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Philippines typhoon shows the price of poverty

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Issue 2379

Rescue workers were fighting to get to outlying regions of the Philippines hit by typhoon Haiyan as Socialist Worker went to press. In the worst-hit city of Tacloban more than 10,000 people are thought to have died.

About a tenth of the country’s population—over 10 million people—was affected by the storm. Adrian Williams lives in London and has been in contact with relatives in the area affected by the typhoon.

He said, “It’s hard for people to move about. There are electricity pylons on the roads. There are cars strewn all over the place, dead bodies, trees, bits of houses.

“All of it is close to the coast so in some areas, like in Tacloban, there are ships on the land on top of houses. It’s carnage.”

Mila is from Tacloban but currently works in west London. “I haven’t heard from my three children since the typhoon struck,” she told Socialist Worker. “I don’t know where they are or what their condition is. Last night I spoke to my mother and my brother, but they don’t know.

“My brother is afraid to go out. They are waiting for the government to send help.”

The country is battered by 20 typhoons a year, but Haiyan is the strongest ever recorded. While the increasing strength of typhoons is likely to be down to climate change, the horrific number of casualties is down to poverty.

Adrian said many people in the affected area are angry with government officials. “A lot of people have gone south to Baybay city as it has the only functioning hospital in that immediate area,” he said. “Many are very angry because the elected officials in Baybay aren’t communicating anything.


“Some people voted for these officials because they believed in them. But they have to give them something to believe in.” Desperate people raiding supermarkets for food have been labelled looters and the government is moving troops in. 

On Sunday president Benigno Aquino said, “Tonight, a column of armoured vehicles will be arriving in Tacloban to show the government’s resolve and to stop this looting.”

Adrian said, “If you and your family need things, you’d do whatever it takes to get them. But the media wants to sensationalise things. To concentrate on the looting is terrible because they should be concentrating on how to get money, people and resources over there to help.”

The Philippines is considered the country most at risk from natural disasters. It has been praised internationally for continued growth during the financial crisis, yet it was unprepared for the level of crisis.

Tacloban has a population of more than 220,000 and has been growing rapidly.


Mila said, “I think if the government had prepared more, fewer lives would have been lost. It issued warnings, but we have many typhoons. Many people thought this was like an ordinary typhoon.

“The government has evacuation centres, but they are overcrowded, unhealthy places with no sanitation. People are worried that going to them will make their situation worse.”

Adrian said, “Most houses are made from cinder blocks cemented together, not solid concrete, with corrugated iron as a roof and a wooden frame. Some have more concrete bases with tin or slate roofing. Complete concrete ones are very rare.”

Mila said, “Our families, friends and neighbours in Leyte and Samar are tired, hungry and desperate. No matter how hopeless the situation seems, we are confident that we can survive this and recover. Please do not abandon us.”

‘I had no choice but to leave’ 

About nine million Filipinos are working abroad at any one time. That’s around 10 percent of the population. Mila, who is working in London, talked about the stresses this creates. “I’m here working hard in another country,” she said. “It’s really very difficult, but we have no choice.” 

“If the government could offer better employment or better conditions I wouldn’t leave my home and family to work here. But as it is I’d rather sacrifice myself, to give them a better future.”

Contrary to the image given by the right wing media, travelling to Britain can be enormously traumatic for migrants. Mila has two boys and a girl, aged 14, 13 and nine. She hates the fact that she has been separated from them for so long and she was not with them in this crisis.

She said, “I phoned my son and it rang once then went dead. Communication has been in chaos since last week. I’m so worried I don’t want to leave my home at all until I hear from my children.”

Boom didn’t benefit poor

More than 100 million people live in the Philippines. Over a quarter officially live below the poverty line. The Philippines is one of the most unequal countries in the world. Rapid social and economic change has made this worse.

Fewer than 1 percent of workers are in trade unions. That’s 319,408 people. It compares to 2.97 million when president Ferdinand Marcos was overthrown in 1986.

The country’s economy has expanded in recent years. Yet poor people haven’t benefited from the boom. Food, fuel and housing take some 80 percent of their income.

Money for war, but not for aid

David Cameron’s initial response to the devastation in the Philippines was to pledge just £6 million in emergency aid. He soon increased that to £10 million and threw in a warship for good measure.

In contrast the British government has so far spent more than £37 billion on war and occupation in Afghanistan, according to an independent study. That’s £2,000 for every household in the UK.

Protests take on corruption

President Benigno Aquino III is part of a political dynasty, as is the mayor of Tacloban, Alfred Romualdez. He’s the nephew of former first lady Imelda Marcos. Aquino came to office in 2010 on an anti-corruption platform. 

The Philippines remains one of the most corrupt societies. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets against corruption in August.

Workers stuck in shanty towns

Tacloban is one of the fastest growing cities in the Philippines. An economic boom drew vast numbers of poor people from the countryside into the cities. They often lived in informal settlements or shanty towns.

Until 2000 these tended to be bulldozed if they were seen as a problem. But the government has since realised it can’t afford to drive workers away.

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