Amid the global coronavirus pandemic, the impacts of Typhoon Vongfong and other natural disasters have the potential to leave the Philippines exposed to further economic shocks and humanitarian crises.
Typhoon Vongfong made landfall in the Philippines on May 14 and although it then weakened, its impact was severe. Four people died, hundreds of thousands were displaced and the storm, known locally as Typhoon Ambo, left damage to hospitals, schools, roads and bridges in its wake.
This is an unusually late start to the West Pacific typhoon season, with Vongfong the first to arrive since December. As the Philippines experiences around 20 typhoons a year, once it became clear that COVID-19 was going to be a long-term problem, it was almost inevitable that a typhoon would hit during the pandemic.
COVID-19 has made evacuation incredibly challenging
The coronavirus pandemic has hit the Philippines hard. The country is one of the worst-affected places in Southeast Asia: as of May 20, 837 people have died and there are 9,262 active cases of the virus.
Getting people to safety in a typhoon is challenging enough without having to adhere to social distancing protocols. The storm destroyed some evacuation sites. Others had been repurposed as COVID-19 quarantine areas. Of 117 such repurposed centres, 71 are being used for quarantines but some may have to switch back to being evacuation sites if the need arises.
To help, 47 Catholic churches opened their doors to those impacted by the storm. Local government units (LGUs) requested that more schools—already closed to pupils due to COVID-19—be made available for evacuations. This secondary use of schools as typhoon shelters further complicates the debate about the country’s schools re-opening in August.
Maintaining social distancing has been hard since the storm. “It’s difficult to enforce because they [the evacuees] are stressed. But we are doing our best,” said Carlito Abriz, a local policeman. To follow guidelines, the evacuation sites planned to accept half as many people as they usually do during a typhoon. Authorities have told people who can to stay with relatives or friends. Officials are trying to keep families together and make mask-wearing mandatory.
Adding to these problems is an outbreak of dengue fever in the country. Although dengue cases are down by 36% from last year, it remains dangerous, particularly as some of its symptoms mirror those associated with the coronavirus. Worse, people can contract both diseases at the same time—there is no vaccine for dengue.
Those infected were already facing delays in getting care due to hospitals prioritising COVID-19 patients. The typhoon will further worsen their chances of recovering or receiving timely medical treatment.
Is there enough funding to cope with typhoon season?
The areas hit by the typhoon are not among those with the highest prevalence of COVID-19 in the country, but the storm is nevertheless a hammer blow that will inflict significant human and economic costs. Mark Timbal, a spokesperson for the Office of Civil Defense in Manila, called the overlap a “unique situation”.
In the Philippines, LGUs are responsible for the initial response to natural disasters in their area. They must contribute at least 5% of their annual budgets to disaster funds, which ensures there are always reserves available.
However, those resources are now stretched. “Most of our component municipalities are a bit depleted in terms of resources because they already exhausted cash on COVID-19 emergency operations,” explained Rei Josiah Echano, from the Northern Samar Disaster Management Office.
Furthermore, there are just 1.73 billion pesos (US$34 million) left in the Philippines’ calamity and rehabilitation funds (known as NDRMM). Some 3.3 billion pesos ($140.3 million) of it was spent on rebuilding Marawi City after it was destroyed in 2017 by conflict between government forces and Islamic militants. Some of the remaining funds were allocated to deal with COVID-19. However, the Department of Social Welfare and Development has maintained that there is enough money to deal with the typhoon.
However, the money will only go so far. This is the country’s first typhoon since December and more will follow, further stretching the country’s reserves. More storms in the same region would also impart a tremendous human cost. If typhoons hit more densely populated areas, including COVID-19 hotspots, the UN predicts that “without proper safety precautions in place, evacuation centres could become a hotbed of coronavirus infection.”
Angelo Kairos de la Cruz, an associate for climate policy at the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities, believes the combination of typhoons and the pandemic could exacerbate “massive inequality and vulnerability” in the country.
The long-term impacts could be severe
In 2019, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) estimated that typhoons in the Philippines account for a short-term 1-3% drop in economic activity, depending on severity. Economists predicted the country’s economic growth could stall if the pandemic lasts until June.
If more money is needed to fund typhoon recovery, then that means there may be cuts elsewhere. Planned infrastructure projects could go on hold. The Philippines may have to reach out—as it has done before—to others for loans or assistance. For example, Japan partially funded the rebuilding of Marawi, and the ADB has approved a US$200 million loan to support the country’s poor during the pandemic.
But the government must be mindful of the risks it faces. As de la Cruz warned: “We often hear that Filipinos are resilient. I agree that we are but if we do not resolve these challenges, it will hurt even our capacity to adapt to future shocks.”
Nevertheless, the necessary rebuilding of Marawi left the government vulnerable to the impact of natural disasters. COVID-19 has compounded that situation. The longer the pandemic lasts, the more displaced persons will suffer, and the greater the Philippines’ exposure to economic shocks and humanitarian crises will become.