Slow coping with disaster

By Satur C. Ocampo
At Ground Level | The Philippine Star

A week after supertyphoon “Yolanda” swooshed in and devastated a wide swath of the islands of Samar, Leyte, and Panay (Iloilo, Capiz, and Aklan), one gets this impression from media reports: as swift and widespread as the destruction was, the government’s response has been too slow, inefficient, and lacking in effective central leadership.

A positive, spirit-lifting factor, however, has been the quick universal response to help the survivors of what’s probably the worst disaster to hit the Philippines.

Such a heartwarming response has come from almost all Filipinos here and abroad, the Philippine Red Cross, church and civic organizations, people’s organizations, and from international aid agencies led by the United Nations, volunteer organizations, and foreign governments.

However, due to the absence of both central and local government coordination, the head of the UN humanitarian operations, Valerie Amos, has expressed anguish that “we have let people down.”

Relief workers are frustrated, unable to get aid — which has piled up at the Tacloban airport, in Cebu and elsewhere — to move fast enough and reach as many areas of devastation because, besides bad weather, debris still clogs the roads, fuel supply for vehicles runs low, and communication facilities haven’t been restored.

“There are still areas that we have not been able to get to, where people are in desperate need,” Amos said in a press briefing Thursday. But she expressed hope that “in the next 48 hours that will change significantly.”

While Tacloban was the main focus of relief activities, a volunteer organization, the Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders, based in Paris), harnessed all available means — cars, boats, planes and helicopters — to reach other devastated areas, such as Guiuan and other towns of Eastern Samar, western Leyte, northern Cebu, and Panay Island.

One MSF assessment team reported that in Guiuan “people are living out in the open” with no roof left standing. “The needs are immense and… a lot of surrounding villages…are not yet covered by any aid organizations,” the team said.

MSF has brought in more than 100 staff (doctors, nurses, surgeons, logisticians, psychologists and water and sanitation experts), plus three of nine planeloads of medical supplies, shelter materials, hygiene kits and water and sanitation equipment.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has also moved in its staff for major relief work in Samar island. It has surveyed the areas from Catbalogan, Guiuan, to Borongan cities. While all health facilities in Eastern Samar towns have been damaged, local medical personnel have set up health posts to care for patients with the meager means they themselves gathered, the ICRC team happily noted.

One wonders if the national government itself, through the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, with Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin as chair and Interior and Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas as vice chair, has conducted such a survey of the devastated areas.

Hopefully, the national government can overcome its resentful reaction to the barrage of local and international media criticisms and translate into palpable and effective actions on the ground what it claims it has been doing, or promises to do, under a revised “master plan” cobbled together last Tuesday in Malacanang.

President Aquino, in a message read for him on Thursday by Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma, gave the assurance that rescue, relief and rehabilitation operations are going on “and will go on for as long as necessary.” He said that the Department of Public Works and Highways has been working non-stop to clear roads so help can sooner reach cut-off communities.

“Most roads are now passable, and can be used to deliver relief,” P-Noy was quoted as asserting. It wasn’t clear where these roads are, and his statement contrasts with that of Amos, the UN humanitarian official.

Turning to the critical media, P-Noy appealed:

“We can all do more, and today I would like to make an appeal for greater accuracy in reports.” Moreover, he urged news organizations to “uplift the spirit of the Filipino people, to find stories of resilience, hope and faith, and show the world just how strong the Filipino people are.”

One positive development in Tacloban was that last Thursday the city government began to bury in a mass grave about 200 bodies of the dead collected along the roads, placed in body bags and stored at a government office not far from the city hall. The burial was at the Basper Cemetery in the outskirts of the city.

The official death toll, based on bodies “that have been collected or visually confirmed by authorized officials,” was placed at 2,357 by the NDRRMC.

One source of consolation is that, medical experts say, the dead bodies strewn all over the disaster areas “are not a significant public health hazard.” They are not considered carriers of germs that can infect the living – although there could be a problem if they contaminated drinking water supply.

“The widespread belief that corpses pose a risk of communicable diseases is wrong,” according to a World Health Organization advisory. “Especially if death resulted from trauma, bodies are quite unlikely to cause outbreaks of diseases such as typhoid fever, cholera or plague.” Thankfully, at least that’s one problem less!

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E-mail: satur.ocampo@gmail.com
November 16, 2013

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