Politics should not be used in disaster relief

(The Philippine Star) - October 24, 2015 - 10:00am

The other night, we were deeply moved by an ANC story about the pitiful plight of a farmer because of Typhoon Lando – the 12th typhoon to hit the country this year and said to be the most devastating so far. The farmer was mourning the damage to his anticipated harvest and lamenting the fact that all he owned had been lost except for his carabao. The farmer, who already owed P100,000 – was naturally worried about the future for his family. “Bahala na” was all he could say to cope with his doleful situation, expressing hope that government would provide help to farmers like him who have almost nothing left.

According to estimates by the National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council or NDRRMC, the onslaught of Lando has resulted in the death of 46 people (as of this writing), with damage to agriculture estimated at P9 billion while infrastructure losses – many of them school buildings – are placed at over P900 million. Flooding has displaced thousands of families across several regions that included Ilocos, the Cordilleras, Central Luzon and Cagayan Valley, many of them still in evacuation centers. 

Early on, the weather bureau had warned that Lando could intensify into a super typhoon – driving fears that it could wreak the same havoc as Yolanda that hit the country in November 2013. In two weeks, it will be two years since the onslaught of Yolanda, the worst typhoon the world has ever seen, leaving thousands of people dead. The official count places it at over 6,000 but there are claims it exceeded 10,000 – with over a thousand people still missing. The horrifying aftermath prompted the world to come to our aid with Pope Francis himself deeply affected by it that he has taken the lead in asking nations like the United States to do something about climate change and the environment.

Pope Francis was so moved by the suffering in Leyte that in January – unmindful of the inclement weather – he made his way to Tacloban where during the mass and his extemporaneous homily, people started to openly cry. To this day, rehabilitation efforts continue to be a work in progress in many of the areas damaged by Yolanda – prompting a priest to air suspicions that government is waiting to roll out development projects in Yolanda-affected areas in time for the 2016 elections. “It is a mortal sin to help while waiting for something in return,” the priest angrily remarked.

It is extremely sad that politics is perceived to play a role even in disaster relief operations because it is the survival – the very lives in fact – of the people that is at stake. That Lando hit at a time when the campaign season for the 2016 elections is just around the corner strengthened suspicions that certain individuals and agencies were taking advantage of relief operations to give their preferred candidates “extra mileage” reportedly through selective distribution of relief items and goods.

There were plenty of reports that in some evacuation areas, typhoon victims were made to wait for the arrival of certain government officials before the distribution of food, water and other items was started – which is a clear indication that politics is at play once again. Politicians should realize that hunger recognizes no one especially for those who have been without food and water for several days.

A news report also said that certain towns whose mayors are not allied with the administration were allegedly skipped from the visit of the president and several government officials to assess the extent of damage and find out what kind of help the affected communities needed like hybrid seedlings and infrastructure rehab.

Certainly, Filipinos especially in areas often visited by typhoons or are prone to flooding have learned a lot of lessons from Yolanda that made a difference between death and survival. People have made it a point to know where the nearest evacuation area is located, they know the kind of items they should put in a survival kit (flashlight, documents inside a waterproof plastic envelope, water, no-cook food, etc.), and they are now tuned in to weather bulletins and advisories so they know if it is time to leave their homes for higher or safer ground.

The proposal of Senator Grace Poe for the creation of a national disaster risk management department – separate from the Department of Social Welfare and Development – that is dedicated to risk management and emergency response efforts is certainly needed. The Philippines is listed as one of the countries that is at most risk of natural disasters and calamities like earthquakes, typhoons and mudslides.

In fact, this was the same proposal that Leyte Congressman Martin Romualdez had made as early as December 2013 shortly after Yolanda ravaged many provinces in Eastern Visayas.  Martin and the independent bloc had been asking for the passage of House Bill 3486 that seeks to create a Department of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management that would be devoid of politics and solely tasked to handle all calamity and disaster-related operations. The DSWD could hardly cope since its primary mandate is not emergency response. 

In the United States, they have the Federal Emergency Management Agency or FEMA whose primary purpose is to coordinate government-wide disaster response and relief efforts during calamities, emergencies and national emergencies so that everything is done systematically and in an orderly manner.

There is a time and place for politics, but when one plays politics with victims of natural calamities and disasters – politicians better beware – there is a special place in hell waiting for you.

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Email: babeseyeview@gmail.com

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