President Aquino’s decision to skip Tacloban City in the series of commemorative activities marking the first anniversary of Super typhoon “Yolanda” was an egregious mistake. It reminded citizens across the country of the politically toxic atmosphere that hung over Tacloban immediately after it was devastated by the strongest storm to ever make landfall, and renewed questions about whether
Mr. Aquino sees himself as president of an entire country, not only of those who voted for him. Not least, it raised concerns yet again that President Aquino, himself the beneficiary of potent political symbolism, does not fully understand, or is not ready to fully employ, the power of the symbol.
Of course he should have been at ground zero of the Yolanda catastrophe. That is the role of the head of state: to serve as the focus of national attention, indeed to serve the public interest by directing national attention to issues and events of importance. To argue that he had other commitments last Saturday, or that his schedule last Friday was already full (it was, in fact, actually full), is to confuse or to conflate his duties as head of government with those of head of state. As head of government, he had to prepare for his participation in crucial international summits; as head of state, he should have rearranged his schedule to accommodate a quick trip to Tacloban.
He is right, of course, when he says Tacloban was not the only place that suffered; his trip to Eastern Samar, Palawan, Cebu, and Aklan on Friday was a necessary reminder that the scope of Yolanda’s destructiveness went well beyond Tacloban.
He is also right that he or at least his administration can’t be blamed for neglecting Tacloban entirely; government resources have poured into the city and its immediate surroundings.
And yet: There was no excuse for the President asking, “Can anybody claim that we were the worst hit?” In fact, by the two most familiar, most frequently used measures, only Tacloban can make that claim: the most number of dead, the biggest damage to infrastructure.
There was no excuse for the President, during his Guiuan stop, to mistake criticism from the usual quarters—“Despite this initiative, I have a strong sense that, tomorrow, someone will claim, I neglected Tacloban. I leave it to you to find out who those are who make that claim”—as a basis for decision-making, as though only those who oppose him politically have criticized his administration’s response to Yolanda, especially in Tacloban City.
There was no excuse for the President to skip the city altogether. In the same way that German Chancellor Angela Merkel would have been pilloried if she had neglected Berlin during the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, or US President Barack Obama if he had failed to visit New York on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Mr. Aquino’s absence from Tacloban on the first anniversary of Yolanda was a failure to do his duty. What would it have taken to take a quick helicopter ride from Guiuan or from Bantayan Island?
So he doesn’t like the Romualdezes; so he has visited Tacloban several times since the storm made landfall; so he has released considerable funds to help in the rehabilitation of the city. It was still his responsibility to be present at Yolanda’s ground zero, to give focus to the series of commemorations, to rally the people of Tacloban, to serve as symbol of a wounded but resilient nation.
Couldn’t he have served as that symbol in the other sites he visited? Yes, but only to an extent. Because national and international attention was focused on Tacloban, his absence became obvious, and an antisymbol of sorts: Of the political divisiveness that disrupted rescue and relief operations in Tacloban, of the partisanship that Interior Secretary Mar Roxas infamously warned Tacloban City Mayor Alfred Romualdez about, even of perceptions of selective justice. The President could have avoided all of that, if only he had found his way to ground zero.
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