If there is a bigger calamity than super typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), it must be the Philippine government which has been notoriously inept in the wake of the devastation wrought by the storm in the Visayas. But aside from deficiency in leadership, the slow response of the government also reflected the tragic state of the country’s political institutions and economy.
Yolanda actually exposed the vulnerabilities of an underdeveloped Philippine economy. Despite high GDP numbers in the past decade, Asia’s ‘rising tiger’ has remained an agrarian archipelago plagued by poverty, hunger, and extreme deprivation. The so-called phenomenal progress that the Philippines has attained was instantly invalidated by the wasteland villages in Samar and Leyte. If wealth is truly spreading in the islands as claimed by the government, it clearly has not yet reached the backward regions of the country, in particular the Pacific eastern corridor from Cagayan to Mindanao.
Then and now, economic development has been concentrated in ‘imperial Manila’. Public spending and investments are narrowly restricted in the premier urban region where politicians and their families live. It’s one of the dark legacies of the Spanish colonial era when the very few elite families in old Manila (Intramuros) were usurping the resources of the rural islands. The result of this inequitable distribution of wealth is the shameful disparity of living between Mega Manila and the vast countryside, which includes Eastern Visayas.
It took some time to begin the clearing operations in modern Tacloban because most of the country’s heavy equipment, transportation facilities, and rescue logistics are found in the National Capital Region. Indeed, there are trucks and other industrial equipment in Samar and Leyte but these are owned by private mining, energy and logging companies. Power and communication lines are also owned by private corporations. The government does not even have an alternate infrastructure to restore electricity and telecommunication services in the typhoon-affected towns. In addition, the transport sector is dominated by corporate interest. It’s truly pathetic to see the government begging for the goodwill of airlines, shipping firms, and bus owners in order to transport typhoon victims and relief goods.
Decades of intense privatization and the commercialization of utility industries have rendered the government inutile in times of crisis. For several days, there was zero government. Big Business groups have taken over some of the core functions of the state like guaranteeing the flow of information signals. What happened in Tacloban was a defacto government shutdown. The Ground Zero in Tacloban is a grim reminder that the blind worshiping of the dogmatic doctrine of privatization (and the supreme evil that goes by the name of neoliberalism) will lead to the rise of a failed state.
Exacerbating the problem is rampant corruption in the bureaucracy. The Malacanang largesse that comes in trickles is often hoarded by greedy and violent dynasties. Each year, legislators are given pork funds intended to develop the local infrastructure. Meanwhile, provinces and municipalities have a share in the Internal Revenue Allotment. What happened to these funds? Were they really utilized for real projects with real beneficiaries? Or were they redirected to private pockets through institutionalized looting?
There were too many casualties which could have been avoided if there were efficient disaster preparation drills and quick disaster response programs that should have been spearheaded by the national and local governments. There are laws that are supposed to mandate the mainstreaming of policies to address the harsh impact of climate change. There are environment laws that seek to reverse the degradation of our natural habitats. But it seems many of our officials did not appreciate the value of implementing these life saving laws and policies. Hopefully, our other leaders will take heed of these post-Yolanda lessons.
But Yolanda did not only give us the opportunity to find fault in our elected officials. More importantly, it allowed us to finally recognize the real state of affairs. For example, the high trust ratings which President BS Aquino often bragged about did not translate into genuine and equitable growth. It’s a useful indicator but it can never replace good governance and political will. Further, it’s time to rethink economic policies that would mean more withdrawal of the state from providing essential services to its citizens. The widespread looting in the typhoon-ravaged provinces should be seen as the natural consequence in a society where pecuniary individualism is glorified while the spirit of collectivism (bayanihan) is rejected and even demonized as an outmoded concept.
The desire to transcend this selfie attitude was echoed in the popular appeal directed at netizens to stop posting narcissist photos and statements in the social networks. The appeal was made out of respect for the dead and typhoon survivors in the Visayas. But the situation in the country and even in the storm-battered provinces was neither satisfactory nor humane even prior to the arrival of Yolanda. Storm or no storm, many of our people are condemned to subsistence living which makes some aspects of our tech-driven and information-crazy kind of living quite cruel and insensitive.
That being said, Yolanda is a catastrophic event but it can also lead to a cleansing process. After the search and rescue, we aggressively recover and rehabilitate our communities. We should focus on the renewables and allow ‘green living’ a chance to alter our lifestyles. We can draft a more progressive land zoning policy. We can integrate the principles of good governance in everyday politics. We can rebuild a more democratic society. In other words, Yolanda is forcing us to view politics and change from a new and hopefully more radical perspective.