x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Typhoon misery strikes Filipino expatriates, too

The emotional damage of typhoon Haiyan reaches far beyond the places the storm battered.

The record-breaking typhoon that smashed into the central Philippines on Friday killed thousands of people, and made tens of thousands homeless. But the emotional damage done by super-typhoon Haiyan reaches far beyond Tacloban, the city of 225,000 that was hit hardest by the storm.

The 10 million Filipinos of the diaspora – about 700,000 of whom live in the UAE – are all too accustomed to the dread that comes with awaiting news of loved ones and friends after a natural disaster.

More than 10 per cent of Filipinos live outside their homeland. The great majority of them are sending money home to sustain families and in many cases to pay for houses, few of which are insured.

Even if loved ones all survive a storm or flood or earthquake, many expatriate Filipinos face the emotional devastation of learning from afar that their families are suddenly homeless. Imagine spending years scrimping and working away from home, and then learning by telephone that the house you made possible has been smashed to firewood.

In the UAE as in many other lands, citizens and other expatriates are commiserating with the victims, wherever they are, of typhoon Haiyan.

Remittances from expatriate Filipinos now total $22.2 billion (Dh81.5bn) a year, official figures show; that’s equivalent to 9 per cent of the entire Philippine GDP. But for all their economic muscle, expatriates innately have little power in their country’s politics. And that is unfortunate, because while typhoons are inevitable, big death tolls and widespread property destruction are not. Economic development can offer a sort of umbrella against disaster, by making society and infrastructure sturdier. But that requires more responsive political leadership.

The Philippines embassy in the UAE says it plans a new campaign to urge expatriates here to educate their families about disaster preparedness.

While no doubt well-intentioned, this also smacks of effrontery: was the government of the Philippines itself properly prepared for this storm? Have officials done all they could to minimise harm from the region’s frequent typhoons? Are building codes, insurance regulation, infrastructure and disaster planning all optimised?

Haiyan was reportedly the strongest typhoon ever to make landfall; record storms are bound to cause record problems. But when it comes to weather, the Philippines are in a dangerous neighbourhood. And civil defence is a core responsibility of government, one that demands a high priority.