‘Healing as one’ slogan goes awry on typhoon response

Seeing the devastation of a string of typhoons from Quinta to Ulysses that recently visited the country was truly heartbreaking. Worse than this was seeing the country’s top government leaders bickering in the aftermath of the destructive calamities, leaving thousands of poor Filipinos without shelter and food.

The exchange of words between the camps of President Rodrigo Duterte and Vice President Leni Robredo on their respective response to the typhoons veered away from the administration’s slogan – bayanihan to heal as one -- in combating the 2019 coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

As most of us know, bayanihan is a positive Filipino custom referring to the spirit of communal unity, work, and cooperation to get something done. In the aftermath of the typhoons that came one after another in a span of a few days from late October to early November, we witnessed the country’s top leaders bitterly divided instead of “healing as one.”

When the president spewed accusations against the vice president who was in the news and quite visible on social media while attending to the needs of typhoon victims, many were surprised.

In his public address close to midnight on Nov. 17, Duterte “cautioned” the vice president against “competing” with him and accused her of grandstanding, lying, incompetent, and breaching the military chain of command even as thousands of families were still crying for help.

Many considered Duterte’s 17-minute rant on nationwide broadcast as out of place, uncalled for, irresponsible, and an unstatesmanlike behavior. More so as it appeared that his accusations were triggered by inaccurate reports from his trusted men who apparently see the vice president as a competitor rather than a co-worker in government.

The president’s tirade against the vice president has kept keyboard warriors occupied, many of them dishing out expletives and bitter words that aggravate the situation. Others have resorted to heckling on social media. It also kept newsrooms busy fact-checking the statements from both camps.

A cursory of news reports in the succeeding days showed more stories either debunking or putting in perspective the statements from the president, and his defenders —Spokesperson Harry Roque, Chief Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo, and Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr.

Duterte said Robredo “made a blunder, a big one, and she practically lied making her incapable of truth,” allegedly for questioning his whereabouts during the typhoon and instigating the #NasaanAngPangulo” that went viral. Robredo had denied this, and her social media posts and public statements bear this out.

“Alam mo ‘yung pakana niya na wala ako sa bagyo (You know her claim that I was absent during the typhoon) … I was here, dito (here). I was attending a summit — ASEAN Summit ‘yon. So virtual lang, palit-palit kami (we were taking turns), we were talking sa electronic. Nandito ako noon (I was here),” Duterte said.

The ASEAN summit became all too important for the president during the recent typhoon. But didn’t he skip a number of meetings in previous occasions abroad on which the government spent millions of pesos only because he needed to take a nap or was having an upset stomach?

Days before the president’s bitter statements against Robredo, Panelo said in his regular streamlined broadcast on the government’s media channels that the vice president should have mentioned during her visits to typhoon victims the efforts that the national government, the president, and even Sen. Bong Go have been doing to help them. Isn’t that the job of Communications Secretary Martin Andanar and the government’s well-funded media outlets?

The chief legal counsel of the president even went to the extent of peddling what turned out to be a hearsay that Robredo used a military C-130 plane in her relief mission and that she made it appear she was on top of government’s rescue and relief efforts.

Panelo, having served as spokesperson of Duterte and now as chief legal counsel, should be told that the Office of the Vice President has meager budget compared with the PCOO and other offices under the Office of the President, but she has managed to coordinate rescue and deliver relief goods to disaster victims courtesy of private persons, organizations, and business entities.

Instead of harping on Robredo and, in the process, putting Duterte in deeper trouble with their convoluted defense of him, Panelo and Roque should just admit their failure in communicating the government’s response to calamities and COVID-19.

What I remember seeing on social media in the aftermath of the typhoons were a video of Roque singing in a videoke bar in Baguio City and a photo showing him arriving in Tuguegarao City with Mocha Uson, and none of him communicating with typhoon victims or local officials. I have not seen Panelo attending to typhoon victims, but he has been on television, comfortably sitting in an air-conditioned room while spitting venom against the vice president, and anybody critical of government policies and the president.

It would be easy to understand the president’s absence during calamities if the people in charge of communications are able to effectively deliver government’s prompt response, but speaking ill of another official visibly working in the field is utterly disgusting.

Donors showed their displeasure in the president’s attacks on the vice president by pouring more goods and other forms of assistance through the Office of the Vice President. After Duterte’s lambasting on TV on Tuesday night, Robredo reported that her office’s donation drive has shot up to P50 million less than two days later, signifying increased appreciation for her efforts to help calamity victims.

With billions of pesos at its disposal, the Duterte administration can do better, and is expected to deliver more. If the vice president has been able to report every move she makes in helping people through the social media, the president’s men should be able to deliver even 10 times better because they have the resources to do so.

They should not begrudge the vice president if she makes them look insensitive, incompetent and, to borrow the president’s term, inutile. Insinuating that the vice president is immoral does not vindicate them from their shortcomings. It was distasteful.

If the vice president could present a detailed report to account for donations, all the more are government agencies expected to do much better because they’re entrusted with public money. Harping on the vice president for working, be it for her future political plans or not, won’t contribute to the slogan “healing as one.”



The views in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of VERA Files. This column also appeared in The Manila Times.

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