“In Haiti, many people died when the earthquake struck, but a lot more people died when cholera hit the country.” – Linda Benoit, volunteer nurse and president of the Haitian American Nurses Association
By ANNE MARXZE D. UMIL
MANILA – They may have survived the storm, but what would happen to them – already hungry and weak – if there would be an outbreak of epidemic? When health workers visited typhoon-hit communities in Eastern and Western Samar, they were alarmed at the probability of another disaster waiting to happen: an epidemic outbreak.
During their five-day medical and relief mission held last Nov. 20 to 25, Samahang Operasyon Sagip or SOS, a group of volunteer health workers, professionals and students rendering assistance to disaster victims, reported that there were still no clearing operations being done in areas they visited; corpses were still under the debris; relief distribution was rarely coming in and the health of survivors were rapidly deteriorating.
Ten doctors, 16 nurses, two medical interns, and health workers also from the Haitian American Nurses Association (HANA) and volunteers were mobilized for the mission. The 40-man team was divided into three medical mission teams and two relief distribution teams. At least 1,088 patients were served by the medical mission and 1,664 families received relief goods. The mission covered five villages in Hernani and three villages in Gen. MacArthur in Eastern Samar and six villages in Basey, Western Samar.
Survivors contracting illnesses
They described the situation in Western and Eastern Samar as alarming. According to the group’s report, in Hernani town, almost 80 percent of houses were destroyed. In Batang village also in Hernani, more than 200 families are living in make-shift tents making them vulnerable to illnesses such as upper respiratory tract infections, cough and colds.
“Common illnesses of the survivors are colds and cough. This is because their body resistance became low after the typhoon. One reason could be the quality of food they eat. Relief goods are mostly instant noodles and canned goods. There is no nutrition in what they eat,” Santiago said. He said there are 266 cases of upper respiratory tract infection.
There are also many cases of hypertension also due to the quality of food. Santiago said instant noodles have high salt content. Some of them also have lost their medicines during the typhoon. The group recorded 64 cases of hypertension.
Other illnesses recorded are arthritis, error of refraction, diarrhea, body pains especially in the lower back, urinary tract infection, skin diseases such as scabies and injuries caused by the typhoon. Eleven patients are suspected to have pulmonary tuberculosis.
Major health risks that could lead to serious disease outbreaks were also noted by the group such as lack of water supply, lack of toilet facilities, lack of shelter, irregular provision of food and crowded condition in evacuation areas.
“Because of lack of clean water sources and absence of latrines, a cholera epidemic may soon break out among the affected families if immediate health intervention is further delayed,” said Santiago. He said people in areas they visited have no knowledge and resources to construct latrines. “The Department of Health should promote this in devastated areas so epidemics can be prevented.”
Santiago also noted the lack of drinking water and the worsening malnutrition, especially of children. They also reported that bodies have yet to be retrieved from the debris in Hernani. “People complain and worry about what health problems will occur if the cadavers will not be removed in their town,” Rosalinda Tablang, president of SOS said.
“The outbreak of an epidemic happens in the aftermath of a disaster,” said Linda Benoit, a volunteer nurse and president of HANA. She cited the cholera outbreak in Haiti after the earthquake. Many survivors, she said, died due to cholera.
“In Haiti, many people died when the earthquake struck, but a lot more people died when cholera hit the country.”
The HANA is a non-profit voluntary association of health care professionals who offer their professional services for free to people in need. They also provide assistance in education not only in Haiti but to other countries as well.
Addressing the livelihood of the people in devastated areas is as important as addressing the people’s health. Tablang said the people’s health could not be assured if their basic needs are not addressed. She said people in 14 villages that they have visited all said they needed to make a living.
With all main sources of livelihood gone – fishing boats destroyed or swept away by the storm surge, coconut trees uprooted and snapped, rice and roots crops submerged in flood– the question now is how to start all over again.
“The people are left with nothing. Three weeks after the typhoon, survivors see no light at the end of the tunnel.”
As of the Dec. 2 report of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, the estimated cost of damages to crops in Western Samar is P288.850 million ($6.601 million) and P96.982 million (2.216 million) in fisheries. Estimated cost of damage to crops in Eastern Samar is P131.708 million ($3.009 million).
With no livelihood, survivors will now have to depend on relief goods for their everyday needs like food and water. But the relief goods they receive are limited. Santiago said people told them that they received only three liters of water in one relief pack. “That’s only for half a day; what about the rest of the day or the next days?” Villagers in Cacatmonan in Hernani complained that no relief delivery operations have reached them until the team of SOS came.
“The Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) announced that delivery of relief goods to the survivors would be stopped this December. Do they know the situation on the ground?” said Tablang.
The group slammed the DSWD announcement and the agency’s plan to implement a “cash-for-work” and “food-for-work” program. “Despite millions of donated cash and goods intended for the affected population, skewed government policies make it more difficult for the survivors to receive immediate relief,” said Tablang.
Tablang also said there is no apparent rehabilitation plan for the communities of Eastern and Western Samar. “Based on stories from some village officials, it is not clear what the local and national governments are planning for the rehabilitation of communities.”
The group demanded that the government continues food and relief distribution and immediately and decisively act on rebuilding the lives and livelihood of the affected population.
Help them uplift their lives
While people in Eastern and Western Samar now depend on relief goods, the group said, people also showed willingness to rebuild, reconstruct and get their lives back to normal until they can support themselves on their own. “But they cannot do this on their own. They need help from the government,” said Santiago.
Santiago shared his conversation with a 35-year old man in Hernani. “He said he doesn’t want to leave his place, I asked why. And he said, ‘This is where I was born and this is where I grew up, this is where I will die too. All I need is a job so I can live and support myself.’”
Santiago said he did not feel pity for the 35-year old man, but anger at the government. “I am angry at the government for neglecting them,” Santiago said in a separate interview with Bulatlat.com. He said even before typhoon Yolanda hit the country, the people in Eastern and Western Samar were already living impoverished lives due to government neglect. “The government should not leave them just like that. They don’t need alms. The government must help them uplift their lives.”
He said the government is always one step behind, making it difficult for the people to get back on their feet “It is like living in a disaster every day. They wake up in a ruined place, which reminds them of their difficulties, and the process of moving on with their lives is in slow motion,” Santiago said. “To help people recover, the government should act faster.”
Benoit also said the people do not have to leave the place to start their life anew. “What they need is support. Support from the government and other groups to help them get back to their normal lives.” She said help should continue in the next years until people recover. The SOS is geared on conducting a series of relief and medical missions this December up to March next year.
Tablang and Santiago reiterated that at the end of the day, “The survival of the affected population and rehabilitation of communities is the government’s call. And we demand that the government acts swiftly.”