A time to act
SEARCH FOR TRUTH - Ernesto P. Maceda Jr. (The Philippine Star) - January 18, 2020 - 12:00am

Taal seethes and we continue to fidget with how best to cope. C’est la vie? But always there will be fingers pointed, whether critically or constructively, in the urge to provide predicates for our predicaments.

Some from Congress would have wanted more adequate forewarnings. Netizens bewail belated local and national government responses. President Rodrigo Roa Duterte was even compelled to apologize unnecessarily for his “late visit” to Taal. And then, the morning after quarterbacking on the policy on calamity funds.

On a macro-level, our experience provides the final validation for the urgent establishment of a permanent emergency or disaster management department. Natural disasters are a part of life in the Philippines yet, so far, we have managed to sidestep the creation of an office mandated to focus on preventing tragedy escalation, assuring timely responses, adequate rehabilitation and acceptable relocation.

No more excuses. Even for us, 2019 was a disaster watershed. There may have been less than the usual complement of typhoons and those that came actually arrived later than usual. But the swarm of earthquakes made it a stand out year. Thousands of earthquakes are recorded annually – from 2,000 to 12,000. Most are not strong enough to be felt. But we experienced a host of intensity 5 tremors and higher: Batanes, Quezon, Mindoro, Zambales, the several provinces in Mindanao. And the damages, in hundreds of millions measured in money, are still being estimated.

Numerous bills remain pending, prioritizing the establishment of a Department of Disaster Resilience and Emergency Assistance and Management. Two such are SBs 39 and 124 of Senators Kiko Pangilinan and Grace Poe. While we do have the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management (NDRRM) Council, the same is a mere coordinating body providing traffic management to the fragmented efforts of the departments. Better if, as Sen. Poe says, there were someone in charge in times of disasters and calamities to provide leadership and accountability.

Back to calamity funds. Even before the eruption, the issue on calamity fund vs. intelligence fund prioritization was by no means dormant. Calamity fund appropriations were slashed in half in 2017. There was a hotly debated discussion again this year as P11 billion for calamities, according to the Senators, were re-aligned to the Palace’s intelligence funds.

As we stew in the lull before the next volcanic episode, we wonder whether funding will be available when needed. This is where a discrepancy the size of a lake comes in. Secretary Sal Panelo assures that there is enough. We have P16 billion on hand from the NDRRM Fund which was part of the national budget PRRD signed last Jan. 6. But this was slashed P4 billion lower than 2019’s Fund as per the Congressmen. Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano, however, clarifies that P8.5 billion is already earmarked for Marawi and the Davao-Cotabato earthquake relief efforts. Thus, only P7.5 billion remains for the entire year. And Taal is just the first of many calamities. And then, Cong. Joey Salceda with the suggestion that though P12 billion may be sufficient for now, we are looking at P60-100 billion to “recreate and reform” the Batangas area. 

Are we still talking of disasters?

Long overdue. The POEA Board issued a total deployment ban to Kuwait early this week covering “newly hired domestic workers or household service workers, semi-skilled workers, skilled workers and professionals, including crew changes and shore leaves of Filipino seafarers.” Those whose overseas employment certificates were secured pre Jan. 15 and all who are already working in Kuwait are excluded.

This ban is an eruption in the existing detente with Kuwait. More than 260,000 Filipino OFWs ply their fortunes there, with remittances of more than $735 milllion in 2017, January to November (December remittances would jack up that figure). Sixty percent of OFWs serve as domestic managers in this country with a higher incidence of employer abuse, relative to other gulf states. The Joanna Demafelis murder triggered the last total deployment ban in 2018. This time, it is Jeanelyn Villavende. The death count, since 2016 per OWWA records, has topped 200. This is on top of the 6,000 cases of abuse, sexual harassment and rape filed with the Philippine embassy in 2017.

The crime committed against Jeanelyn is an outrage by all accounts. She endured multiple, severe, traumatic injuries. In the words of Justice Secretary Menardo Guevara, she was “mauled to death.” There were clear indications of sexual abuse per the NBI autopsy. But the Kuwaiti Ministry of Health’s embalming certificate detailed no such findings and instead indicated death from “acute failure of heart and respiration” as a result of shock and multiple injuries in the vascular nervous system.

The glaring “cover up” by the Kuwaiti government warrants this instinctual action. The President was duly informed by the POEA board of the step toward greater protection for our nationals. Last 2018, he himself decreed the total ban. Our two countries walked back from the edge of total diplomatic collapse only by executing labor agreements embodying basic protections for our workers. Simply the guarantee of letting them keep their passports and mobile phones; basic needs; specifying sleeping and working hours, health insurance. But Labor Sec. Bebot Bello says, to date, the Kuwaiti government has dragged its feet in acceding to the modified, final version of the standard employment contract. Complaints have not waned. Jeanelyn Villavende is glaring proof of the failure of that particular solution.

Secretary Teddyboy Locsin prefers to await the outcome of the investigation in Kuwait. After all, the Kuwaiti authorities acted swiftly in arresting, detaining and arraigning Jeanelyn’s employer couple. Give Kuwait the benefit of the doubt, due process a chance and we have a better prospect at avenging her. Lex Talionis – a life for a life. Immediate, ballistic retaliation in the form of a total ban might just detract from the urgency of Kuwaiti resolve to apply justice. The government has hired a top flight Kuwaiti lawyer to prosecute. Only if they pussyfoot do we impose the ban.


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