When tragedy strikes near an election, everything the candidates do is immediately suspect; every gesture, however noble the intention, could be easily mistaken for posturing.
In the wake of the destructive super typhoon “Odette,” presidential candidates, in varying promptness and approaches, have descended into affected areas.
The truth is, it’s difficult to draw the line.
We have to assume that each of the candidates, out of their own innate goodness, concern for the people, and mindfulness of their job, genuinely wish to commiserate with the survivors and lend them any help they can.
But we also have to assume it is natural for them to, at the corner of their minds, wish to be perceived as a compassionate leader who is there in times of need.
Senator Manny Pacquiao was the first to call on his fellow presidential candidates to set aside politics and work together to help the people.
President Rodrigo Duterte slammed Vice President Maria Leonor Robredo who had flown to Bohol as soon as flights were cleared and from there went to various typhoon-affected places to extend help. Her staff had also organized a donation drive to gather help from people who wish to provide assistance in cash and in kind. In typical fashion, such donations are acknowledged and accounted for.
“Do not compete with me,” Mr. Duterte said to Robredo. In contrast, Mr. Duterte was again criticized by some sectors for making his presence felt too late. He also only did an aerial survey of Odette-devastated regions – after admitting that he still had to look for funds to help the people because the money had been used up in the government’s COVID response.
Other candidates have done their bit, some drawing from their party funds and other sources. Others have criticized their competitors for making their efforts public. Then again, it would be correct to say that any presidential aspirant who is not on the ground and personally, physically commiserating with people can be seen as not doing enough,
In all this, how can we tell who is genuine, and who is driven by politics?
First, we have to remind our people that they are under no obligation to vote for that candidate who gave them a bag of goods, or showed up in their town, or posed for photos with the backdrop of devastation. There are no conditions attached to the relief.
Second, we should look at the track record of that candidate during previous unfortunate events. Do they have a history of being at the scene of destruction soon after it happened? Are they historically able to raise funds and make judicious use of them for such a purpose? Are they able to tell you where the money came from and how it was spent? Do they appear to know what they are doing because they have done it many times before? Are they able to coordinate with local governments and civil society to reach those who may not easily be accessible?
Third, what plans do they have in dealing with disasters in the future? Those who are in it for the “points” may only be preoccupied with the optics of short-term response. Those who know what they are doing, on the other hand, know the roots of the problem and the need for mitigation and preparedness even before disaster strikes, and for rehabilitation and recovery weeks and months after the photo opportunities end.
It’s a tragic acknowledgment that Odette will be but one in a string of disasters that will hit our country in the foreseeable future. We can only hope that people are wise and discerning enough not to pile disaster upon disaster by voting for the wrong leaders next year. After all, candidates who can afford to hire high-powered communication teams can create the illusion that they are the candidate to beat.
Helping those in need is never a competition – only those who do not feel secure in their own efforts would dare accuse others of upstaging them. At this crucial time, people need all the help they can get from anyone. Only narcissistic fools would be concerned about how others make them appear.
So when the rain stops, the debris clears and as election day draws nearer, we need to educate ourselves to be able to separate the grain from the chaff. We should know better.