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No end in sight to Philippine agony

Exactly a week after typhoon struck, it is clear people have been let down by their government, both local and national.
Last modified: 15 Nov 2013 12:46
A young boy in Tanauan, Leyte province [Reuters/Erik De Castro]

It's been a week since Typhoon Haiyan slammed into the central Philippines, but for so many people the disaster is getting worse and it's become clear they've been let down by their government, both local and national.

Having lived through the strongest storm to hit land, survivors are now still struggling to do just that, survive.

Wandering around the worst affected area of Tacloban city, you could be forgiven for thinking that the disaster has only just occurred.

Entire communities have been reduced to piles of debris, as people clamber over them searching for any belongings they may recognise, which in most cases is futile as the force of the wind and waves would have pushed most possessions a long way from their homes.

They're also still desperately searching for any sign of food or water that hasn't already been taken by someone else or perished in the hot sun.

In recent days though, some positive signs have emerged.

For the first time, a significant campaign began to retrieve bodies, many of which have been on the side of the road since the disaster struck, placed there by survivors.

Unprepared government

Teams are now also scouring some areas in the city looking for victims whose bodies remain buried beneath the rubble or floating in the ocean. But with so many people still missing, the work on the ground has only just begun, which amounts to an unacceptable response from the government.

Yes, this was the largest storm to strike land and yes, the government did warn people to evacuate before Haiyan came ashore, catching everyone by surprise with the size and ferocity of its surge of water from the ocean.

But the Philippines is a disaster-prone country, something you wouldn't necessarily know judging by the government's response to Haiyan.

Officials elected by the people have performed like a footballer making a stumbling, nervous debut, rather than an experienced campaigner falling back on years, even decades of knowledge, systems and experience.

Each year the Philippines deals with earthquakes, volcanoes and an average of 20 typhoons but each time there is a particularly large disaster, the fallout is exactly the same.

The government is accused of acting with incompetence and letting its people suffer unnecessarily through mismanagement and corruption.

This time, at least the President Benigno Aquino has acknowledged that his administration fell short in its response to Haiyan. That is an understatement. It's still falling short.

But it's not just the central government that must take the blame, it's the entire political system which relies heavily on local governance all the way down to the barangays or villages.

At best, the highly politicised system can provide a strong sense of community in some places. At worst, it's corrupt and self-serving.

No place for political games

When it comes to aid distribution, much of it is handled through the barangay chiefs and their superiors, some of whom like to take relief parcels and print their names on them so the beneficiaries know who to thank at the next election.

Basically, in disaster situations, there are too many links in the chain leading to a complete lack of coordination and at times, political games that have no place in disaster management which should be all about the victims.

During the aftermath of such a calamity, the central government must take over, completely.

In the immediate days following Haiyan, Tacloban and other affected areas should have been crawling with soldiers, flown in from around the country to help people to safety and begin searching for the missing.

Then, once the aid started arriving, they would have already been in place to help deliver it to those people who need it most, securely, without the threat of armed looters sabotaging the process.

Even now, you can travel large parts of Tacloban and see no soldiers or other security forces.

The delivery of aid seems to be finally speeding up and reaching communities that haven't seen any. But there are still areas that are missing out which after a week, is another disaster happening all over again.

We can only hope that the government learns and finally develops some systems and practices to help its people faster but history suggests it won't.