How Not to React to a Tragedy

Typhoon Hainan was the natural disaster, but the response different individuals and institutions made in the aftermath was the tragedy. It’s time we made that clear.

The storm surge that wiped out coastal communities was bad, the fact that majority of the victims came from the lowest-income bracket made it even worse but the social media comments and the on-air sentiments made by several prominent people as well as ordinary people who then became prominent did nothing to alleviate that devastation.

When you see photos of debris from completely destroyed houses, the natural human response would be to feel sympathy. Yet, some not-so-intelligent members of the Iglesia Ni Cristo (Church of Christ) religion instead glorified the fact that amid the rubble stood a seemingly unscathed INC church. If that was not insensitive enough, some went on to say that it was ‘proof’ that theirs is the one true religion.

To add insult to injury, these zealots went on to point out that in another tragedy – the Bohol earthquake of last month – several Catholic churches were severely damaged. Apparently symbolizing that God was punishing ‘fake’ beliefs.

The unharmed INC church their members were so proud of.
The unharmed INC church their members were so proud of.

In an earlier post, I made a point that self-preservation is a natural instinct we humans have. I examined if whether the looting after the earthquake was ethical or not, and I argued that if looting was the last resort to surviving hunger or thirst then it is the right thing to do.

Sadly, not everyone looted to survive. Even as the storm had left the Philippines a new danger posed a threat to people’s lives in Leyte: armed looters, ransacking not only establishments but even the houses of people who had already suffered losses from the typhoon. That is one thing that is never justifiable – ESPECIALLY during a crisis. A more alarming report is that incidences of rape became rampant perpetrated by these armed groups. Just because the local government became paralyzed and authorities are unavailable does not signal the start of an anarchy. This is not how you should react to a tragedy.

A man defends his property with a gun. Calmly pointing it at a passerby while holding an umbrella to stay dry from the rain.
A man defends his property with a gun. Calmly pointing it at a passerby while holding an umbrella to stay dry from the rain.

The response from storeowners was no less dreadful. Fighting fire with fire they thought, as they defended their stores with guns from looters. This makes the scenario even worse.

Yet the biggest gaffe of the entire affair came from an elected politician – as expected. The mayor of a city hundreds of miles away in Davao, Mayor Rodrigo Duterte was shocking, much less politically correct. The mayor, popular with legions of supporters because of his Vin Diesel-in-Die-Hard bad boy persona made a barbaric statement that authorities should not hesitate to shoot anyone who attempts to loot.

It was understandable that he wanted peace and order in the hardest hit areas. The proper response should have been to advise security forces to take control of the towns. In fact, it would have been more rational to suggest the arrest of the looters. But saying that anyone who loots deserve to be shot is over the top and is something you would only hear from a totalitarian society.

Another way you should not react during a tragedy is to be defensive. Very defensive that you forgo common sense. When world-renowned journalist, Andersoon Cooper of CNN broadcasted his program ‘AC360’ from Tacloban in Leyte he pointed out the obvious – that there was very minimal government presence in the typhoon hit areas.

The victims were aware of that and so did the rest of the country who followed the reports from news outlets. Yet, TV anchor Korina Sanchez quickly reacted by saying that “he did not know what he was talking about”. The ironic part is that Anderson Cooper was reporting from the field, interacting with the victims and seeing the situation first hand. Korina Sanchez on the other hand, holds to the fact that she is married to the interior government secretary and that her husband is infallible. This not only exposes Sanchez’ bias but also makes her look pathetic to the viewers who, regardless if Mr. Cooper made that comment or not, already knew there was very little government response in the first place.

The stupidity does not end there, unfortunately. More government officials joined the fray, deliberately making fools of themselves. One of them was the president himself, who just a day before the typhoon made landfall claimed that all provinces in the path of the storm were prepared. That declaration would haunt him after the full extent of the devastation became known.

It was already embarrassing for him to to recall that statement during an interview with another CNN personality, Christian Amanpour, but he made it worse by absolving himself of any blame and instead redirecting that to the local government units. He claims that a few LGUs were “overwhelmed” which contrasted his word that they were ready to deal with the storm.

The president’s running mate, Mar Roxas, who after losing elections became the interior secretary did not come short in making a fool of himself on CNN getting in a spar with Andrew Stevens. In an interview, Roxas was grilled and asked to address the clamor of the victims and the dissatisfaction they have with the relief operations. He declared that no response would have been fast enough and the government is working as best as they can. When Stevens asked him directly if the situation was under control he answered in the affirmative. The scenario showed otherwise.

With corruption being a big problem in the Philippines, it was only normal that Filipinos were doubtful of the financial pledge promised by several nations. They were very privy of where the money would go and had concerns if it would indeed end with the relief efforts. Yet, the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) made an untimely comment saying that only donations sent to government organizations would be tax-free. So all the funds given to the Red Cross and several other independent humanitarian organizations would be taxed even if they were donations.

If that is the law, it would be appropriate to suspend that clause during a calamity. Also, if this is inevitable then it would have been best to reserve these comments for a later time especially not when suffering in the stricken areas is still very real. Or the comment could not have been said at all. With that revelation made, would-be donors are now skeptical. People would understandably be furious and there is a real concern that aid would fall in the wrong hands as well.

It is a fact that times of tragedy drives us to do the most irrational things. Typhoon Haiyan left the Philippines shocked at how nature can be so violent – but the judgment of government (or the lack of it) and the madness that ensued following the typhoon amazed us at how naive people can be.

The typhoon is absolutely devastating, but minding our actions is paramount so as not to exacerbate the emotions of the victims or to compromise the relief being done. Politics should be put aside, the government should stop covering up their mistakes and instead try to redeem themselves by stepping up with the relief efforts. At the same time, bureaucracy should be put on hold in favor of a bigger need that needs to be addressed first. In a deeply religious country, it is absolutely distasteful to involve God in the picture – especially when people say that He punished the victims for being in the wrong religion.

There should have been no organization more competent to deal with a national crisis than an elected government, sadly ours is acting like the complete opposite.

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