Philippines typhoon relief, explained

There are many stories of medicine and supplies not getting to those who need them, of bodies lying on the street days later. Why is it so difficult to deliver aid in this situation? Dr. Brian Schwartz of Emergency Preparedness for Public Health Ontario and professor at the University of Toronto's Dalla Lana School of Public Health explains

Brianna Goldberg

With a confirmed death toll of more than 2,200 and more than 3,500 people injured, consequences of the typhoon that hit the Philippines five days ago are already staggering – and still on the rise.

News reports describe a dire situation: bodies at the side of the road and injured people out of reach of relief efforts; hunger, dehydration and homelessness for more than 600,000 citizens; and international aid seemingly slow to respond.

Dr. Brian Schwartz is chief of Emergency Preparedness for Public Health Ontario and a professor at the University of Toronto's Dalla Lana School of Public Health. He explains why the relief effort seems to be moving so slowly and what we can learn about health and safety from this disaster in the Philippines.

There are many stories of medicine and supplies not getting to those who need them, of bodies lying on the street days later. Why is it so difficult to deliver aid in this situation?

The more vulnerable the populations are, the harder it is to access them with supplies and equipment. Generally any internal plans will access those who need help before international aid gets in. But, even so, there’s difficulty in accessing roads, communications are down and to some extent there’s nothing you can really do about that. It’s a matter of local crews getting out there and clearing paths. It’s extremely painstaking to do this, but key to making sure it’s safe to land international aircraft and to get the supplies in.

Why hasn’t the international community been able to develop more effective emergency management responses after all its recent natural disaster experience?

It may sound like there are a lot of delays but without knowing where the next disaster is going to hit, it would be hard to improve response. Can we do better at pre-deploying assets closer to the event beforehand? Yes. But it comes with a cost and if you’re going to do it right, there’s probably going to be a few false alarms for every disaster.

There’s the 48-hour 'yoyo’ rule in emergency management: you have to assume that no rescue effort from the outside is going to get there until around 48 hours after the event, meaning things are really dependent on the internal resources of communities. Actually, we’ve found in many communities, including the Philippines, that the resilience within the community has improved and, in many ways is better in the third world than in the first world.

In the first world we always imagine that the cavalry is going to come in and save us. We’re not as good at personal preparedness as they are in many areas in Asia. Those of us in the preparedness community feel we have a lot to learn over there because of what they’ve unfortunately been through.

How could international efforts be better planned?

My big concern, as we saw in Haiti, is that there are a lot of long-term effects way beyond those first few weeks of the international response. While they’re delayed, international efforts from the Red Cross and UNICEF and the WHO are usually pretty robust in terms of dealing with the acute effects. But when everything’s disappeared in the media, again you’ve got the issues of reduced clean water, sanitation facilities, food and shelter.

It’s great that organizations can set up portable hospitals and deal with the injuries at the outset. But, again, as we saw in Haiti, the rehabilitation of the injuries and communicable diseases that set in weeks and months afterwards because of a lack of clean water and sanitation facilities is the real danger of the way this is going to play out.

The international community, even more than the initial response, needs to have a sustainable response. Of all the countries and organizations that line up to get there and get the headlines, who’s going to be there in six months and a year? I think if we were able to better coordinate those acute and chronic responses we’d do even better.

How can readers best help typhoon victims? Is there a way to know if money is better sent through Médecins Sans Frontières, the Red Cross, or other organizations?

Money does help. I donated yesterday to one of the organizations that I think will help out and ensure that the money goes to the relief effort. I think the organizations that you mentioned are both excellent ones that are invested in getting as much of that money as possible, if not all the money, into the hands of the victims. And we also have a huge Philippino community here in Toronto. Even giving directly to that community means they can directly help their friends and relatives.

Brianna Goldberg is a writer with University Relations at the University of Toronto.

Published: 14 Nov 2013


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