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Needed: national triage

/ 09:58 PM November 12, 2013

Watching the news on TV these days is an exercise that vexes the soul, irritates the senses, and moves the heart.

Of course, the news hour is filled with items about the aftermath of “Yolanda,” but that is not what bothers me. Indeed, I try to catch the evening newscasts precisely because I want to know how the survivors are faring, and how we in “imperial Manila” can help ease their burden, somehow.

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What particularly vexes, irritates and moves is not the supertyphoon or even its consequences. Rather, it is the commentary and grandstanding one has to swallow along with the news. There are as well the human interest stories where survivors share how they lived through the onslaught of Yolanda, their search for missing relatives, and the continuing difficulties they must confront.

Especially irritating is the commentary of personalities who pepper their coverage with unsolicited views, prescriptions, even demands on the national government, sounding for all the world like they’re the only ones who know what’s good for the locals and doing something about their problems. One even had the camera pan to a pile of debris nearby, making the point that so many days after Yolanda hit, public authorities have not even made an effort to clean up, much less gather the bodies that have begun to fill the air with their foul stink.

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Things are made worse by the networks’ self-promoting coverage of their own rescue and relief efforts, bragging that their visit to a town was the first time any relief had reached the area, well before any government agency or even the Red Cross. The impression created is that the TV networks are the only ones doing something to ease the victims’ plight. Even if, in truth, everyone—private or public—is trying their darndest to give aid and succor as soon as they can, to as many people as possible.

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True, there have been neglected or even forgotten communities, where residents are desperate for food, water and medicine, for starters.

But perhaps to understand the situation for now, we should hark back to the concept of “triage,” the practice, in use in hospitals and in any massive emergency situation, where medical and rescue personnel must assess, on the spot, the relative needs of people brought in for treatment. In minutes or seconds, the emergency workers must decide who among the victims deserve immediate help or treatment, whose injuries or ailments are not life-threatening, and who can wait a little longer before receiving attention.

Also taken in consideration, perhaps, is the capacity of the hospital or medical team to attend to the victims. If they force themselves to attend to each and everyone brought in seeking help, all at the same time, they will not only quickly reach the point of exhaustion but also become inefficient, make mistakes, and help less people than they intended.

It is therefore unfair to ascribe politics or selfishness or cluelessness to government officials or workers who must implement a form of “national triage” in a disaster of the scale and coverage of Yolanda. Some towns have yet to be visited by representatives of national agencies, but maybe that’s because local authorities have already rushed there to offer the first wave of relief. Maybe some towns are attended to by nongovernment organizations or even foreign teams. But that could be a form of efficiently distributing available resources.

Cold-hearted as it may seem, authorities do need to assess needs and allocate resources if the response to a disaster—and on the scale of Yolanda—is to make sense and help as many people over as wide an area.

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During the meet-and-greet between the latest batch of awardees of The Outstanding Women in the Nation’s Service (TOWNS) whom I will be writing about in a later column, and their “older sisters,” the travails brought on by Yolanda, as well as by other recent disasters to hit our shores, were brought up.

Immediately it was decided that this group of outstanding women should respond with whatever form of help is possible. A suggestion was made for the TOWNS effort to focus on women and children, who are often neglected or ignored in the heat of the immediate rescue and relief response, and whose “special needs” are often forgotten by aid-givers.

What are these “special” needs? For women, they can range from hygiene kits (soap, underwear including sanitary napkins) which are too often considered “luxuries” far less important than rice, water and edibles, to even a simple malong or coverup, that allows a woman some privacy while changing clothes, and even a blanket when it gets chilly. I am especially glad that the Department of Social Welfare and Development has dubbed these “dignity kits.”

Unicef and other child-care agencies also emphasize the need for teams to go around and encourage mothers to continue or restart breastfeeding their infants, since it is still the healthiest, most convenient way of feeding a baby with no need to boil implements or secure potable water.

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Equally important and urgent, but often overlooked after the survivors’ immediate needs are met, is psychosocial counseling, to help survivors come to terms, psychologically and emotionally, with the loss and trauma they experienced.

Dr. June Pagaduan Lopez, also a sister in TOWNS, has drawn up plans to put in motion such a program, with the participation of other TOWNS-women, not just in Yolanda-affected areas but also in Zamboanga, Bohol and other areas where people have lived through tragedy and still need the counseling and processing to recover their equilibrium.

How long will the string of calamities continue to affect us as a nation? Apart from national triage, perhaps what we need is a form of national therapy.

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TAGS: Haiyan, news, Red Cross, Yolanda, Yolanda aid
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