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Leaders and disasters

/ 05:06 AM November 20, 2020

Over the past weeks, as the country got battered by a series of typhoons, we saw Vice President Leni Robredo at the forefront of coordinating responses and organizing relief operations, from Catanduanes to Cagayan, and Polillo Island, Marikina, and Rizal in between.

This is on top of her efforts throughout the pandemic from organizing transportation and accommodation for hospital frontliners to giving assistance to people most affected by the lockdown.In a less divided nation, her actions would surely have earned plaudits across the political spectrum. At a time of an unprecedented plague and a series of disasters, who wouldn’t welcome an extra hand—especially one who has the organizational experience, the willingness, and the clout of the second highest official in the land?

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And who wouldn’t welcome the idea of all our top officials coming together behind shared objectives of beating the pandemic and saving lives, and truly “act as one”?

Alas, this political bayanihan is a pipe dream, with the naysayers being led by the President himself who, in his late night speech last Tuesday, spent the first 20 minutes to bash the Vice President, deriding her for “competing” with him (as if saving lives were a contest), and even making innuendoes unworthy of mention.

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This divisiveness, coming from the President himself, is unfair to the Vice President—and unfortunate for the entire nation.

It is unfair to the Vice President because, in the first place, it was President Duterte who practically forced her to resign as housing czar by excluding her from Cabinet meetings, and then fired her as drug czar (yes, we have too many czars) and again excluded her office from the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases, leaving her no choice but to embark on her initiatives apart from the rest of the executive branch. To say that she is not working with the government is misleading, coming from the person who has kept her from doing so.

In the second place, contrary to attempts to dismiss her visits as self-promoting gimmicks, her “being there” actually has value. The presence of a high-profile figure raises public awareness, heightens media attention (which is important for generating aid both local and foreign), and boosts political capital for action at the local level, which allows the leader to appreciate the “facts on the ground.” Moreover, as Robredo explained, “seeing us present helps boost the morale of people.” Mr. Duterte actually knows this very well—as evidenced by his dramatic display of kissing of the soil of Jolo, and of course, his frequent visits to military camps. All the above are reasons why “Nasaan ang pangulo?” is a question that every Filipino is entitled to ask, regardless of who the president is.

Thirdly, contrary to attempts to cast her as someone trying to bring down the President, the Vice President has been restrained in her criticism—more restrained than many in the opposition want her to be. Despite the hate she has received, she has not returned the negativity, and her pushbacks were to correct disinformation, not to foment it. Throughout the past four years, she has always been respectful toward the President, even if the reverse is far from the truth.

Ultimately, of course, this rivalry, albeit one-sided, is unfortunate for the nation, because it obscures the intersectoral, multilevel response required in moments of crisis. The simplistic division—Duterte vs. Robredo—fails to account for the role that LGUs play in disaster response, and, like Marcos vs. Aquino, it reinforces the “tyranny of false dichotomies” that have held back our nation. Meanwhile, it also wastes people’s time: Surely, 20 minutes of presidential discourse could have been better spent educating the public about the pandemic and correcting their many misconceptions.

Finally, it also detracts attention from the structural factors that have precipitated those disasters, from the deforestation of the Sierra Madre to the clientelism that have kept the poor living in precarious riversides and flood-prone areas. In this vein, I hope Vice President Leni will be more vocal about environmental issues like the Kaliwa Dam and the Tampakan mining project.

As for the President, better late than

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never. I hope he finally abandons his destructive divisiveness—and his somnolent sense of urgency when it comes to crisis. If he can do his job, then he’ll be the first to realize that he needs all the help he can get.

And if he can’t do it, the least he can do is to give way to others willing and able to do so.

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TAGS: bagyong ulysses, Cagayan, Flooding, leni robredo, OVP, Typhoon, Vice President
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