These natural disasters bring out the best and worst in us. There are lots of stories of heroism, like people I know from media who helped rescue stranded citizens at the height of the storm. But there are the inevitable bad stories, like the massive looting of a mall in one of the devastated cities.
This provided fodder again for some fellow Filipinos who lamented "the problem with Pinoys," typically comparing us to the disciplined response of Japanese citizens in the aftermath of the tsunami in Fukushima.
But here's the rub. When people have lived a lifetime without receiving any care from their public officials, it's everyone for themselves. If your family hasn't had anything to eat in three days and no contact from public leaders, you're pushed against the wall. In fact that's how one looter put it, after shamefully admitting to taking part in the looting.
Japan's governance is way better than ours -- their government serves the people. Contrast this to local governments in the Philippines, especially in the remotest provinces, whose officials systematically loot the public coffers and continue to build unfinished roads, bridges, and basketball courts while pocketing most of the funds. So we should see this as a problem of leadership, or the lack of it.
In my simplistic view, our corrupt public officials have failed us on many levels. They have kept themselves in power through patronage politics, sustained by denying people proper education, jobs, and reproductive health rights. It is the same system that has failed to formulate proper disaster preparedness in a storm-ridden country. It is the same populace that keeps voting them in place and so the cycle goes on. Yolanda is as much a man-made disaster as it is natural.
Still, there is hope. Through time, I have observed our disaster response getting better. There's a dearth of good public officials, but quite a few exemplary leaders have risen. We're still a long way off but we've slowly chipped off the leadership neglect that entrenched itself during the corruption in the Marcos years.
Disaster preparedness does not happen the week or month before the storm.
It happens in the way governance is done, in urban and social planning. It degenerates when settlements are allowed to mushroom in an area vulnerable to floods, when flimsy structures are allowed at all to be erected, when evacuation centers are not located on safe ground, or when neighboring local governments refuse to coordinate with each other on matters as simple as traffic and garbage collection.
A friend said that now would be a good time to reset the country. I agree. To draw another parallel with our Asian neighbor, it would be like Japan after World War II, rising from devastation and despair and emerging a better nation.
This should be our turning point. This should be where we realize what public service really means. This should be the time to make our public officials accountable.
I hope that's not too much to hope for.
* * *
Update: Nov 12, 2013. This came in today from a friend:
"When it comes to preparation, the Philippines may want to study two countries that have made major progress in coping with typhoons, cyclones and hurricanes: India and Cuba." Read the full article here.
* * *
If you wish to help the relief efforts, please share this poster on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ etc. My wife and her fellow Fulbright scholars in the US will walk/run 50 miles to help give typhoon survivors access to safe drinking water.