One year ago today the world ended for many Filipinos when Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan to the rest of the world) ripped a hole in the nation’s midsection, causing death and destruction across nine of the country’s 17 provinces.
Nobody really knows how many people died. The official toll was 6,300 as of mid-April when the national government quietly stopped counting, with another 1,061 missing.
Estimates from organizations less reluctant to provide honest assessments put the death toll at around 8,000. People in the worst-affected areas in Leyte and Samar generally assume there were at least 10,000 killed, and that the number is very likely higher; anecdotal stories of people still finding human remains are common. The estimate of the total damage caused by the storm, which according to the government’s calculations was just under P90 billion, is likewise widely assumed to be too low.
The biggest casualty of Typhoon Yolanda, however, was the last remaining shred of credibility of the Aquino Administration. The government’s trust capital was already rapidly evaporating within these borders before the storm, but Aquino’s veneer of respectability in front of the world press was still intact. That all began to change in the days after the typhoon; in fact, we can even pinpoint the date: November 13, 2013.
That was the day that CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, reporting live from Tacloban, made his now famous-assessment that “I see no real evidence of organized recovery or relief coming from the Philippine government side.” On the same day, a team of ABC News reporters wrote, “And then early today, about 5 a.m. local time, we went to what we were told was a major relief staging area at the National Resource Operations Center. No one was there. Repeat: No one was there. A few pallets of water were on the ground. A couple of dogs barked at us. We were told everyone else had gone home for the night.”
The august New York Times, which had up until then been noteworthy for its complimentary treatment of Mr. Aquino, punctuated its description of the post-Yolanda aftermath with this gem (a bit of international acknowledgement that, given a less discouraging topic, I would have been even more ecstatic about) —
“A columnist for The Manila Times, Ben D. Kritz, ridiculed top officials, among them the nation’s defense secretary, for flying to the disaster zone without working phones. He noted that one of the first military planes to land was carrying a van—which could not be used on Leyte Island’s debris-clogged roads. ‘In the aftermath of the typhoon, the response of the Aquino administration, as usual, has been an uncoordinated, fumbling embarrassment,’ he wrote.”
— and then proceeded to list a litany of woes “the heir to a political dynasty” had been unprepared to face, including the Zamboanga siege, the Bohol earthquake just a month before the typhoon struck, the devastating Typhoon Pablo (Bopha) which killed more than 1,100 people in Mindanao a year earlier, and “an unfolding corruption scandal involving more than $200 million in public money that ended up in the pockets of elected officials.” (“Philippines’ President Faces Growing Anger,” by Andrew Jacobs, November 13, 2013)
Even so, all that would be old news if the Administration had raised itself from its torpor reasonably quickly and pursued the recovery and reconstruction effort in a manner that at least looked like it was trying to resemble the government’s aspirational rhetoric. But that of course has not happened; it took nearly nine months to draft the government’s rehabilitation plan and three months for the president to affix his signature to it, and the pace and effectiveness of the recovery has rather reflected the government’s lack of direction and initiative.
And so the foreign press—whom President Aquino lauded early in his term for taking a rosy view of his Administration that much of the local media does not—has not been kind to the government in marking the first anniversary of the tragedy. In the last two weeks, big networks such as NBC News (US), ITV (UK), and Deutsche Welle (Germany) have published special reports critical of the slow pace of the recovery, as have other notable news agencies such as Reuters and The Guardian.
The criticism certainly rankles the government, and is not welcomed by many Filipino citizens, either. However, the vague notion that “outsiders do not have a right to criticize” what is largely seen as a domestic issue overlooks the huge, tangible stake the rest of the world actually has in the recovery, through hundreds of millions of dollars in cash and material contributions, and millions of man-hours of physical labor by thousands of volunteers. The rest of the world made Typhoon Yolanda their problem, too; they have every right to complain if their perception is that their money and goodwill have been squandered.
They might be blows to national pride, they might be embarrassing, but the unpleasant reminders from the rest of the world that they expect better are neither out of line nor unproductive. How the government deals with calamities is a very good indicator of the effectiveness of institutions, especially in terms of how well different parts of the government work together, which in turn, serves as a measure of how reliable the country might be as a regional and global partner—in trade and investment, in geopolitical issues, and even in basic matters such as whether or not it is a safe place for tourists to visit. The Aquino Administration’s continuing mishandling of the Yolanda aftermath is not only needlessly prolonging the suffering of millions of Filipinos it is sending a message to the rest of the world that it has, at best, a poor sense of priorities.
Today this country should be celebrating how much it has achieved in overcoming adversity during the past year, rather than feeling sad and angry that its suffering continues.
At least we know where to put the blame; after all, Typhoon Yolanda was only here for one day of that year.