…wrote Walid El Houri, on the deadly explosion in Beirut last Aug. 4, describing that day’s tragic incident as the climax of a long reign of corruption by Lebanese President Michel Aoun. As El Houri noted, Aoun’s rule has been the “most catastrophic in the modern history” of Lebanon.
This most recent tragic incident in the port of Beirut is a culmination of long years of the Lebanese government’s “neglect, corruption, and incompetence that sums up the Lebanese state,” claimed El Houri. The explosion emanated from 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate that had been stored under questionable circumstances in a Beirut port warehouse more than six years ago.
Ammonium nitrate is widely used as fertilizer, but it is also an important component for making improvised explosive devices (IEDs). A combination of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil can be a deadly element in an IED. In Australia, ammonium nitrate is widely used as an explosive for mining activities, and is considered “dangerous goods,” and therefore highly regulated.
El Houri narrated that in November 2013, a cargo ship, MV Rhosus, docked at the Beirut port after it ran through technical problems while on the way to Mozambique from Georgia. On board this ship were thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate.
According to El Houri, Beirut customs officials, other government officials, even the judiciary and the military authorities were well aware of the dangers posed by storing huge amounts of ammonium nitrate inside the port’s warehouse. Although not combustible by itself, ammonium nitrate can explode when exposed to an incendiary device or to a small fire. But it was allowed to be stored unsafely in a warehouse there, largely through some alleged dubious transactions between the ship owner and some port authorities, including the head of customs.
More than six years later, last Aug. 4, a thick, fiery cloud enveloped Beirut port that killed more than 100 people, and injured thousands. Many more are still missing, said El Houri.
Here at home, we also have an explosion, though of a different kind: The unabated increase in the number of people infected with the deadly COVID-19. Within six months, from a small two-digit number in the early part of 2020, the cases have breached the 100,000 mark, catapulting the Philippines to the topmost spot in Southeast Asia.
Thousands of COVID-19 patients, including medical practitioners themselves, have also died because of the virus. Many nagging questions have been asked about why this has happened. But the government just responded with threats and other repressive actions and statements. At other times, the President resorted to sick jokes that never made us laugh.
Recently, the PhilHealth head was reported to be involved in questionable purchases of COVID-19 testing kits and IT equipment, in this time of crisis. He is former brigadier general Ricardo Morales, one of the many former military officials now occupying top government civilian positions. Mr. Duterte believes that military officials are not only disciplined, they are also straightforward, and by this he means they are not corrupt.
On Aug. 4, the same day as the Beirut explosion, resigned PhilHealth anti-fraud legal officer Thorrsson Montes Keith testified in a Senate hearing that Morales had ordered him to “massage” (“hilutin,” an idiomatic Tagalog expression to do some “creative” justification) the allegedly overpriced COVID-19 testing kits. Keith claimed that this slew of corrupt practices attributed to PhilHealth senior officials involved a whopping P15 billion.
This huge amount of money could have saved the thousands of people who died from COVID-19. It could have facilitated the planning and implementation of a more rationalized and scientific roadmap toward assuring our safety, for more assiduous and meticulous contact tracing, and social protection for those who have to stay at home to avoid contracting the virus.
In the Philippines, as in Lebanon, corruption kills.
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