop culture icon, beautifully calm and quiet, rare to speak beyond limitations of privacy and decency, probinsyana through and through. Save for the tragic landslide of 1991, Torres-Gomez might also be the only name we equate with Leyte province.
But also it had much to do with what were very well-chosen words, including the disclaimer that said she wasn’t out to just be critical. “Wala akong pinapatamaan,” Torres-Gomez said, though of course with this government’s defensive stance against all criticism, it doesn’t matter that she wasn’t out to be critical. She was telling the truth, and this government can’t quite handle the truth.
That bull’s eye
Torres-Gomez was hitting every nail on the head, every bull’s eye, speaking about exactly what we’ve heard from the ground if we are actually paying attention to the tiniest radio news reports, and the most desperate calls for relief and rescue that continue to trickle in.
There is something wrong with the system of distributing relief goods, yes. There is a problem with having local government units become the center of relief goods distribution for districts, yes. There is everything wrong with national government’s insistence that the LGUs be the first responders in a crisis such as this.
“The goods arrive and it’s turned over to DSWD. DSWD does the dispatching to different municipalities. Then the trucks go [to the municipalities]with the signature of the mayor. It will not be released without the signature of the mayor, which is okay,” Torres-Gomez opines.
But what is it that happens on the ground, the ground which the national government seems to not know—or care enough—about?
“What happens is the goods are distributed so thinly that when it gets to the municipality, maybe one municipality will have one truckload, after being without any relief goods for four days. So anong gagawin ngayon. Pipiliin kung sinong pagbibigyan. Mas magulo.”
Here is where politicking kicks in as who will get relief packs is dependent on the very easy assessment of allies versus foes. Who voted for whom in the last barangay elections for example, who is allied with the government’s political foes maybe.
We can believe this to be happening on the ground, precisely because we still hear of desperate calls for relief goods in places that government insists they’ve already reached. Since the Official Gazette came out with a document about how far government relief efforts had reached, how many evacuation centers they had served, urgent calls for relief goods have not stopped for particular places in Samar and Leyte. And when Torres-Gomez explains how it is the voters’ registration list that’s used to distribute relief goods, then all the pieces of the puzzle that is this government’s relief operations actually fall into place.
The number of households in any barangay cannot be equal to the number based on a voters’ registration list. Being voter should not mean being the priority beneficiary of relief goods in a time of crisis.
Torres-Gomez says it, “Just because hindi ka botante, hindi ibig sabihin hindi ka na puwede tumanggap ng relief goods. You’re just as much a victim as the next person.”
The lack of flexibility
This is all telling of where there is still a bottleneck, one that is not about the lack of a system, nor about the lack of relief goods to be distributed.
At this point, neither is it about the government being stunned out of its senses about how to deal. It’s just about a national government that decided it had a plan, and they would stick to it no matter what happens.
“Alam ko naman na yung sistema na ginawa ng national government, in theory, it’s correct. But just because the plan is perfect in their minds, doesn’t mean the application on the ground will also be perfect,” Torres-Gomez says.
That this system set up by the DILG was not perfect of course, and obviously so, didn’t mean that it would be changed at all. Instead it was kept as it was, no matter that it meant relief goods trickling in for towns that had gone without it for at least four days since the storm. Telling the story about a councilor who failed to get rice for his constituents from the mayor because he was not allied with the latter, and who also failed to get rice from the DSWD dispatching center itself because he needed the endorsement of the mayor, Torres-Gomez throws some common sense into the mix.
“I understand rules, but there also needs to be some flexibility in a crisis like this. Kapag may taong gutom, ano ba naman ’yung isang sako ng bigas,” she says.
But the system works, we are being told by government, and as the DILG Secretary has spun it, the worst is over. And yet the worst cannot be over really, for places where relief goods continue to be needed, where rebuilding is far far from people’s minds. “For relief operations sana to be really effective and to be felt, it has to be massive, dapat sabay-sabay dumarating ang goods na en masse talaga, dapat nalulunod yung lugar ng relief,” Torres-Gomez says.
In fact, the only way the worst could be over for many of these places would be if survivors were not worrying at all about food and water, at least until Christmas, at least while they are rebuilding homes and still burying their dead. Of course instead of giving these places relief goods so that they will not have to worry about nourishment at least for the next month or so, this government has decided to bring back industry into the picture.
The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) has since kicked off a Diskwento Caravan, selling goods in places still in dire need. The injustice of that is just beyond me.
As is the injustice of not getting relief goods to people four, five, 18 days since the typhoon. All that foreign aid tells us the people deserve those goods, after all.
Torres-Gomez, speaking about Ormoc and the system of relief operations with contained exasperation and some rationality, spoke of her assessment of why government has stuck to this system that she had proven does not, cannot work, at this point.
“I’m guessing it’s an issue of control, because their idea maybe of effective relief operations is the people knowing that it came from them. But in a crisis, it’s not about a politician, it’s not about who gave the goods, it’s really about the people being helped. So there has to be that selflessness, that even if people don’t know where the goods came from, it’s enough that the people are helped.”
That it was Torres-Gomez telling us exactly this, in all her propriety, made it all the more powerful. That she was in fact making sense and speaking from a perspective that seemed both studied and grounded on what’s going on within the places in need, that she did not sound at all like a politician, just layered her narrative with a credibility that none of those in the national government can claim.
Because reason can be interwoven with some compassion. Torres-Gomez might teach the national government that.