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When disaster strikes

Looking after the needs of people is a challenge even in the best of times. Governments and officials have a hard enough time answering the day-to-day needs of populations: food, water, health, shelter, transportation, even education.

But the demand for these basic needs is multiplied a hundredfold in times of disaster, when the daily needs for sustenance, health and safety are exacerbated by the urgency of the situation, the impending or existing risks, and the magnitude of the need.

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We need only look back on the devastation wrought by “Yolanda,” or the floods of “Ondoy,” to recall the difficulties that entire cities, provinces and regions had to endure. But if times were hard for families whose houses remained intact though damaged, who had money at hand but who didn’t have a ready supply of food and water, who had survived the disaster but whose health and safety were at constant risk, imagine what it must have been—what it must be—for so-called “special” populations. The homeless, the sick, the elderly, the vulnerable, especially women and children, face especially trying challenges in times of hardship and disaster.

Perhaps this is the reason the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) chose to focus this year’s theme for World Population Day on the protection of vulnerable populations especially in disaster preparedness and response.

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The UNFPA is calling on humanitarian agencies to “redouble efforts in addressing the special needs of vulnerable populations in preparedness and response measures to disaster.”

Over 75 percent of the over 50 million people displaced by disaster and armed conflict (a human-caused disaster, really) are women, girls and young people, the UNFPA says. “They are constantly exposed to sexual violence, maternal deaths, unwanted pregnancies and the threat of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, because of the absence or lack of reproductive health services and protection mechanisms,” points out UNFPA country representative Klaus Beck.

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In the wake of Yolanda, for instance, a dismaying number of fatalities, far beyond their share of the population in Eastern Visayas and other regions devastated by the supertyphoon, were elderly, people 60 years old and above.

It is easy to explain their vulnerability. Senior citizens are physically frailer and less mentally alert than their younger counterparts and may not have the capability to flee rising waters or compete for scarce space or relief goods.

One story that emerged from Yolanda is of the parents of a Tacloban resident who chose to house his elders in a hotel in the city, fearing that their home nearer the coast was vulnerable to flood waters. But the unprecedented storm surge flooded the streets even of downtown Tacloban, and the parents were caught in their supposed stronghold by floodwaters.

Would the presence of younger family members have alleviated the danger posed by the Yolanda floods?

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But even if the parents had survived the flooding, they would still have been in acute danger as they would have had to compete with younger, abler disaster victims in accessing relief goods, elbowing their way into evacuation centers, or just letting rescuers and relatives know of their plight.

The same problem persists for people with disability (many of whom are elderly, too), whose physical condition may not allow them to struggle equitably with others in need, or even communicate sufficiently with people who could help or rescue them.

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Women, especially pregnant women, are also a subset of the especially vulnerable population.

Beck says that in recent humanitarian crises, “pregnant women [have been] giving birth in the most unsanitary conditions without the assistance of skilled birth attendants.” The women and their babies are likewise vulnerable to infections and diseases, while the mothers’ milk supply may be compromised by the sheer strain of the situation in which they find themselves.

Sexual violence is another risk faced by women and young girls, “due to lack of security in the midst of a chaotic situation,” Beck points out. This is why there is need for continued policing of evacuation centers and communities of temporary housing, the provision of private bathroom amenities and also of street lighting.

“Reproductive health and protection services should be in place at the onset of a humanitarian emergency. They are as important as food, shelter and water; they are life-saving,” Beck says.

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There is much talk these days of “The Big One,” the long-overdue 7.2-magnitude earthquake that could devastate Luzon, particularly the National Capital Region.

If such an earthquake does occur, the UNFPA estimates that of the 2.9 million people expected to be displaced, around 700,000 are likely to be women and girls of child-bearing age, with close to 29,000 of them pregnant. More than 100 childbirths are also expected every day.

In our expectedly crowded, cramped and overpopulated evacuation centers and hospitals, will there be enough doctors, nurses, and midwives to look after the mothers and babies?

This is why, as Beck says, the basic infrastructure of health and reproductive health services need to be in place even before disaster strikes. If women already enjoy adequate health services that assure them and their children of good health and nutrition, then their chances of survival when disaster strikes are far better and surer. Still, authorities need to keep on the lookout for vulnerable populations who may need special interventions even in times of crisis and need all around.

If we are all “family,” then we need to include—and see—those least able to help themselves when a crisis strikes.

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TAGS: disaster preparedness, disasters, earthquakes, Ondoy, supertyphoon ‘yolanda’, United Nations Population Fund
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