LONDON—Typhoon “Haiyan” (“Yolanda”), he said, was 16 hours of hell for those who lay in her path of destruction.
“Emotionally, it can be difficult to handle work like this, however much one may have done in the past. The 5-year-old boy who needs an above-knee amputation, how does one live with that? How about the 7-year-old girl with a slash from a corrugated iron right across her face? You repair it, of course, but dare I hand her a mirror?”
Richard Villar is an eminent orthopedic surgeon who was one of a 12-man emergency-response team of British trauma doctors, anesthetists and paramedics who, having volunteered their services, are signed up with the UK International Emergency Register that sends highly trained medical staff to disaster zones in the world.
Operating under extremely challenging conditions, in a makeshift field-tent hospital in Tacloban, Villar—an “alumnus” of disaster-hit Haiti, Kashmir and Libya—said: “Perhaps it’s because I’m a father, or perhaps it’s just natural instinct, but I find that with injured children, you just wish you could give them a hug and magic their problems away. The work that I have undertaken has shown me that sometimes we (in the UK) have our priorities upside down. Many of the problems we see as huge in the UK would be tiny specks of insignificance to a Filipino, whose entire life was demolished by Haiyan.”
Millions of pounds
You don’t know Rachel Riddell, but with one well-timed petition she posted on Change.org that went viral, she single-handedly raised millions of pounds for the Philippine aid effort. The UK’s Big Lottery Fund had £12 million sitting on its Euromillions Jackpot going nowhere. It immediately donated £5 million to Philippine aid.
We watched the TV news with increasing horror and incredulity. In wall-to-wall media coverage and punditry, battle-hardened reporters choked up as they described scenes of carnage and carrion, the devastation caused by the caprice of a malevolent natural catastrophe, using words like “biblical” and “apocalyptic” without hyperbole.
Somewhat traumatized, I became a veritable artesian well; I thought the world had truly turned upside down. Typhoons are indiscriminate. This is you, but this could also be us. Sometimes it takes a crisis of a dystopian magnitude to remind us of our interconnectedness. I yearned for someone to yell “Cut!” Tarantino, Greengrass, someone to shout “It’s a wrap!”
After the evening service in church, she approached me and asked if I was a Filipino. I held her hands and gave her a hug. We were both on the verge of tears.
“Do you have family there?” Lourdes, a Filipino nurse in our local hospital, asked. “My family is safe. Still; though,” I replied. You can take the girls out of the Philippines, but you can’t take the Philippines out of the girls. That weekend, our parish church of St Francis raised nearly £1,600 for Yolanda’s victims.
This was replicated in multi-faith churches—and mosques—up and down the UK, which continue to this day. A friend, Mark Anderton, is a vicar flying to the Philippines next month to discharge a supremely Christian and human obligation, taking with him disaster-relief goods and a large monetary contribution raised by local churches.
Within hours, the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), a group of 14 leading UK aid charities, launched the Philippines Typhoon Appeal. In the first 48 hours after the disaster, Britons had raised £23 million, exceeding the sums raised in the same amount of time for victims of the Haiti earthquake and floods in Pakistan.
While it’s true that we’re now out of intensive care, we’re still cash-strapped, but digging very deep into our pockets to make donations that would buy food, water-purification tablets, emergency shelter, bedding and other essentials. At last count, DEC has raised almost £70 million, and rising.
On Nov. 12, the Queen made an undisclosed donation and sent a message of condolences to President Aquino. In the House of Lords, Philippine emergency aid was debated, with Baroness Northover asking “what action Her Majesty’s Government were taking to get emergency aid to the people of the Philippines.” One after another, lords and ladies stood up to express their concerns.
On Nov. 18, the cute boy band One Direction launched the telethon appeal for aid. They were joined by stars of film and TV, news presenters, models, celebrity chefs and comedians. Myleene Klass, whose mother is Filipino, said: “I have family out there that have survived this, but they really are the lucky ones, as for so many right now the story is so tragically different.”
“Britain’s Got Talent” judge, Amanda Holden, had a sob welling in her throat when she said: “It’s the moms in tents with kids that always upset me when any disaster strikes. I said to my husband I need to get in a Red Cross van and go there!”
In west London, the Kensington & Chelsea shop of the British Red Cross (BRC) specializes in selling secondhand designer clothing.
“We asked David and Victoria if they would like to help us raise money for the victims of Haiyan and they jumped at the chance,” the BRC said. The Beckhams donated 20 big boxes of designer shoes, clothes and accessories. Prices ranged from £25 for a tie or a belt, to £250 for a jacket.
“One of Victoria’s dresses (she’s a UK size 4) will buy 50 blankets; one of David’s suits will buy 13 tarpaulins,” said BRC’s Mark Astarita.
On Nov. 22, long queues formed outside the shop, staff were overwhelmed and by 5 p.m., all items sold out, with some canny buyers reselling them later, for a lot more than they paid for, on eBay.
Up and down the country, people stepped up to the plate to raise funds in varying ingenious and tried-and-tested methods—street collections, coffee mornings, bake-offs, silent auctions, concerts. Rotarians launched ShelterBoxes appeal, with each £600 box containing a tent, sleeping bags and cooking utensils. A quiz team donated their winnings to a local paper’s aid appeal. Parents, students and teachers of Aldenham School raised £6,000 through a 24-hour marathon of singing and performing.
