Duterte as Disaster Symbol
Distraction, deception, disinformation, indecision, and despotism are the five main mixes of the Duterte disaster.
While entire cities and provinces were submerged in floodwaters caused by the typhoon, Rodrigo Roa Duterte uttered these words:
“Gusto kong pumunta doon, makipaglangoy nga sa inyo. Ang problema, pinipigilan ako kasi raw ‘pag namatay ako, isa lang daw ang presidente.”
To a citizenry which had grown accustomed to the acoustics of a dilly-dallying and incoherent presidency, it’s only a page out of the Duterte playbook of incompetence. It’s another show of macho posturing — to feign concern for those who are devastated by the raging typhoon. But the image couldn’t come off any starker: while Marikina residents, including their local chief executive, shout for air rescue to escape muddy floodwaters from killing them, the president is in official business of mocking the people’s collective distress with a scornful jest. To make things worse, the president was not even staying in Malacañang.
Of course, basic common sense and logic would tell anyone that it is not part of any government official’s job description to swim through floodwaters to show concern. That is actually empty heroics. The primary job of the president, as Chief Executive of the entire bureaucracy, is to simply lead the mobilization of the national government in assuaging the country’s despair vis-à-vis any crisis or calamity. The mere fact that this fundamental aspect of presidential leadership — something Duterte is very incapable of doing — still has to be explained, particularly to his mindless fanatics, speaks volume about the severity of the disaster that is the Duterte government.
From his regime’s first order of business — the sweeping ‘elimination’ of illegal drugs through a bloody drug war — to the administration’s bungled response to the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been one underlying theme that cuts through the fabric of Duterte’s mismanagement of the country: his evident disdain toward data, science, and rational leadership. To stretch the point further, he has no qualms about leadership at all; the only thing that matters to his regime is manufactured noise of public opinion to create his shallow ‘popularity’ — and enough smokescreens to hide the thievery of the country’s coffers.
This disaster, once again, reared its ugly head through Duterte’s initial response to Typhoon Ulysses’ devastation: a mockery of a ‘national address’ and aerial shots of Marikina and Rizal.
Until this writing, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) has not even convened the Cabinet, especially national government agencies relevant to disaster response and management, to map out the government’s next steps in battling the typhoon’s despoliation. Yesterday, Interior Secretary Eduardo Año himself told the media that Duterte ‘might’ — this was the word that appeared on Philippine Daily Inquirer’s news tweet — hold an ‘emergency meeting’ to discuss the regime’s strategy in mitigating the typhoon’s damage. No meeting had transpired yet, despite the urgency.
In fact, some residents in Marikina and Rizal are still trapped on the roofs or second-to-third floors of their submerged homes — where the pandemic’s threat intersperses with the danger of being drowned, contracting infections, or facing days’ worth of hunger that the floodwaters pose on them — while waiting for air rescue. Isn’t this enough of a picture to symbolize the Duterte regime’s despicable inaction?
In the same ‘national address’ where he suggested that he actually wanted to swim through floodwaters, Duterte tried to pull off some sliver of assurance when he announced that the national government possesses enough resources to deal with the crisis. Strikingly enough, a few hours before that already-belated bolahan, no less than Marikina mayor Marcy Teodoro himself aired a desperate call for aid but addressed it to the private sector. Shouldn’t he be calling the national government’s attention? Since this comes from the chief executive of a city which invested on disaster mitigation and response to avoid another Ondoy-like devastation from afflicting them, it shows the real score on this inutile regime.
And what about Duterte’s mollycoddles? Environment undersecretary Benny Antiporda, together with Metropolitan Manila Development Authority’s spokesperson Celine Pialogo, was busy promoting the ‘stability’ of that stupid dolomite sands poured over a little portion of Manila Bay — while thousands flee the typhoon’s wrath in a do-or-die situation. In the face of uprooted trees, impassable roads, and entire subdivisions drenched with muddy floodwaters, Antiporda has this to say: “dolomite lang ang matatag!”
In the middle of landslides, floods, and entire communities engulfed by darkness, who even cares about the dolomite sands? And what was his business flaunting that off — while thousands of Filipinos suffer from an uncertain, flooded future?
This similar image of a discordant government, where the very ‘leader’ expected to lead the State in steering through calamities and disasters is hiding from the public’s eye, had shown itself when four other cataclysms before this one, including a supertyphoon, ravaged Luzon. It had shown itself through almost nine months of bedraggled lockdown imposed by Duterte to combat the pandemic. This disaster that is Duterte’s own incompetence had been browbeating the country since his election in 2016 — in all aspects of society.
