Michelle Varron, a friend of mine from Cebu who writes a column for the Sun Star, made a heartwarming but in some respects disturbing observation over the weekend: It seems that the prevailing attitude among Cebuanos in the wake of last week’s calamitous earthquake is not to worry overmuch about the damage in their own province—which was significant— but to focus their efforts on helping their devastated neighbors across the strait in Bohol.
But, “While private citizens are doing a fantastic job carrying out relief efforts,” Michelle grumbled on her Facebook timeline, “help from the national government is minimal and sluggish. Heroes have arisen where it is not their job to help; meanwhile where are those whose duty is to help?”
Cebuanos and especially the people of Bohol certainly have a much better grasp than anyone else about how effectively “relief efforts” are being conducted, but even from a safe, comfortable distance, it is apparent that the official response is as uninspiring as ever—slow, uncoordinated, and handicapped by ulterior political motives. It took until Friday, the fourth day after the earthquake, for President B.S. Aquino 3rd to “order” the heads of the two agencies with the biggest responsibilities for disaster recovery—Manuel “Mar” Roxas 2nd of the Department of Interior and Local Government and Corazon “Dinky” Soliman of the Department of Social Welfare and Development, along with, for reasons not particularly clear to anyone, Malacañang Official Talking Person Ed Lacierda—to actually travel to Bohol and see for themselves what needed to be done.
Of course, Soliman and Roxas were in the area a few days earlier, but their time was obviously taken up by other priorities; Roxas was busy taking pictures during a helicopter ride, and Soliman apparently felt it important to go sightseeing with the President in Cebu. In the meantime, their Cabinet colleague Ramon Jimenez of the Department of Tourism, whose agency has an important role for tourism-dependent Bohol but who would not have been criticized for hanging back a bit to let the more immediate needs of saving lives take precedence, made the both of them look silly by quietly making a quick but thorough assessment and putting together a response plan for Bohol’s and Cebu’s tourism industries.
As it always does, it all comes down to a matter of priorities, and in three-plus years in office, President Aquino and most of his administration—with the notable exception of a few like Secretary Jimenez—have not learned what the word even means. One does not have to have special qualifications to determine what the government’s priorities should be in the case of an earthquake: Counteract any continuing threats to life and safety (such as fires, flooding, building collapses and landslides), rescue and recover victims, provide medical care, ensure adequate supplies of food, water, and basic health and hygiene items, provide safe and sanitary shelter for displaced people, restore critical infrastructure (water, electricity, roads, ports, and airports) to at least a temporarily-usable state, and then implement plans for clean-up and rebuilding.
The priorities are not managing photo-ops while conducting “ocular inspections” of the wreckage, or letting all recovery efforts slow to crawl in order to make an inconsequential visit to a foreign capital, or complaining about the accurate reporting of the number of aftershocks and media efforts to draw attention to people who are still waiting for assistance.
In my last column, I explained the importance of image to the country’s tourism industry, but in reality, the impact of image goes much further than that. Any large-scale disaster will, as an ironic part of the recovery process, provide a wide range of investment opportunities. These fall into a couple different categories, the most important of which is the investment by existing business to recover from damage caused by the disaster. Direct aid from external sources—foreign governments, government units from elsewhere in the country, and private groups and individuals—is another important, though less obvious investment inflow. Finally, there is new investment from either foreign or domestic sources; a large part of it might be temporary, such as construction projects, but some of it may represent actual growth. It is entirely possible, for example, that tourism in Bohol and Cebu could significantly increase as a result of the earthquake, if adequate tourism infrastructure is restored quickly enough and if tourism marketing is handled appropriately.
How efficient the response to a future disaster may be is indicated by the response to the present one. Even if it is only informally done, every investment is subjected to some kind of risk assessment: Will my donation to disaster relief be spent productively and actually provide tangible help to people in need? If I rebuild my business (or start a new business) here, can I count on government institutions and services to come to my assistance quickly, and restore the basic things I need to stay in business if this happens again? Can I count on a consistent response plan from the authorities and other service providers, so that I can make my own business continuity plan?
An action like Vice President Binay’s taking time out from distributing relief goods to have bags printed with his name on them is not an affirmative answer to any of those questions. Neither is Commission on Elections Chairman Sixto Brillantes (remember him?) crawling out from whatever crypt they keep him in to waffle about the possibility of postponing the upcoming barangay elections in the affected areas—areas where voters, candidates, and would-be poll workers went for days without food, water, and electricity, and have no homes, roads, or actual places to hold elections at the moment—in response to criticisms that relief efforts are being selectively influenced by politics. Brillantes’ sober and considerate assessment was that the current dire circumstances might actually help candidates, since most of their prospective voters were already concentrated; “Just simply go to evacuation centers and shake their hands,” he said.
The people in Bohol and other affected areas are fortunate to be on the receiving end of the efforts of organizations like the Philippine National Red Cross and Albay Province’s well-equipped and experienced Team Albay response team, as well as the generosity and active concern of thousands of their fellow citizens, dozens of private-sector businesses and other groups, and foreign governments and humanitarian organizations. All of those deserve respect and gratitude, but their presence only serves to highlight the absence of the government. Individual Filipinos, communities, and businesses only have the prerogative to hope for the kindness of outsiders in times of need, but they have an absolute right to expect it from the government they elected to do that specific job. As long as government fails to do that job, as long as “In case of disaster, you’re on your own, good luck” has to be the operative phrase in anyone’s business continuity plan, this country will continue to lag, and in a way that unfortunately has the potential to actually kill a lot of people.