Too slow, too fast
Two stark ironies stand out in the wake of Supertyphoon “Yolanda,” variations on a “too fast, too slow” theme. One is the way donations are flooding in, yet reaching the disaster areas only in trickles. The other is the slow pace of evacuating survivors who need to leave the devastated zones, even as there are people from Manila wanting to rush into the area to check on their kin.
Let’s deal first with the relief operations. Assistance is flowing in rapidly; cash donations from governments alone amounted to some P3.8 billion as of Wednesday. All kinds of local relief efforts have been initiated, for goods as well as for funds.
Yet, as the Inquirer front-page headline put it yesterday, there is a logjam in the relief operations. Well, many logjams. And as usual, it seems to be a result of too many people doing too many things, but without a clear sense of what they hope to achieve. I’m actually being asked to attend too many planning meetings and seeing too few decisions coming out except to wait and see.
The lack of systematic relief and the slow operations are bound to affect donations. Already there are people expressing fears of corruption and a diversion of goods, as well as of politicians wanting to take credit for the relief goods and money. One European group wrote our anthropology department at the University of the Philippines offering planeloads of medical assistance, but wanting assurance that the supplies could get through customs.
People have already forgotten the places affected by “Santi” (Zambales and Central Luzon) and the last earthquake (Bohol and Cebu). Leyte, Samar and other provinces struck by Yolanda will be in the public consciousness for a longer time, but compassion fatigue will set in. I’m already hearing people saying they do not want to watch the TV coverage or listen to the radio anymore because the news is all so depressing.
The mass media should deal less now with scenes of devastation, faces of despair, and looting, and instead give hope by telling more stories of heroism and valor. Talk more, for example, about the rank-and-file government workers in the disaster areas who have been reporting for work even if they themselves were seriously affected by the supertyphoon.
But the government has to bring in management experts to figure out the logistics and work out the strategies. Foremost, they have to get communications restored. Yolanda gave us a shocking reminder of how easily we can be unwired. The world began to see the devastation in Tacloban only on Monday. Reports are beginning to filter in from other towns in Samar and Leyte. Several coastal towns in northern Panay as well as Cebu have also been affected, but there is almost no news about these areas as I write my column.
The breakdown in communications is causing so many problems. We don’t know the extent of the damage, and what the needs are. For the affected residents there must be overwhelming despair, a feeling of being totally abandoned by the government, relatives, the outside world. And for the relatives in Manila, Cebu and other urban centers, the anxiety of not knowing what happened to their loved ones has been excruciating.
The text message came late Tuesday night from one of my staff, who we will call Lani, saying she had decided to go to Guiuan, Eastern Samar, to look for her mother. She apologized for leaving because I had advised her repeatedly not to go, but she felt she had to find out, once and for all, if her mother was alive. She was to travel with seven relatives.
Even if I felt that Lani made a very unwise decision, I could also understand why she decided to go. Since Yolanda struck she had been unable to reach her mother. News about Guiuan, described now as a wasteland, came out in the media only on Wednesday, the day after Lani left.
Here then is the other irony: of people desperately trying to get out of the disaster areas while their relatives in Manila try as desperately to get in. I’ve heard some amazing stories about how some people were able to do this, using every conceivable means of transport and all kinds of routes. When military planes began to help with evacuations, more people were able to make it out, but thousands remain stranded in Tacloban.
Again, there are all kinds of reports of how unorganized the evacuation has been. There are people transported to Manila, where they have no relatives; others who do have relatives don’t know their addresses. There are reports, too, of people who wanted to go to Cebu but ended up in Manila.
Meanwhile, as Tacloban runs out of food and clean water, people are literally walking to flee. Catbalogan, which was not as badly affected by Yolanda, is receiving many of the refugees, thus placing a great strain on the city.
Then there are people like Lani trying to get to the Visayas from Manila. On radio I heard that some 2,000 people are stranded in Matnog, Sorsogon, the last port in Luzon on the way to the Visayas.
Once they get to the Visayas, they will encounter roaming bands of desperate people (I’ve heard comparisons to scenes from the TV series “The Walking Dead”). Lani herself said she would not bring much money, or food, for fear of attacks from the refugees.
And that was my point: If she couldn’t bring money or food, then why go? Lani and others like her would just further strain local resources if they did get to their hometowns. And once there, she ran the risk of being stranded.
I told Lani that she had to be patient, that in a few days public transportation, including commercial flights, would be restored for faster, and safer, trips. If she did find her mother alive, she could then quickly arrange to bring her back to Manila.
All this reflects a darker, irrational side of the Filipino. The rationalization is the need to show concern for family and loved ones, but all that is empty rhetoric that fails to consider the welfare of the larger community. Leaving for Samar, Lani was walking out on her work here, and her own immediate family. I also cannot help but see an element of the “uzi” (loosely, kibitzing).
It’s a narrow, almost arrogant view, that one can help only by being in the disaster area. There is much that can be done from Manila, Cebu and other urban centers in terms of helping relief operations. Over at my college at UP, we have to tend to students from those areas who are now cut off from their families. The typhoon occurred during registration week, so some are left without money to pay their tuition. UP will of course allow payments to be deferred and, I am hoping, even waived.
Even more importantly, these students will need psychosocial counseling to deal with anxiety and grief, and for those who lost many relatives, feelings of guilt.
Such situations aren’t unique to UP or to schools. All of us will have office colleagues or employees in similar situations, and we need to be able to support them, to help them access information not just about the disaster areas but also about options like social-security assistance, and, most importantly, to dissuade the reckless among them from heading out to the disaster areas.
That text from Lani on Tuesday night was the last time I heard from her. I have a feeling it will be a while before I hear from her again.
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