It doesn’t help the country at all that Duterte exudes almost the same level of aversion to data-driven governance, scientific and evidence-based management, and basic leadership as that of his populist contemporaries across the world.
Contextualizing this disastrous governance in the face of the Duterte administration’s purported disaster mitigation and management efforts, the picture becomes bleaker. Early in January, Malacañang moved to shut down Project NOAH (Nationwide Operational Assessment of Hazard), a flagship research program on disaster reduction and mitigation which was initiated by Noynoy Aquino’s administration (to his credit). Project NOAH was a huge leap in the realm of preparing the country to face worsening disasters brought by climate change.
According to no less than the Department of Science and Technology itself, the Project NOAH’s existence was “in response to President Aquino’s instructions to put in place a responsive program for disaster prevention and mitigation, specifically, for the Philippines’ warning agencies to be able to provide a 6 hour lead-time warning to vulnerable communities against impending floods and to use advanced technology to enhance current geo-hazard vulnerability maps.”
The project’s main mission? To “undertake disaster science research and development, advance the use of cutting edge technologies and recommend innovative information services in government’s disaster prevention and mitigation efforts.”
But all that had gone to waste when Duterte chose to do away with this essential scientific initiative — on top of longstanding budgetary delays that afflicted the project.
Though the research project was reported to not receive funding since 2015, the final nail in the coffin was the Duterte regime’s decision to cut off its funding for good and disapprove the request for extending its lifeline. This fatal decision had two-pronged dilemmas: the quest for the scientists’ sustenance, and the lack of legislation to fully institutionalize Project NOAH into a separate agency working on its own field. Imagine if the proposed “Project NOAH Bill” came into being.
For the project’s Executive Director, Dr. Mahar Lagmay, Project NOAH’s shutdown came across more as an issue of ‘human resources’: of how skilled but unpaid and overworked scientists, who could have worked harder to develop the research program with better incentives, had left long before the pilot program could have even taken off.
Today, it appears, Project NOAH’s shutdown has become an issue as well of the country’s overall syndrome of laxity in the face of intensifying climate disasters — and a substantial symbol of both how Duterte’s government is not hinged upon science, and how disinterested it is in heeding science’s call for development.
Budget allocations for the flagship disaster agency’s funds — the country’s calamity funds — also echoes an unspeakable amount of slashing. In 2017, his second year in office, Duterte’s regime cut the calamity funds by more than half: from a whopping P38 billion in 2016, it dropped to a mere P15 billion by the next year. While the budget rose to P25 billion in 2018, the regime cut it back to P20 billion by 2019 — and it further lost P4 billion by this year, earmarking it at a measly amount of P16 billion. No wonder, the government was caught flat-footed by the ongoing slew of catastrophes: in terms of data and budget, Duterte is both found wanting.
In the face of abominable budget cuts in the country’s national risk reduction and management fund, the president’s secretive “intelligence funds” earned some P4 billion in the last two consecutive fiscal years. Meanwhile, while legislators in the Duterte-controlled House of Representatives are handing out P19 billion for National Task Force to End the Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) — the regime’s foremost witch-hunt agency on dissenters — in the 2021 budget, the opposite is bound to happen with the country’s science and technology funds: P1 billion were slashed from the Philippine Astronomical, Geographical, and Astronomical Services Administration (PAG-ASA), while the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs)’s budget lost P330 million.
Notice how this regime, in budgetary terms, deem red-tagging as a more plausible budget item than the country’s flagship agencies in terms of disaster mitigation and response?
It is hardly “disaster prevention or mitigation” when the State rolled back a flagship research program for a sordid excuse — lack of budget, the same pretext that it exploits to justify incurring billions upon billions of foreign debt supposedly to fight off COVID-19’s spread — or when Duterte’s regime places greater premium on terror-tagging and fascism rather than on more urgent demands for scientific approaches in withstanding the intertwined problems of natural calamities amidst a pandemic.
The disaster that is Duterte’s regime manifests when it trades science and evidence with bloody tactics of his “war.”
When the drug war started, a mega-rehabilitation facility in Nueva Ecija was envisioned for construction. The facility did not materialize — and the price of the lack of any rehabilitation perspective into Duterte’s dirty, bogus, and farcical drug war were more than 30,000 lives killed by a rogue, almost criminal, police force, while ninja cops and notorious drug lords remain scot-free.
