Massive torrential rains across Metro Manila and the Philippine industrial heartland have driven thousands of Filipinos from their waterlogged homes into government-run evacuation centers.
As with previous natural disasters that have required a strong and visible state response, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is once again conspicuously absent when faced with a potential popularity- eroding catastrophe.
Week-long heavy monsoon rains compounded by Tropical Storm Karding (Yagi) with wind speeds of up to 90 kilometers per hour have left tens of thousands of Filipinos either temporarily stranded or permanently homeless from the storms’ destruction.
In Marikina City, which lies next to a river of its same namesake, up to 40,000 residents have undertaken mandatory evacuation. Over the weekend, heavy rain pushed the Marikina River levels up to 20.4 meters, just a few meters below the record high 23-meter level recorded during Tropical Storm Ondoy in 2009.
That storm claimed hundreds of lives across affected areas on the central island of Luzon. In response, Marikina officials declared a state of calamity in the city.
Top law enforcement officials, including Philippine National Police (PNP) Director General Oscar Albayalde and National Capital Region Police Office (NCRPO) Chief Guillermo Eleazar, have publicly led reconnaissance missions in affected areas to rescue stranded families.
Top political leaders, including the president, are usually present on the ground during or in the immediate aftermath of frequent natural calamities in the disaster-prone archipelago.
Amid massive flooding in the capital Manila, however, Duterte was in his hometown of Davao, prompting many to complain, “nasan ang pangulo”, or “Where is the President?”. On social media, the hashtag #NasaanAngPangulo is trending strongly, forcing the Duterte administration to scramble for explanations.
Special Assistant to the President Bon Go, Dutetre’s right-hand man, sought to assuage public anger by claiming that the president has been monitoring the situation closely from Davao and has been meaning to visit the affected areas through aerial reconnaissance.
Due to bad weather, however, his plans to use an Air Force plane to fly into affected areas has been delayed, Go claimed.
“There were many times that the Air Force plane attempted to fly [Duterte to the affected areas], but there was zero visibility,” Duterte’s special assistant told the media in a mix of English and Tagalog on August 13.
To the chagrin of many Filipinos, Go brought along a Duterte impersonator during a visit to evacuation centers for those who fled the flood. Though some in the audience were lifted by the humor, the incident prompted comparisons with dictators such as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, who often relied on body doubles for conducting state affairs.
It also raised a bigger issue with Dutetre’s unusual state practices. In a major break with all of his presidential predecessors, Duterte regularly departs Manila, the seat of national power, for his southern hometown of Davao, where he served as provincial mayor for decades and his daughter is currently in office.
Duterte often complains about heavy traffic and other difficult conditions in the capital, unabashedly expressing his preference for returning home. Critics on social media now wonder why he ran for president of the republic if he is uncomfortable serving in the capital.
His untimely absence amid natural calamity in the capital has raised new concerns over his leadership and, for some, his underlying health.
Many wonder if the president, 73, is seriously ill and thus his frequent visits to Davao are cover for taking trips to overseas hospitals for sophisticated medical care. Some unconfirmed reports have indicated he has traveled incognito to China for health care purposes.
His critics on social media often allege his often grayish facial color could be a sign of serious illness. In his latest State of the Nation Address (SONA) in late July, Duterte was uncharacteristically subdued and seemingly exhausted, some observers said.
Last year, Duterte was similarly absent at the height of the Marawi City crisis, when militants affiliated with the so-called Islamic State laid lethal siege to the country’s largest Muslim-majority city on his home island of Mindanao.
When he finally emerged, Duterte suggested he was absent from public view because he was conducting “secret” missions to assist counterinsurgency operations. Then, he was missing-in-action for almost two weeks, provoking widespread speculation about his health.
Now, he has sought to reassure the public by taking a slightly different tone, betraying exhaustion and bereft of his usual chutzpah.
“You just have to give us allowances for delays. I’ve been monitoring the situation since the other night. Medyo kulang kami ng tulog [we are just a bit short on sleep],” Duterte said on August 13 upon his return to Manila’s Malacanag palace to oversee a mass oath-taking of newly appointed government officials.
Meanwhile, however, the capital and surrounding provinces continue to cope with massive calamity, as flooding continues to inundate major roads, bridges and residences across the capital city.
To many, Duterte’s absence didn’t seem to make much difference as they relied on local government officials and personal resilience to overcome their predicament. But Duterte’s absence in the face of disaster is becoming increasingly conspicuous.