By David Bandurski — As the hope of finding survivors in the rubble of the Sichuan earthquake grows dim, the focus of the relief effort is turning toward the needs and conditions of the close to five million people left homeless by the disaster. Disease prevention is a key priority. In his latest editorial on the quake, CMP director Qian Gang talks about the urgency and enormity of disease prevention efforts on the ground in Sichuan.

The Decisive Battle Against Disease in the Quake Area Has Begun!
By Qian Gang (钱钢)

The most important matter now facing the disaster area [in Sichuan province] is disease prevention. Temperatures are rising by the day, and many bodies of the lost have yet to be recovered from the rubble. Threats to the well being of quake survivors and relief workers are on the rise.

32 years ago, when I entered Tangshan as a member of the disease prevention team, I witnessed abysmal living conditions in the disaster area. Tangshan and the Sichuan quake are similar in the sense that the lifelines for cities and towns — things like electricity and water – have been completely wiped away, and poor sanitation and lack of drinking water are major problems. Mechanisms for removing human waste, polluted water and other garbage have all been totally paralyzed. Medical and disease prevention systems have been seriously impacted. After Tangshan, the bodies of 240,000 victims had to be disposed of. Disease did not break out, but this was a miraculous stroke of luck.

But there are several things that make the battle against disease today different from the situation following the Tangshan quake.

For starters, the area encompassed by the disaster [in Sichuan] is many times larger than that of the Tangshan earthquake, and severely damaged towns and cities are spread throughout the area. The upshot of this is that the battle lines in the fight against disease are incredibly long. In the city and countryside, there are vast numbers of corpses of domesticated animals in addition to human bodies. As areas are cut off from the power grid and large-scale cooling facilities either destroyed or out of operation, a great mass of other items is now rotting as well. The amount of daily garbage now rotting out in the open is truly staggering. All of this distinguishes the present situation from what we saw back in Tangshan, in a time when goods were scarce. Disease prevention will be a major undertaking. The current strategy from the [earthquake relief] command headquarters, in which disease prevention teams from various provinces spread out and cover particular counties [in the disaster area], is correct, but what we don’t know is whether these disease prevention teams are sufficient.

The task of clearing bodies from the rubble is more difficult than for Tangshan. The collapsed structures in the Sichuan quake area, with their steel-reinforced concrete, far surpass the scale of Tangshan. That is to say, rescue workers will have to work through a mass of complex and intricate collapsed structures in order to find survivors and clear out bodies. In the coming few days, this work will go ahead under increasingly tough conditions. In the end, I’m afraid there may be many bodies that cannot be retrieved.

The management of disease prevention is more complex than it was for Tangshan. 32 years ago, in the final days of the Cultural Revolution, the disaster area was managed almost like a militarization. In today’s disaster area, it is much harder to handle things as they were handled in Tangshan, when corpses were gathered and buried expediently. In this quake, the government has given consideration to the feelings of the bereaved in formulating procedures for the handling of corpses. The government has designated a procedure for the claiming of bodies, even allowing the laying out of corpses prior to cremation. Some relatives of the dead have resisted the idea of mass burial, which has added a new level of difficulty to handling the situation.

This time, the rescue workers, news reporters and volunteers in the disaster area are also far more diverse than was the case for Tangshan. There is the potential for inadequacies in the handling of personal hygiene and protection. Journalists on the front lines tell me that their own disease protection and sterilization is being handled by volunteers. While this is an effective method, I hope it can be extended to everyone.

As we see on television, ordinary people in the county-level city of Wenchuan are now using cardboard to shield themselves from the sun. The temperature in the disaster area has already reached 30 degrees Celsius and is steadily going up. In the two weeks following the Tangshan earthquake the temperature quickly dropped, exactly the opposite situation. A crisis in the handling of bodies in the Sichuan earthquake region is already imminent . . .

In Tangshan, many bodies were not buried deep enough, and toward the end of the year, the Ministry of Health issued an order for mass exhumation and reburying. In Sichuan, if the same thing happens in the hot summer just around the corner, the ramifications are hard to even imagine.

The war against disease has already begun. The leaders of the relief effort are taking decisive measures, cordoning off areas of rubble where contamination is severe and arranging for temporary quarters for disaster victims further away from the rubble. Here, I want to offer my deepest respect to those brave soldiers doing the difficult work of removing bodies!

[Posted by David Bandurski, May 22, 2008, 12:03pm]