When the pandemic started to strike the country, Duterte downplayed the looming threat with the same vile metaphor with which he met Typhoon Ulysses’ destruction: mockery. He called coronavirus an “idiot” and threatened to slap the virus. When cases started to rapidly rise by March, he created an Inter-Agency Task Force whose members were neither scientists nor medical professionals.
For almost nine months now, the country’s botched response to the pandemic was bobbled by its nature as “militarist,” not medical: retired military generals whose bloodied records included salvaging lives (or abductions, as in Jonas Burgos’ case) were anointed to “save” lives from the virus. No wonder, Duterte’s first marching order against the pandemic was to “shoot them dead” instead of mass testing.
Because this regime hardly believes in science and data, the Department of Health made it a habit to fudge the pandemic’s statistics to hide the real score behind the coronavirus’ rising cases and fabricate the false notion that the country is winning against COVID-19; until now, after five typhoons’ worth of devastation mingled with the pandemic’s ever-present threat, the citizenry’s future in overcoming cataclysmic damage and the pandemic has merely become darker by the minute.
Distraction, deception, disinformation, indecision, and despotism are the five main mixes of the Duterte disaster. By hook or by crook, by character assassination or actual murder, the regime will try to stifle all voices and manifestations of dissent because it envisages all critical voices as those of “enemies of the state” — and to turn away the public’s attention from the festering social scourge, the Duterte regime will mete out distracting claims or actions (the dolomite sands are an example) and deceive the gullible public with disinformation helmed over by covert troll networks operating in Beijing. To cap everything off, it will remain indecisive and merely let the thing pass by without some form of resolution or accountability.
In artificial disasters and calamities’ context, the distraction is provided with fatuous, unscientific, or illogical claims, jokes, and even threats spewed out by no less than the bumbling dictator himself over televised addresses, while troll networks strive to airbrush the real score about the regime’s failures with fake news and inarticulate claims.
On the sidelines, the generals would mobilize NTF-ELCAC and its own band of drama queens and despotic acolytes to threaten activists and critics with death, or smear their personality with terror-tagging, to drown out legitimate criticisms or condemnations. Finally, everything ends with resiliency porn propagated across different platforms to wash out any chance at holding the regime accountable.
For four disastrous and murderous years, this cycle has been going on — while the rest of the public slit each other’s throats because the division propped out fanaticism for the tyrant.
Callous is the most accurate elucidation for the cataclysm that is Rodrigo Duterte’s regime: a fatal and fatalistic mixture of apathy, fear, and blinding lights allow it to escape the public’s nascent outrage over Duterte’s longstanding policy actions of murder, incompetence, subservience to foreign powers, fascism, and anti-people pogrom. All disasters that struck the country from 2016, and which will continue bedeviling the country beyond this tyrant, will boil down to one great disaster: the Duterte regime itself.
Duterte was not the first politician or president to promote discordance in governance. But others, including the late dictator whom he emulates, had the smokescreen of pretension. Duterte dares not to hide the worst of his vile values and actions. In the open, as if daring the public to try overpowering him, he acts like a Mafia lord whose solution to any and all menaces lie on state violence — and when he screws up, his trolls and legion of heartless fanatics would rescue his image.
Duterte promotes the worst in Filipinos: incompetence, violence, and apathy in the face of social desolation.
Five typhoons, several earthquakes, and a raging pandemic after, time is running out for the people. Unlike in the United States — where a chance of voting out a moron, racist, and Islamophobic of a president is available—Filipinos have no other electoral chance of avenging itself from years of corrupt politics, fascism, and inutile leadership by wiping the Duterte disaster out. No more lives could be placed in the line of danger, sacrificed, or killed before 2022 arrives. There is only one way out for a people long badgered by this cruel regime’s bullying, crimes, ineptitude, bloodlust, and populist-authoritarian disaster.
To save the country from further Holocaust, Duterte’s despotic regime has to go.
Karl Patrick Wilfred M. Suyat is a campus journalist of six years, writer, and activist. He is the current provincial coordinator for the College Editors’ Guild of the Philippines -Laguna. He is also a convenor of the Youth Movement Against Tyranny-Laguna. His bookworm fetish includes works on totalitarianism, fascism, and journalistic essays. He lives by the words of Albert Camus: “Rebellion cannot exist without a strange form of love.” Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.