Five weeks since Typhoon Yolanda hit the Eastern Visayas, we’ve heard this more often: it was impossible for government to prepare for the storm, it was far larger, the winds stronger, the storm surges higher, than what was expected. And if its magnitude might be measured by its aftermath, then there was no way at all to have prepared for this.
More and more though, I tend to think that other than the lack of preparedness, and certainly the lack of compassion and kindness, what this government lacked before and after the typhoon hit, and until now more than a month in, is imagination.
Had the government had imagination, it would’ve been able to imagine what those winds would be like, what that storm surge would mean. Without imagination, government could not warn people correctly, using words that would’ve signaled to the people that they needed to evacuate before the storm. Government didn’t use what was familiar—tidal wave, tsunami—to describe what the storm surge would be like.
Who cares that it would not be scientifically correct to call the storm surge a tsunami.
Certainly Mayor Romualdez could be questioned for not having translated storm surge into the terms that his people would understand. But he himself was working with no knowledge of what a storm surge is; and no one can say that a majority of the mayors knew what it was. Some just had a sense of waves coming in, and swallowing up their towns. They knew to evacuate. Many others, as with San Jose and Tanauan, were not informed better about what to expect. This can only be the national government’s fault.
Now we can think that this is crying over spilt milk, except that we are crying too for what government has done since November 8, where what has boggled the mind is how it has reacted in the aftermath, how it has responded in a time of tragedy.
Out of control
It’s a lack of imagination that is at the heart of this government’s treatment of survivors after the storm. That it has come off as insensitive and unkind, is a product of this lack.
Because a government needs to imagine hunger and thirst, so that they might move and quickly, never mind the debris on the streets and the lack of transport, to actually get food and water to people isolated by the storm. They need to imagine how quickly a family of five will finish a pack of relief goods. They need to imagine hunger and thirst three, four, five days in.
They need to imagine how seeing the dead day-in day-out untended and uncared for on the streets changes the way people think and view the world.
And then there’s just this: the private sector has proven how imagination allows for help to be delivered quickly and appropriately: Oplan Hatid, Oplan Trabaho, soup and mobile kitchens. Meanwhile you have government’s long list of relief operation foibles. Let us not even begin about the lack of rescue operations.
But also there is the refusal to declare national days of mourning, flying flags at half-mast as film director Butch Perez has said on Facebook. The insistence on counting the dead only to make sure to keep the numbers down. The spin on things being “back to normal” in Tacloban, because “the worst is over.”
That is, rolling those discount caravans in to “jumpstart the economy,” never mind that common sense tells us that buying and selling basic goods like food and building materials will necessarily stunt relief and rebuilding operations that should happen for free, and as done by the government. That is, telling Tacloban that it’s time for classes to resume, never mind that a chunk of the population has evacuated, never mind that schools are evacuation centers, never mind that these buildings are as broken and battered by the storm and should not be inhabited by teachers and students at this point.
The price of this lack
Were the government able to imagine the grief of those who have lost family and home, their past, present and future, it would know better than to impose normalization and refuse a mourning period.
Were the government able to imagine what it’s like for people to live with the dead in their streets, for a week after the storm, to see them frozen in the positions the waters left them, it would know that it was of utmost importance to respect the living by respecting their dead.
Were government able to imagine how horrible it is to wonder if family or friends are merely missing, it would work double-time at identifying the dead. Were government able to imagine what it’s like to live every day with the stench of death, or the possibility of the dead floating in from the sea, it would continue to work at finding the dead, because that’s for the living, too.
This tragedy was huge, yes. And we can forgive government for the lack of preparedness, okay. But certainly there was a lack of control in words spoken, things done, those not done, since the storm. And more and more I think that it’s because this government does not imagine how their words will be received, it cannot imagine how people feel, what it is they are going through, so that government responses might be more appropriate, more kind.
And five weeks since the typhoon, one continues to wonder when we might know of compassion and kindness from this government, beyond politics and politicking, in word and deed both.