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Disaster response lacking in anti-COVID-19 measures | CMFR

Disaster response lacking in anti-COVID-19 measures

Photo from PAG-ASA Facebook page.

AS THE country braces itself for the landfall of Typhoon Rolly, the 18th tropical cyclone to hit the country this year, the government seems at a loss about how to protect evacuees against COVID-19.

Four typhoons slammed the Philippines in a span of two and a half weeks, forcing the evacuation of tens of thousands across Luzon despite the complications and risks related to COVID-19. Typhoons Nika, Ofel, Pedro and Quinta hit the country one after the other from October 11 to 27, unleashing heavy rains and strong winds in the regions of II, III, NCR, Calabarzon, Mimaropa and Bicol. The trail of destruction caused damage in agriculture and infrastructure worth billions, with 22 deaths counted so far, along with the displacement of countless families.

Much of the coverage took the form of conventional disaster reporting—weather bulletins, advisories from LGUs, scenes of destruction, as well as relief and rescue efforts. Accounts from field reporters in the regions captured the residents’ fears of contracting the COVID-19 virus in evacuation centers. Some reports noted how local governments struggled to preemptively evacuate families in danger zones without causing community transmission in the camps.

As the LGUs are the primary policy and implementing actors in disaster response, little was said in the news about any effort on the part of national authorities to incorporate established anti-COVID-protocols in the country’s disaster response.

CMFR monitored reports from the three major Manila broadsheets (Manila Bulletin, Philippine Daily Inquirer and The Philippine Star); four primetime newscasts (ABS-CBN 2’s TV Patrol, CNN Philippines’ News Night, GMA-7’s 24 Oras and TV5’s Frontline Pilipinas); as well as selected news websites from October 19 to October 27, 2020

Double challenge

Broadcast media noted how local officials attempted to balance the challenges of keeping their constituents safe from both the typhoons and the pandemic.

Reports from primetime newscasts noted that some evacuation centers in provinces including Camarines Sur and Aurora operated at only half-capacity to enforce physical distancing. Notably, there was no follow-up on what happened to those who were not accommodated because of the limitation.

In an interview with Pinky Webb in CNN Philippines’ Balitaan on October 20, Isabela Gov. Rodolfo Albano said that the residents of his province were more threatened by the pandemic than they were of Typhoon Pepito. According to Albano, Ilagan City in Isabela has reverted to ECQ following a spike of COVID-19 cases brought about by the arrival of LSIs from the metro.

Lack of plans

Media which have trained their focus on COVID-19 correctly questioned authorities about the lack of consideration for contamination.

In an interview on CNN Philippines’ News.Ph, Pia Hontiveros asked Ricardo Jalad, National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council (NDRRMC) Executive Director,  regarding the possibility of disaster evacuations turning into COVID-19 “superspreader” events. He said that the president has increased the budget for the construction of additional evacuation centers in priority regions. Jalad, however, acknowledged that this would still not be enough and added that LGUs should still provide their constituents with temporary shelters.

In a report on ANC’s The World Tonight, NDRRMC spokesperson Mark Timbal did say that “there should be health monitoring” and isolation in evacuation centers. But Timbal failed to mention any concrete measures on maintaining the minimum health standard, such as the provision of PPEs or rapid testing for evacuees.

An Inquirer editorial on October 25 calling for better disaster governance cited a UN study on the “Human Cost of Disasters.” According to the UN, national disasters displace millions of Filipinos every year, with most of them ending up in evacuation centers. But with the pandemic, having people crowd into shelters at this time has a catastrophic impact on the spread of the disease. Unfortunately, no one raised these questions with the IATF which should have looked ahead to the problems of the rainy season, which are destructive enough even without typhoons; to coordinate disaster response that also attends to the threat of the virus. There was enough time to prepare and provide coordination and support to the efforts of local governments – which sadly national government agencies failed to do.