Hamming it up, the Duchess of Cornwall (the wife of Prince Charles), with the actor Damian Lewis and other celebs, took part in the annual charity day of ICAP, the world’s leading interdealer broker, placing trades and doing deals over the phone. ICAP expects to raise £10 million for charities, which this year includes the Philippine aid effort.
The economist Peter Bauer’s view of aid may be jaundiced but he nailed it on the head when he said: “Aid is an excellent method for transferring money from poor people in rich countries to rich people in poor countries.”
People give for all kinds of reasons—in solidarity, out of love or compassion. Aid is a tricky business; it is not a blank check. We want it to go to people who actually need it—not to wives or mistresses of kleptomaniacs with grand mansions on the Avenue Foch in Paris, or for their shopping expeditions in Florence, skiing in Gstaad.
So it was disconcerting to read in our papers that Philippine aid was being exploited by people who know how to play the system; “aid going to a country plagued by corruption and cronyism”; that the Philippine press accused some politicians of branding international aid with their own slogans and logos before handing them out—slowly—to victims. Some claims were made of barangay officials prioritizing aid based on who voted, and will vote, for them.
“It was, in theory, a simple mission. Relief supplies brought in, people taken out. But when disaster strikes, a poor and corruptly ministered country, such as the Philippines, nothing is that simple,” wrote Michael Sheridan in The Sunday Times. “How was it that a country which saw 7.6-percent economic growth this year, which has a booming stock market, which manages its public debt well and has drawn in huge foreign investment, could not even collect its dead?”
It’s a shrunken universe where what happens on the other side of the world affects us all—if not now, then assuredly later. We are brought closer by shared threats, universal pain and tragedy.
Sense of gratitude
While I periodically nurse homesickness for the Philippines, Britain has been my home for the last 31 years. So you can imagine my sense of gratitude when David Cameron, our prime minister, announced that “what happened in the Philippines is an absolute tragedy. It’s quite clear that we are going to need long-term help for those people. The British government has already pledged £20 million, which makes us one of the most generous donors anywhere in the world.”
That sum has now gone up to over £50 million.
The British government sprang to action. The Royal Navy warship HMS Daring, followed by the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious, were dispatched to the Philippines carrying tons of food aid and shelter, their helicopters and transporters working round-the-clock to deliver supplies—mini-diggers, cutting tools, forklifts and 4x4s—to the worst-affected islands.
A team from Illustrious recently rebuilt a school attended by 450 boys and girls in Bitoon village.
“We worked solidly for three days; it was fantastic to be able to make a difference to the people here, and it’s great to know that the children are back to school,” Royal Navy Officer Andy Conroy told The Times. They also left behind tools and materials for the locals so that they can carry out repairs to other damaged buildings.
“Britain will give the Philippines the long-term support it needs to get back on its feet,” assured Justine Greening, secretary of state for international development, during her recent visit to Cebu and Tacloban to see for herself how the UK’s aid efforts were progressing.
The British government’s commitment to the Philippine aid effort includes £5 million in “resilience funding” to help local officials plan and invest in flood protection and drainage systems; £30 million to support the appeals of the UN and the Red Cross to ensure that women and girls are not disproportionately affected by the crisis, by giving them access to relief items and provide psychosocial support in reuniting families; increase the provision of nutrition, materials and tools to rebuild houses, and to establish feeding centers for malnourished children; and £500,000 to help older people to recover from typhoon trauma.
The UK, like the Philippines, is an island nation; trade between us is roughly around £1.1 billion. With Philippine economic performance now posting 7-percent growth, the country is an attractive trading partner for the UK at a time when Asia is driving a world-changing shift in economic power to the region.
This is greatly helped by Philippine Airlines’ new daily flights to Heathrow, and the Philippines’ snazzy “It’s more fun in the Philippines” ad campaign to lure British tourists to the islands.
Over 200,000 Filipinos live in the UK, and it riles me up something rotten when the term “Filipino” is used as shorthand for maids, nannies, nurses and brides for sale. Wealthy families burnish their social cachet when they can boastfully say they have a “Filipino housekeeper.”
The Philippines is not a member of the Commonwealth, an organization of 53 member-states which were former British Empire territories—including Australia, Canada and India. Our countries don’t share a heritage or a common history, bar the two years between 1762 and 1764 when the British occupied the then-Spanish colonial capital of Manila and the port of Cavite.
It took another 120 years before the arrival of the first British consul to the Philippines. Jose Rizal arrived in London in 1888, to study and write; he lived in 37 Chalcott Crescent, in London’s Primrose Hill, where a historical blue plaque commemorates his stay there.
The Philippines is a place many Britons might never before have heard of, or can place on a map; the names of whose cities and towns they can’t pronounce. But at a time of great tragedy, they have shown their immense generosity and solidarity.
Many of us prayed fervently for succor and the deliverance of victims and survivors; the success of the aid effort; the fortitude of officials and the Philippine government, that goodwill be wrested from the detritus and wreckage.
God, it is said, gives only three answers to prayer. The first is “yes”; the second is “not yet.” The third: “I have something better for you.” If you believe in the law of unintended consequences, pray that this might be so.