Feature: Long road ahead for Japan's earthquake evacuees

10:01, April 27, 2011      

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The Japanese government is facing the monumental task of providing temporary living accommodation for about 130,000 people who have been displaced by last month's devastating earthquake and tsunami and are still living in evacuation centers.

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan said Tuesday his government has laid out plans to have all of those left homeless following the twin disasters rehoused into temporary living facilities by mid-August. While his promise presents a ray of hope for those living in shelters dotted across the country, however, for many of the evacuees and those helping them, it's still a long way off.

HURRY UP AND WAIT "Urgently needed funds have been flowing in from Japan and abroad amounting to about 2.08 billion U.S. dollars, but procedures for getting the money into the hands of the most at- risk people in the worst-hit areas takes time," Satomi Naganuma, a medical liaison officer and communications director at the International Department of the Japanese Red Cross (JRC) in Tokyo, told Xinhua.

"It's not a simple case of handing out cash, I wish it were that simple, but we have to adhere to certain standards and protocols including working closely with the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, as well as local prefectural governments. But make no mistake, we have and continue to make our utmost effort to ensure that the distribution of donations will continue to be brisk and flexible enough to meet a variety of needs," she said.

Naganuma added that as with previous disasters such as the Great Hanshin Earthquake that struck in January 1995, a multi- pronged approach to donation distribution had to be taken, which takes into account a myriad of short, medium and long-term requirements, with health care and disease prevention ranking high on the JRC's list of priorities right now.

"Our doctors on the ground in some of the worst-affected regions including Ofunato, Miyako, Kamaishi and Rikuzentakata Cities in Iwate prefecture and Natori, Iwanuma Ishinomaki and Kesunnuma Cities in Miyagi prefecture, are doing an outstanding job in very hard conditions," Naganuma said.

The evacuation centers are overcrowded and the doctors are fighting to ensure those with preexisting health conditions have the necessary care and medication, those with post-disaster problems are catered to and all the while battling to ensure conditions remain sanitary, as cold and flu outbreaks continue to flare up and spread through the centers rampantly, exacerbating already trying conditions, Naganuma went on to explain.

Along with a host of other NGOs, NPOs and private organizations that are also committed to ensuring that as many evacuees are rehoused as soon as possible, the JRC understands that it faces an unprecedented challenge and is very much in the media spotlight as part of the world's largest charitable organization.


But the foot soldiers physically toiling on behalf of the evacuees and in the name of the JRC, have no interest in the kind of politics and bureaucracy that has captured some tabloid headlines in recent days, opting to instead focus on the real issue.

"We deal with what is immediate in front of us at the time," explains So Takeda, a cardiovascular surgeon affiliated with the JRC and Okayama University Hospital.

"Of particular concern right now in the centers is the transmission of viruses such as influenza, malnutrition, high blood pressure, insomnia and psychological issues like post traumatic stress syndrome," Takeda told Xinhua.

Psychosocial recovery issues are becoming more and more prominent, so more resources will need to be allocated to ensure that patients' needs are adequately met, Takeda said.

He went on to explain that the symptoms of psychosocial problems could manifest in a plethora of different ways and if untreated could lead to severe psychologic issues such as chronic depression and suicidal tendencies.

"As medical experts, we have to take care of the physical needs of our patients but also we can never forget the level of trauma some of these people have faced," Takeda said.

"We're dealing with parents who have lost children, children who have lost parents, families whose loved ones remain unaccounted for and just about every other conceivable human tragedy possible."

"Even simple measures such as allowing a pregnant mother some privacy and quiet during physical examinations, to ensuring children are occupied with toys, books and can interact with other children, can go a long way to help preventing potential psychosocial issues from arising, although a lot of Japanese people have a tendency to 'grin and bear it' rather than say if they are having mental health issues -- this is a problem," Takeda added.


Japan as a nation has largely rallied behind those affected by the twin disasters in March as well as those displaced by the nuclear crisis in Fukushima prefecture and there is a sense in the nation's capital, that this is the country's problem that should be shouldered by all, not just those directly affected.

"Fundraising initiatives have been spectacular and it's this outpouring of love and empathy that convinces me that Japan will grow from this tragedy," said Naganuma, who added that international contributions had also been overwhelming.

"Tens of thousands of individuals, organizations and institutions have taken it upon themselves to use their influence and networks to raise much-needed funds, or support in other ways and such public-spiritedness is at the very core of what we do -- without such support, the suffering in the northeast would be inconceivable," said Naganuma.

Japanese celebrities have been doing their bit too -- be it on TV benefit shows, releasing charity music singles and holding live concerts, or designer auctions and public appearances -- whatever the media, the power of fame often helps the public dig a little deeper into their pockets.

But not all celebrities have the same idea about charity.

"I've rented a four-ton truck and have driven to Tohoku prefecture from Tokyo for the past three-weekends," a renowned TV personality, model, actress and singer told Xinhua on condition of anonymity.

"Before that, like a lot of 'talent' here, I've been on a lot of variety shows and done a load of magazine interviews after the March 11 disasters, but I got to thinking that to truly understand the situation and better represent the people devastated by the disasters, I had to go there, see and hear it for myself and help out," the instantly recognizable starlet said.

She went on to say that her production company, one of the largest in Japan, Horipro, was reluctant to let her go and that if she did, a film crew would attend and make a documentary, a proposition she refused.

"I didn't want this to be about me as a famous person here, this was a personal thing and to use such a tragedy as some kind of publicity stunt is deplorable. The first day I went to Tohoku and took of my hat and mask, I was mobbed and while I guess people were happy to see me, I spent more time signing autographs and posing for pictures than I did serving food and handing out supplies, which was all I wanted to do," she said.

The young icon added that since then she tries to remain anonymous and works extremely hard, like the thousands of other volunteers who have offered their time and energy to support the March 11 victims.

"It's hard work. I cook a lot of fresh food on site as I heard there were problems with people not getting enough nutrition and also in the truck we have clothes, bedding, toys, pretty much everything you can imagine that I have collected from friends, colleagues or bought myself." she said.

"I've been hugged, kissed and thanked, but I've also been sworn at, cried on, had items I'd given thrown back at me and I had to leave babies and infants without any family behind, which was especially hard."

"But through these experiences, I can now be a better spokesperson and advocate for these people, a lot of whom are facing a long, tough road ahead before their lives return to anything approaching normal," said the stunning luminary.

Source: Xinhua
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