Days after Yolanda, many questions beg to be answered

Super typhoon Haiyan, known locally as Yolanda, brought havoc and devastation across Central Philippines. (Image from Wikimedia)
Super typhoon Haiyan, known locally as Yolanda, brought havoc and devastation across Central Philippines. (Image from Wikimedia)

Five days since the world’s strongest typhoon first rammed through Guiuan and the the rest of a big area in central Philippines, we are all thankful for the nationwide and worldwide outpouring of sympathy and support for the Visayas.

The nation and the world watched in horror the reports of widespread devastation and misery in Tacloban City and several other places where Yolanda wreaked havoc. Citizens swiftly took action with relief aid campaigns, while our friends abroad mobilized ships and rescue teams, emergency food and financial aid. Thanks to the media, we are able to see snapshots of the miserable situation in Tacloban and other areas they manage to cover.

If you wish to help, the grassroots-based Citizen Disaster Response Center accepts donations in cash or kind.  It is part of a network of community-based relief agencies across the country.

But five days after Yolanda, disappointment is rising because there are a growing number of questions left unanswered, questions whose answers cannot wait a day, a week or a month more because more lives could be at stake.

1. What has been done or is being done to reach all the towns ravaged by Yolanda?

This is an important question that affects relief and rehabilitation efforts. If despite intense local and international media attention, Tacloban City still has barely enough relief goods, medicines and temporary shelter to go around, and the dead bodies now rot in the streets, we could only imagine the situation in other areas.

We all deserve to know what’s the plan for Tacloban City – both for the living and the dead. That they still inhabit the same space is a serious concern as epidemic may break out if the dead bodies are not buried immediately. The death toll in Tacloban may rise because of the health hazards posed by dead bodies that are still left unattended in the streets and the meager medical supplies and services available there.

We likewise wish to know the plan for the other towns and cities, if any. But it all starts with knowing how they are faring now. Have they been wiped out during the typhoon or is the number of casualties rising because of the lack of food and water, poor sanitation and other factors?

One example of this is Culasi town in Antique which, until today, has never been unheard from since Friday. A former provincial board member finally found a way to post an update on Facebook, saying that at least 10,000 homes were damaged there. No word on casualties or injured – but if 10,000 Culasi homes are destroyed, that’s a huge crisis for that town and could mean 50,000 need emergency shelter and relief aid.

Each hour or day that passes that we are deprived of information on the situation of each and every town visited by Yolanda is an hour or day wasted in helping the survivors. Who knows, there may be places that demand more attention and help than the others.

2. Is there a deliberate effort to downplay the number of casualties?

While we understand that the national government has yet to reach all the towns and cities, there is a noticeable disconnect between number of casualties released by government and the leading relief organization Philippine Red Cross.

We all hope there is no deliberate effort to downplay or hide the number of casualties because the truth will eventually come out. More and more families are getting desperate and impatient that it is taking long for government to check the status of towns and cities – and consequently, the situation of their relatives. They will evetually know the truth. If the public finds out that government efforts to reach towns and cities are less than quick, and the incompetence led to more unnecessary deaths, blood would be in the hands of government.

Disaster preparedness and response ultimately means reducing the number of casualties to zero. This requires preparedness before and speed immediately after the disaster. In both, there must be accountability.

Many have died and while the government still cannot determine the actual number, the least that could be done is to present on a plan on how to retrieve, identify and bury the dead. Proper disposition of dead bodies is becoming more important by the hour because these could result in health and psychological issues for the living.

3. Where should citizens and foreign aid donors expect their donations to go?

While we look at reputable international relief agencies and grassroots organizations to do the hard work in many places, especially those not reached by both government and the media, most of the relief aid, both from local and international sources, are going through the government.

We all deserve to know where and how government is going to spend the financial aid, distribute the relief goods, implement rehabilitation efforts.

The relief aid is less about the donors. It is about restoring the basic dignity of our kababayans in the Visayas who were left homeless, unsheltered, without food and water, and without an immediate future.

4. What is being done to prioritize the sick, the elderly, women and children?

UNICEF estimates that of the 10 million people affected by Yolanda, a staggering four million are children.

While we are happy to hear reports that the Department of Health is calling on volunteer doctors and nurses, there has been no clear effort to set up mobile or temporary hospitals to take care of the sick.

Feeding stations targeting kids and nursing moms have not been seen in any of the media reports.

Schools have likewise been destroyed and there is no indication on exactly how and when schooling for kids would resume.

We hope the DepEd and the DSWD would take action on this.

5. Why do reports of looting persist?

Looting appears to be caused by the inexplainable slow pace of authorities on the ground, at least in Tacloban, in bringing emergency relief aid to our kababayans there. To think that the Interior secretary was there, the secretary in charge of the Philippine National Police, and there has apparently been a big, powerful effort to restore order in a devastated city and a ravaged populace, is too visual an example of incompetence and neglect we cannot ignore.

Today, Malacanang’s spokesman said troops have been deployed. But that is not what the people of Tacloban principally need.

6. Is the national government open to citizens’ suggestions?

There have been a number of suggestions made by citizens on how to boldly and effectively respond to the catastrophic effects of Yolanda, most of them immediate in nature. We hope the government would be open to them.

One is a high-profile effort to dispatch as many ships and planes to simultaneously reach out to Coron, Mindoro, Panay, Northern Cebu, Bohol, Leyte and Samar. The optics of such an effort are important to show a concerted and serious efforts to bring urgent relief aid to the huge area impacted by Yolanda. On land, there could be a caravan of several dozen or even a hundred ten-wheeler trucks to be dispatched at the same time.

Second, if government is finding it hard to check the huge area devastated by Yolanda, it should not hesitate to admit it and call on citizens and citizens’ groups, and towns and cities nearby, to themselves launch fact-finding and mercy missions. This could be done. For example, citizens and officials across Panay island who were spared the wrath of Yolanda should take it upon themselves to cross over to towns not as lucky or have yet to be reached by the national government.

Third, declare a national volunteer service weekends to mobilize citizens nationwide to collect, gather and repack relief goods in communities and churches, temples and Mosques. The weekends could also be an opportunity to recruit volunteer nurses, doctors and other medical personnel, embalmers, engineers, and other professionals who wish to be deployed in disaster areas.

Fourth, put on a very high priority the efforts to draw a common, official and verifiable list of survivors and missing persons. The Google Person Finder now contains close to 60,000 names, a small fraction of the estimated 10,000,000 people affected by Yolanda.

Fifth, there must be a daily report to the nation on the Yolanda relief efforts, that is open to scrutiny and to cross-checking.

The great people of this once beautiful city of Tacloban deserve help and their dignity back as soon as possible. (Photo by Jason Pascual.)
The great people of this once beautiful city of Tacloban deserve help and their dignity back as soon as possible. (Photo by Jason Pascual.)

Make no mistake about it: Yes, we must do everything in our power to mobilize in order to bring and send relief and to undertake rescues. But at this stage, when crucial questions have not been answered and we see the same things over and over again, one way to also help is to ask questions.

Those questions seek to the do the same things we all want: Help the survivors, feed and shelter them and restore their basic dignity as people.

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