EVEN an official of a United Nations agency helping in the relief and rehabilitation efforts in typhoon-ravaged areas is annoyed at the blame game being played by government officials over the slow delivery of basic aid to victims of Super Typhoon Yolanda.
“In times like this, finger-pointing should not be the name of the game,” said Bernard Kerblat, the representative in the Philippines of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
The administration of President Benigno Aquino 3rd has been under heavy criticism for the slow pace of delivery of relief goods. On social media such as Facebook and Twitter, government officials are being slammed for their failure to airdrop food and water to typhoon victims who had nothing to eat for days.
The President was also widely criticized for blaming local officials for the high death toll in Tacloban City.
“I am hearing some bickering and some finger-pointing, sorry this is not the time,” Kerblat told reporters during a press briefing.
Although he admitted that there is still a bottleneck in providing relief assistance to the survivors of the calamity, Kerblat said blaming the government will not help at all.
He said instead of blaming officials, Filipinos should unite in extending assistance to the survivors and help them rebuild their lives.
“We have now to focus, all of us, including and starting with your kababayans who demonstrated the spirit of bayanihan.
That spirit of bayanihan must be preserved, strengthened and continue to exist,” he added.
Kerblat denied reports that the United Nations has taken over relief operations because of the government’s failure to speed it up.
“The UN not a substitute of the (Philippine) government.
The government is in charge in the emergency response and we are here to complement their efforts,” he said.
Orla Fagan, Humanitarian Affairs Officer of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said it is difficult to tell how soon ravaged areas will recover.
“It is very hard to tell at this time, our main focus today is life saving and to give immediate assistance to the affected individuals,” she said.
She added that they will assess areas that have yet to be reached by the relief operations.
Kerblat also said it will take time before Eastern Visayas, particularly Samar and Leyte, can fully recover from the wrath of super typhoon.
“We are not talking about months. We are talking about years before that portion of the territory of this beautiful country can be back on its feet,” he said.
He said the rehabilitation will take long because the destruction is “massive and huge.”
Kerblat said that as foreign aid continues to flow in they are coordinating with concerned government agencies so assistance could reach more victims.
Aquino has moved to assert himself as disaster manager-in-chief after criticism of his response to the super typhoon, with the calamity set to become the defining event of his presidency.
Aquino toured the worst-hit towns and cities on Sunday and announced that he would set up base in the region until he was “satisfied” that the relief operation was running as effectively as it should.
He again made some thinly veiled criticisms of local officials, suggesting they had been under-prepared and provided inaccurate data which had hampered the relief effort.
“As president, I should not show my anger. No matter how irritated I am,” he said.
Aquino’s image has taken something of a hit as public anger has grown over a government corruption scandal.
At the end of October, he felt compelled to go on national television and publicly declare he was “not a thief” as he defended hundreds of millions of dollars in government spending that has come under scrutiny.
Typhoon Yolanda was always going to be a major test, but the unprecedented ferocity of the storm was overwhelming and exacerbated by a five-meter storm surge that sent tsunami-like waves crashing into coastal cities, towns and villages.
As the scale of the destruction became apparent, Aquino was initially criticized for what was seen as some insensitive quibbling over the likely death toll.
His initial estimate of 2,500 now appears unduly optimistic with the number of confirmed dead standing at almost 4,000, with another 1,600 missing and many remote areas still to be properly assessed.
At the same time, the delay of several days in getting the official relief program up and running was taken as a lack of preparedness, and that played badly with the gruesome video footage coming out of the worst-hit zones.
“The knee-jerk reaction is to blame the president,” said Rene de Castro, a political science professor at De La Salle University in Manila. “But I don’t know that anybody else in his position would have been able to handle a disaster of this magnitude.”
Aquino’s decision to move down to the impacted region was clearly aimed at demonstrating a “hands-on” appreciation of the situation, and on Monday he toured other devastated towns where he was filmed helping out at distribution centers.
“We have to raise people’s morale, we have to encourage them to get back on their feet as soon as possible by giving them positive signals of assistance and encouragement,” Aquino’s spokesman Herminio Coloma said on Monday.
“The President wants to ensure they have ample supplies and that they could be sustained so that we can move on to the next stage which is rehabilitation.”
Aquino’s criticism of local officials did not go down well in Tacloban, which was badly hit by the storm surge.
“Will we insult the dead, and say they died because they were unprepared?” Tacloban Mayor Alfred Romualdez said also on Monday.
There was an element of political and personal bad blood to the spat, with Aquino and Romualdez belonging to two of the most powerful political clans in modern Philippine history.
Aquino’s mother, Corazon Aquino, led the “people power” revolution that toppled dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.
Her husband, also called Benigno, was assassinated at Manila airport when he returned from exile in 1983.
Romualdez is related to Marcos’s widow, former first lady Imelda Marcos, who remains a powerful political figure as a congresswoman. Her son, Ferdinand Jr., is a senator eyeing a run at the next presidential elections in 2016.
“The whole relief effort has been politically polarized,” said Prospero de Vera, a political analyst at the University of the Philippines.
“This will be the defining moment of Aquino’s administration, and he needs to act very strongly and be very focused, and rise above any political bickering,” De Vera said.