Saturday, 16 November 2013

Leyte mayors prepare mass graves to protect the living

On Friday, November 15, Melvin Lasi buried his grandfather a day after his body was found under the rubble of his neighbor’s house. It’s been a week since the old man was killed by Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan).

Lasi’s grandfather was one of the 801 people who died based on the latest count of the Tacloban City government. The death toll is expected to rise in the coming days as retrieval operations continue. “The final figure will be significantly higher,” Tacloban City Mayor Alfred Romualdez said in a press briefing on Friday, November 15.

Unlike Lasi’s family, other survivors could not properly mourn and bury their dead. Only about 10-15% of the bodies were identified, Romualdez said.

Starting Wednesday, November 13, many of the dead were laid in a temporary mass grave dug in a public cemetery in Basper, a village in the outskirts of the city.

On Thursday, November 14, at least 105 bodies were put in a long trench dug by a backhoe inside the cemetery. Hundreds of cadavers in black bags rotting in front of the city hall for a week were transported to the mass grave as Romualdez was holding the press conference.

Lack of manpower

Asked what took the government so long to bury the dead, Romualdez said the city lacked manpower. He added that he “constantly requested” help from the national government to retrieve bodies but understood that it could only do so much with what it has.

But according to Interior and Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas, the government has mobilized its assets and is following a protocol for identifying and burying the dead.

The process allows survivors to identify their dead while protecting the health of the public and water sources. “Sinusunod naman iyan lahat,” Roxas said in a press conference late Friday afternoon, November 15. (We follow everything.)

Romualdez earlier gave assurances the Philippine National Police Scene of the Crime Operatives and the National Bureau of Investigation conducted "dead victim processing" in coordination with the Department of Health. This will help provide closure to survivors in the future, if not today, officials explained.

Romualdez said he will wait for the recommendation of the agencies on when the graves can be covered. Bodies can be exhumed and identified in the future.

Protect the living

Mayor Remedios Petilla of the nearby town of Palo could not wait, however. “We don’t care any more. We just told them we’ll bury them, give them a decent burial, blessing from the church and all that," Petilla said.

According to the mayor, she waited for 3 days “but we were not provided with body bags.” As of Thurday, November 14, at least 813 casualties – 30% of which were not identified – were buried in batches of a hundred per mass grave.

“We’re trying to protect the living,” Petilla said, adding that she made the choice to prevent the contamination of water and the spread of disease in her town.

The death toll in the aftermath of Yolanda has reached over 3,600 so far, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council reported on Friday, November 15.

WHO warns: Avoid mass burials

The World Health Organization (WHO) is discouraging local government officials from holding mass burials for the victims of Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan).

According to the WHO Technical Note for Emergencies, the international health body said it would be best to avoid holding of mass burials for the thousands of victims of the super typhoon.

“Burials in common graves and mass cremations are rarely warranted and should be avoided,” said the WHO in its guidance on the disposal of dead bodies in emergency situations.

The WHO said there is no need to rush burying the dead to the point of bypassing correct identification and time to bereave for the loved ones, as it may just lead to more psychological trauma.

“This does not allow for the correct identification and record taking of the details of the dead. Nor does it give the time for the bereaved to carry out the ceremonial and cultural practices, which would normally occur after a death,” said the WHO.

It also agreed with the earlier position of the Department of Health (DOH) that there is no truth to the belief that corpses pose a risk of communicable disease if they remain sitting in public.

“The widespread belief that corpses pose a risk of communicable disease is wrong. Especially if death resulted from trauma, bodies are quite unlikely to cause outbreaks of diseases such as typhoid fever, cholera, or plague,” said the WHO.

The international health body said that the only health risk that dead bodies hold is if they manage to contaminate streams, wells, or other water sources, as they may result to gastroenteritis or food poisoning syndrome to the survivors.

As much as 10,000 people were believed to have died from the onslaught of Yolanda, although Aquino opined that it may be “too much” of an estimate.

On Friday, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) reported that the death toll from the Super Typhoon Yolanda has risen to 3,621, a jump of more than 1,200 from the previous toll of 2,360.

Tacloban City Mayor Alfred Romualdez said they are already planning to hold mass burials for the victims while admitting that many remain uncollected. In fact, on Thursday, six days after Yolanda hit land, scores of unidentified bodies were interred together in a hillside cemetery without any ritual — the first mass burial in Tacloban.

Still, the WHO urged that the corpses should be collected immediately from the streets in order to minimize the distress caused by the sight of dead bodies and the odor produced by their decomposition.

“It is important to collect and remove corpses to a collection point as quickly as possible,” said the agency.

After collection, the WHO said it would be best if stricken communities are encouraged to carry out traditional ceremonies and grieving processes.

“This is important in helping people deal with the psychological impact of such disasters as it sets in motion the process of disaster recovery,” it said.

It pointed that it would be better if burial of dead bodies are placed in individual graves and that burial procedures should be consistent with the usual practices of the community concerned.

The WHO also said it is not required that the dead bodies will be placed in coffins but should be at least wrapped in plastic sheeting in order to keep the remains separate from the soil.

The area badly hit by the typhoon was Tacloban City, where scores remain missing as of Friday, November 15.

Saturday 16 November 2013


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