POSTSCRIPT / November 14, 2013 / Thursday


Opinion Columnist

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Conflicting views, clashing priorities

VARIOUS VIEWPOINTS: The phenomenon is created by the point of view taken. Or, as it is sometimes said, it is all a matter of opinion.

We are saying this again to put a handle on the cacophony of reports and conflicting views on what is and what is not being done, particularly by government, in the aftermath of Yolanda’s rampage in the Visayas last week.

Tuesday night, we asked on Twitter “Where is the government?” because four days after the killer typhoon struck there were only a handful of soldiers, brought in to prevent further looting, giving a semblance of government presence.

Seeing on TV the starving survivors pleading for clean water, food and medicine for their children — and not getting a quick response from officials — one would be insensitive not to demand where the government is.

Well, one mayor was busy acting as tour guide for foreign correspondents. Other officials in Manila and command centers are kept away from the disaster areas, because they have to sit down and brief media covering operations from a distance.

These officials, from their point of view, represent government in action (two words).

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ZERO CASUALTY: In a TV interview with a foreign news network, President Noynoy Aquino estimated the dead at only around 2,000 or possibly 2,500, but certainly not 10,000 as reported in media days ago.

From the point of view of many observers away from the disaster scene — but bombarded by incessant rising numbers and video clips of corpses strewn in the streets — the President’s estimate was just incredibly low.

Inserting our own point of view, we said in Twitter that the President was still in denial.

Before Yolanda stormed in, he was reciting a zero-casualty mantra. With the “preemptive preparation” reported to him by his subordinates, he now could not believe that that many people had died.

Will the correct count ever be known considering that hundreds remain missing and bodies are being shoveled into mass graves amid media’s warning of an impending public health disaster?

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PRIORITY ATTENTION: There is the discussion fueled by a foreign TV network about the public health problems posed by decomposing corpses lying around. From their point of view, an epidemic might just break out if the bodies remain unburied a day longer.

But from the viewpoint of medical specialists here and abroad, the probability of the dead being the direct cause of mass infection or the outbreak of disease is not as serious as the risks posed by lack of clean water, drugs and proper medical attention.

There is no question that the dead and the dying need prompt attention, but with the shortage of personnel and resources, the latter point of view giving priority to the sick and the injured may take precedence.

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FORECASTERS’ UPDATING: The matter of misplaced emphasis also came into play with the apparent failure of the weather bureau to give urgency to timely warnings about storm surges.

The bureau focused on the usual winds and rains of typhoons and may have lost sight of the serious threat posed by the surges that, it turned out, inflicted the bigger toll as seven-meter waves swept shore towns.

Forecasters lumped the surges together with the usual package of stormy weather and floods. The alerts could have gained more urgency if the giant waves were called tsunami, a more familiar and scary term, but a surge is called a tsunami only if triggered by volcanic or seismic force.

There is also the question of whether the weather bureau’s equipment and personnel are up to date. While forecasters abroad were rating the cyclonic winds at more than 300 kph, local forecasters were still talking 250 kph.

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FOREIGN MEDIA FILTER: Some observers get the impression that the President no less has to grant exclusive interviews to foreign news networks to be able to get more sympathetic reportage of the administration’s handling of the tragedy.

The reportage of foreign media, who have descended on the scene in droves, is crucial in gaining wider global sympathy and assistance.

If projected in bad light, the Aquino administration might give the sorry impression to the outside world that by itself it cannot handle the worsening survival crisis and that normalcy can be restored only with outside help.

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UGLY QUESTIONS: The good news is that aid is pouring in. The bad news is that the relief items are not moving fast enough to the barangays where they are needed. The clogging has been blamed by President Aquino on the wiping out of utilities and infrastructure.

But one is at a loss looking for an explanation, for instance, of why the Red Cross had been ready in Cebu with barges laden with body bags, food, medicines, the whole lot, but their release was blocked by authorities insisting on controlling distribution.

This is reminiscent of the incident in a quake-hit Bohol town where the mayor insisted that the Red Cross turn over its relief packages to him for distribution to the local folk.

The massive relief operation and the frenzied fund-raising, even by several private organizations, also raise the nagging question: For every peso donated, how many centavos actually reach the intended beneficiaries? It is an ugly question, but it bears asking.

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REHAB FUND: Senate President Franklin Drilon, meanwhile, asked the Department of Budget and Management to revise the proposed P2.268- trillion national budget for 2014 to include a fund for rehabilitation after disasters and calamities visit the country.

The proposed budget and the President’s Social Fund can handle the current relief operations, he said, but a bigger outlay is needed next year for rehabilitation. Although the budget bill has been approved by the House, it is still in the Senate.

But there are other ways of funding rehabilitation. The Congress can totally delete the P26-billion pork barrel, without hiding it piecemeal in other “porkable” items — and using the billions to augment the calamity fund.

It is another matter of point of view, and political intentions.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of November 14, 2013)

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