FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - January 14, 2020 - 12:00am

Unfortunately, we do not yet have the science to predict earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. If we did, our lives would be safer.

Taal Volcano, despite its size, is one of the most active volcanoes on earth. Last Sunday, the quiet monster sitting on a placid lake of its own making showed signs of activity. Things progressed very rapidly from noon to dusk.

In a matter of a few hours, Phivolcs raised the alert levels from 1 to 4. The small volcano threw up an ash plume 15 kilometers high. The winds dutifully carried the ash to as far north as a Mega Manila area.

In a single afternoon, thousands of residents within the danger zone had to be evacuated. During floods or typhoons, people are evacuated to nearby shelters on higher ground or more solid buildings. In the case of a volcanic eruption, people had to be moved over large distances away from the ash and toxic fumes.

I observed the comprehensive media coverage of developments closely. Many of the affected residents were complaining about Phivolcs’ failure to warn them of what was coming.

To be fair, Phivolcs could not have predicted what happened. We do not, I repeat, have the science to allow us to predict what happened and what will continue to happen as this calamity unfolds.

Otherwise, our local governments have responded rather effectively to the fast moving calamity. The only casualties reported so far is a death from a road accident resulting from poor visibility and slippery roads attributable to the ashfall.

Airport operations were suspended while the wind took the ash cloud northward. Schools and government work were cancelled even as the wind direction changed and carried the ash toward Quezon province. Air services will resume, we are told, after the runways are cleared of ash and the engines meticulously cleaned for flight.

Alert level 4 remains in effect, indicating a destructive eruption could happen. Whether that would happen in hours, days, weeks or even years, we do not know.

Again, we do not have the science to tell us precisely when. The best we could do is to improve the evacuation sites, beef up relief supplies and keep emergency crews at bay – respecting the fact we could not fully control the forces of nature.


Other calamities, by contrast, are completely avoidable were it not for bureaucratic imperiousness or plain stupidity.

For two decades, Filipinos enjoyed the convenience of acquiring true copies of birth, wedding and death certificates online. This has been one of the best innovations done by what was previously the National Statistics Office (NSO) and what is now the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA).

With online services available, ordinary citizens do not have to take a day’s leave from work to line up and apply for copies of these documents and then take another day off to return, line up and collect the documents they needed. If there is delay in the production of the requested documents, citizens needed to come back a third time to collect pieces of paper.

Suddenly, over a week ago, the online services were unavailable. Applicants for reproductions of vital documents were told to go the PSA, line up and make their requests.

It is as if we were thrown back 20 years, back to the same insane inefficiency that used to be the norm. This setback happens while the rest of government is moving processing online, consistent with the goal of improving on the ease of doing business in the country.

This is a real calamity. Thousands of citizens make request for documents each day. Suddenly the online service is cut. The PSA, it appears, has not even made provisions for meeting the request manually.

It turns out, PSA head Claire Dennis Mapa handed the service provider a letter dated Dec. 20, 2019, as everybody settled for holiday cheer. That letter informed the service provider their services were being terminated on Jan. 4, 2020.

The service provider sought an audience with Mapa to clarify the order. That was not granted. The chief statistician and Civil Registrar General could not be bothered during the holidays. Neither did Mapa initiate anything to deal with the situation that arose because of this abrupt termination.

The service provider wrote Mapa a letter to inquire about the sudden termination. There was no reply to that either.

Through third parties, the service provider was told that the termination happened because of “numerous” complaints about the quality of service. That puzzled the provider. The records show that the PSA’s hotline received only 51 complaints (or 0.5 percent of the total served). Many of those complaints were about the PSA’s requirements for requests to be served.

Mapa did not even bother to inform the public that the online service has been terminated. Since January 4, the service provider received 5,049 calls inquiring about the absence of the service. An additional 40,591 users visited the provider’s website.

Neither did Mapa inform his constituents when, if ever, online services might be restored. He seems perfectly content leaving the whole matter up in the air.

The PSA is a vital frontline agency. It delivers an invaluable service to our citizens. Our people do expect this agency to deliver uninterrupted and reliable frontline services.

Mapa is not performing as a responsible head of this frontline agency. He terminates service providers in the most cavalierly way and then neglects to inform our citizens that the usual conveniences will suddenly be unavailable.

The volcano, it appears, is a lot more predictable than Mapa.

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