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How not to help after disasters: Myths about post-disaster aid debunked
14 November 2005

London, UK: In the aftermath of a sudden disaster, aid workers say the media often perpetuates certain myths and misconceptions about survivors and the best way to help them. Here are some of the myths that seasoned relief agencies want to debunk.

MYTH: Disaster-hit people are too dazed and shocked to take responsibility for helping themselves and others.

Reporters and photographers often portray survivors of a sudden disaster as helpless victims, unable to save themselves or each other.

But according to the 2004 World Disasters Report, published by the International Federation of Red cross and Red Crescent Societies, in-depth reports from sudden disasters ranging from earthquakes to the collapse of New York’s twin towers show survivors rushing to save people from under the rubble – with their bare hands if necessary.

Adeel Jafferi, media officer for Islamic Relief, described such pro-activity in the immediate aftermath of Pakistan’s earthquake in October 2005. “Pakistan has never suffered an earthquake of this magnitude,” he told AlertNet in a telephone interview.

“On the day it happened, ordinary people were rushing to aid victims, despite the shock they felt themselves. I saw people on the street who were completely out of their minds with fear, and yet when they saw the need to help people and heard the screams from under buildings, they ran immediately and started helping.’’

MYTH: The best international response is to send in rescue teams immediately.

Not necessarily. Some experts say local teams are better placed to perform emergency relief operations in the first few hours after a disaster.

Ibrahim Oxman, the director of the policy and relations division at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, says: “The knowledge and resilience of people at risk contributes far more to reducing the toll of disasters than many of us in the developed world may expect.”

During Iran’s 2003 Bam earthquake, which destroyed 85 per cent of the city, local Iranian Red Crescent rescue teams were deployed within minutes, despite losing four team members and their headquarters in the earthquake. They saved 157 lives with just 10 dogs.

In contrast, international search and rescue teams from 27 countries took up to two days to arrive. Although they were armed with sniffer dogs and remote sensing equipment, they saved just 22 lives.

Aid agencies are usually under huge pressure to be seen to respond quickly. But there can be serious pitfalls associated with rushing in too fast.

Donna Eberwine, the editor of Perspectives in Health, says: “A hasty response that is not based on a needs evaluation can contribute to the chaos. It is better to wait until genuine needs have been assessed. The local population almost always covers immediate life-saving needs.”

According to the World Disasters Report 2004, it is essential for agencies to carry out in-depth interviews with affected people to find out their needs, even in situations where time is of the essence. If they don’t, they run the risk of sending the wrong type of help.

Immediately after the Asian tsunami, for example, surgeons from all over the world poured into Banda Aceh in Indonesia. But they found that few survivors had been injured, and there was little for them to do.

In contrast many aid agencies overlooked women’s needs. There was a severe shortage of midwives and basics including sanitary protection, the contraceptive pill and headscarves for Muslim women were not provided.

MYTH: Dead bodies should be buried quickly to avoid disease

The World Health Organisation is one of several agencies trying to end confusion over this particular myth.

Immediately after a disaster local authorities and aid workers sometimes panic and bury people before they have been identified, fearing the decomposing bodies will spread disease.

Arturo Pesigan, head of WHO's Emergency and Humanitarian Action in the Western Pacific, says dead bodies actually pose little risk.

“Survivors, not the dead, are more likely to be the source of disease outbreaks,” he says, adding that “identification of the body and the normal process of grieving are essential” to help survivors recover from their personal losses.

John Tulloch, a coordinator in New Delhi with the South Asia regional delegation of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said immediately after the Pakistan earthquake:

“It’s a disaster myth that dead bodies spread disease. Most bugs die within hours of the host, and it was one of the big tsunami myths. We saw especially in Aceh (in Indonesia) mass burials which caused enormous problems. It’s dreadfully traumatic for relatives because their bodies end up being dug up again.”

The Pan American Health Organization also says mass burials should be avoided at all costs. It calls them “a violation of the human rights of the surviving family members”.

MYTH: Survivors have lost everything except the clothes they stand up in. The best response is to give them second-hand clothes.

After the Asian tsunami, Indians sent a mountain of clothing to survivors in southern India. But the fisher families, for whom the clothes were intended, refused to accept them. Although they are usually depicted as the poorest of the poor, the 2005 World Disasters Report says they are a relatively prosperous and proud community. Even in such dire circumstances, they would not accept second-hand clothes.

The unwanted clothes were dumped on roadsides, and municipal workers had to be diverted from the relief effort to gather them up. They also proved a hazard to local livestock, which tried to eat them.

And food was sent from overseas. But the shipments included wheat and cooked foods from outside the region, neither of which were suitable to local tastes and which became a health hazard when they were dumped.

Ebrahim Mohamed, head of British relief agency Muslim Aid, said after the Pakistan earthquake in October 2005: “We’ve been getting all sorts of offers of used clothing, and food. We tell people very nicely that getting this there is very costly. Money is the best way of getting this across. And it helps local economies.’’

MYTH: The best way Westerners can help children who have been orphaned in a disaster is to adopt them.

In most cases, children’s extended families, friends and neighbours will take them in. Unicef reported that almost all the 10,000 children orphaned in the Asian tsunami had been adopted locally within two months. By late February only 60 children were left without foster parents.

MYTH: The best way to help survivors is to put them in temporary settlements.

Aid professionals say this should be avoided as much as possible. Donna Eberwine, the editor of Perspectives in Health, says: “It should be the last alternative. Funds may be better spent on building materials, tools and other construction-related support in the affected country.”

The Asian tsunami showed how most survivors found shelter with host families, rather than being dependent on aid camps.