I am composing this on Wednesday evening, the sixth day after Super Typhoon Yolanda pummeled the country, and a couple days ago I honestly believed that by this point we would be at least starting the discussion of the longer-term post-disaster recovery. That was the perspective with which I wrote my column that appeared on Thursday (“Counting the costs”); sadly, that discussion now clearly appears to have been very premature and unjustifiably optimistic. Earlier today (Wednesday), I reviewed the videos of Anderson Cooper’s on-scene reports from Tacloban for CNN as well as President B.S. Aquino 3rd’s interview with Christiane Amanpour, and there are few words that can describe the astonishment the statements and general demeanor of the President caused. In the face of stark evidence to the contrary, broadcast live and in color for the whole world to see, and in the face of eyewitness reports from an internationally renowned and respected hands-on journalist who has personally covered every large-scale calamity since the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Mr. Aquino has the temerity to tell the world that local officials were “emotional” in their assessments of the death toll, that disaster preparedness and response were a local government responsibility, that “two or three” local governments were simply overwhelmed by the disaster, and that he “feels the immediate response” of his government “has been reassuring to the vast majority of the people.”
And while Anderson Cooper might have been the most visible critic of the Aquino government’s response (the attention he seems to capture from my lady acquaintances might have something to do with that, on a lighter note), he was by no means the only one. Every major international news organization seemed to take note of the government’s anemic response—BBC, Reuters, Al-Jazeera, the New York Times, Australia’s ABC, Gulf News—the list goes on and on, and was joined by a growing chorus of similar criticism from the local media, even those usually considered forgiving of the present regime.
When Mayor Rodrigo Duterte of Davao City, as hard-edged and brash a figure as this country has ever produced, is reduced to near tears at what he witnessed in Tacloban; when for days on end the social media is filled with plea after plea from places right across the center of the country in desperate need of assistance that have yet to see any relief; and when we hear that the national government’s “response plan” was only completed six days after the disaster struck, then yes, CNN’s—and the BBC’s, and the New York Times’, and Al-Jazeera’s, and others’—observation that no one seems to be in charge and not enough seems to be happening quickly enough is entirely fair, and needs to be repeated, loudly, many times.
In my column a couple days ago, I said that one of the risks the Philippines needed to avoid in the aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda was becoming another Haiti, where a tremendous amount of global goodwill, manpower and material resources poured into an inefficient, corrupt, and utterly dysfunctional local system, leading to uneven recovery, resource leakage on a massive scale, and as a consequence, even worse conditions for a large part of the population. I was too late in that observation; that process is already well under way.
In Haiti, international aid efforts were helped to some extent by the presence of a United Nations Peacekeeping Force (in Haiti’s case, actually called the “Stabilization Force”) that was already in the country because of Haiti’s unstable law and order situation. The flow of relief into the country was still hampered by difficult access and a deteriorating security environment, but what the UN presence did do was provide a basis for a command, control and communication network to allow the huge amount of resources and personnel coming from countries all over the world to cooperate with each other and keep themselves organized. That would be the job of the Philippine government here, and up until last Friday, almost everyone assumed the government could handle at least that much, even if the disaster overwhelmed its own response resources. Obviously, that has turned out not to be the case. And because of it, the country is not only suffering the huge cost in human lives as a direct result of the storm, it now potentially faces an even bigger humanitarian tragedy as desperate survivors continue to lack food, water, emergency health care and basic sanitation.
It would be one thing if President Aquino could candidly admit what is so plainly obvious to the rest of the world, that the disaster has overwhelmed his government’s capacity to respond, and ask for assistance. It is quite another when he stubbornly insists it was not as bad as an “emotional” public, local officials, and world media makes it out to be, that everything is under control, and that people are “reassured” by his response. The effort and resources being offered by governments and private citizens from all over the globe, as well as the lives of his own people, should not be sacrificed on the altar of his own self-image. He is, not to put too fine a point on it, willfully and arrogantly squandering the rest of the world’s investment in our shared humanity, and this callous waste should be stopped immediately. People will die if it is not.
The solution, which should be imposed whether the Republic of the Philippines likes it or not, is for the United Nations to establish a temporary Stabilization Force, with a mission similar in nature (but hopefully, shorter in duration) to that of its contingent in Haiti after the earthquake. This force, which could be made up at least initially of foreign military units already on the ground or on their way here, would be charged with overseeing the relief and recovery efforts in the worst-affected areas, bypassing the Philippine government until such time as the affected populations’ basic sustenance, health care and shelter needs are met and stabilized. The government, freed from these responsibilities that it has no capability to manage anyway, can then focus its efforts on restoring infrastructure, local government systems, schools, permanent health care facilities and the country’s wounded economy.
Doing this would ensure, first and foremost, that people who survived the storm only to face a desperate fight for their survival will be cared for, quickly and more efficiently. It would ensure that relief is distributed equitably to where it is needed; it would ensure greater accountability and reduce loss, and it would prevent the Philippine political class from attenuating the effort for political gain.
Of course, B.S. Aquino or his obedient legislature would never accept this kind of intercession, which is why they should not be given the choice. In the greatest test of his presidency, President Aquino has failed, miserably and quickly. If the rest of the world cares enough to open their hearts and purses to the Filipino people in their time of need, they should care enough not to let them suffer a second disaster at the hands of a self-serving and incapable government.