On September 21, 2020, the House of Representatives of the Philippines approved on third and final reading House Bill No. 5989 or the Disaster Resilience Act. But, do Filipinos really need such a law?
As published in the 2019 World Risk Index Report, the Philippines is classified as a “very high risk” country for garnering a score of 20.69. This makes the country 9th of the 180 countries in terms of disaster risk. The Report defines risk as “the interaction of hazard and vulnerability, in other words, the interaction of exposure to extreme natural events and the vulnerability of societies”. The concept is based not only on “the occurrence, intensity and duration of extreme natural events, but (also on) social factors, political conditions and economic structures” that are present in a particular country that can mitigate or aggravate said natural events.
Indeed, the country has a very high exposure to disasters yet with very low coping and adaptive capacities. Coping capacities are computed based on the scores of the government and authorities on Corruption Perception Index and Fragile States Index, and the presence of medical services and material coverage. Adaptive capacities, meanwhile, are measured based on the population’s education, gender equality, environmental status/ecosystem protection, and investments on health expenditures and life expectancy.
The Philippine government’s response to Coronavirus-19 and, recently, to Typhoons Quinta and Rolly reaffirms the report and exposes why the country is riskier than the 171 other countries in the world. The presence of corruption-related scandals, particularly on the country’s insurance system — the PhilHealth — clearly shows why the country is on the Top 9 list. Add the venture of the Philippine Government into one of the longest lockdown in the world to combat COVID-19 and yet fail to control the spike in the number of virus-infected population. This action simply reveals that there is a problem not only in the country’s health system but also in the way the government makes policies.
While the government is trying to control the spread of the virus, it is also making its population susceptible to COVID-19. Highly regulating movement through the lockdown limits economic activities particularly food production and supply. For this reason, 30.1% or around 7.6 million Filipino households experienced involuntary hunger according to the survey of Social Weather Stations released last September. That would be 38 million Filipinos becoming more vulnerable to the virus because of the lack of nutrients. True enough, July and August were testaments of the spike in the number of COVID-19 cases reaching to as high as 23,265 per week.
The onslaught of Typhoons Quinta and Rolly also reveal the nature of the Philippine disaster management system. While there are already structures in place such as the disaster risk reduction and management offices (DRRMOs), the way the structures are designed show inequitable distribution of functions and resources. While the burden is heavily loaded to those manning the frontlines, the resources or at least necessary equipments that can be used for disaster management remain at the top. National government officials, for example, control the satellite phones while local officials in the affected areas are left to scrimp and scrape for cellphone signals of any available cellphone tower. That explains why Catanduanes became inaccessible for at least a day after Typhoon Rolly. Worse, high level disaster management meeting was only convened post-disaster despite the warnings of international weather forecasting organizations that Rolly is a super typhoon.
Given that there are already structures present, isn’t it but proper that the government just review the existing Philippine Disaster Reduction and Management Act (or Republic Act 10121), reallocate resources, re-orient the values of those manning the structures and re-train them as well if necessary rather than building the Department of Disaster Resilience? Albeit lackluster a lackluster performance, Senators Richard Gordon and Panfilo Lacson are correct that existing government agencies are already performing the mandate of the proposed department. The bureaucracy is already bloated and the PhP1.5 billion that will be used just to set-up the department can already be used to buy satellite phones for use of all the provinces and highly urbanized cities in the country, the re-orientation of the officials, and the provision of technical trainings to those operating the disaster management structures on the ground.
Disaster management is not just the presence of structures. It is also about the mindset. If the lawmakers are indeed serious in creating resilience, they should start with policies and programs focused on changing the mindset. Who knows, this might lead them to discover the obvious and realize that the Philippines needs more a department, if not a constitutional commission that exacts accountability from government officials rather than a department that duplicates what is already being done.