When disaster strikes, politics should yield to relief work

Alice Wu says in a time of disaster, we should all honour our humanity by setting aside political differences to heed the cries for help

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 November, 2013, 4:37am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 November, 2013, 7:22am

The devastation left in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan is overwhelming. It's beyond anyone's imagination what this moment - this second - feels like for those who have lost family members and their homes. As the rest of the world attends to the desperate cries for help, politics really should be left on the back burner.

But, unfortunately, it hasn't been.

This was true a month ago after a 7.2-magnitude earthquake hit Bohol in central Philippines. While trying to offer aid on the ground, the Philippine Red Cross was denied access after it refused to turn over its relief supplies to the Bohol mayor. The mayor was milking political mileage ahead of re-election, some said. Some aid workers on the ground were too arrogant, the mayor claimed. So who was right and who was wrong? Who knows, but what was needed immediately was help, not political squabbling.

Certainly, that was the reason that drove a high-school friend, now a Bohol resident, and a group of his friends to co-ordinate their own collection and distribution of relief supplies. They sailed and drove out to the devastated and remote areas, and handed out the supplies themselves. No doubt countless more beautiful and kind souls also acted, disregarding personal risks, to help those in need.

My friend survived Haiyan, and like other survivors around him, has to ration his use of power. The last time I checked, his most recent message on Facebook was to ask whether anyone knew where he could buy a power generator; Bohol had already run out, he said. There is absolutely no doubt that if he were able to get his hands on one, many more people would also benefit.

Another friend made an appeal on Facebook for clothes, after learning that her domestic helper's family home had been wiped out by Haiyan. It's a personal appeal, moved by a personal (not personnel) connection, making Haiyan hit that much closer to home. She may be one person doing her small part to help one family (out of the estimated 500,000 in the Philippines displaced by Haiyan), but I've heard about many more who have advanced months of salaries for their helpers to bring home to and be with their families. Acts of kindness and compassion can't be measured. You can't put a price tag on the human spirit.

There may be no escaping the politics - on every level - that adds to human suffering by distracting and hampering the work of getting help on the ground. We try to do the right thing but, despite our best efforts, it seems, it still happens.

Fortunately, we can't escape humanity either. Mother Nature doesn't discriminate; we're in this together. Our hearts and prayers go out to those who suffer. And so I applaud you - all of you heroes who have held on to your humanity - who kept the focus on the urgent and the important, and have contributed.

Yes, the world will need to have those conversations about all the political problems that stand in the way of relief efforts or leave people unbelievably vulnerable. That needs to happen after the people in need have been attended to.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA