First Things First!

At the height of Hurricane Harvey, which dropped two or three years worth of water on Houston, Texas, one man braved the floods to go back into his home to check on what had happened to it. A roving news team happened to catch him as he entered his living room, in knee deep water, and sat down at the piano, and began to play. For a few minutes he seemed to have forgotten all else, and the music drew in a few other curious aid workers as well. When this video was played on CNN, music experts were quick to point out that people need music, that in disaster, music speaks to the soul of people in a way that can save them.

Sadly this seems to be the age of disasters, both natural and man-made. Harvey was followed by Irma, and now while the Caribbean waits the arrival of Storm Maria, world attention has turned to the half million Rohingya refugees camped out on the border between Myanmar and Bangla Desh. In the Philippines we look back to Yolanda as our worst natural disaster and we continue to struggle with the man-made Marawi crisis.

So faced with any of these disasters, what has to be taken care of, what has to be done, first?  What are people’s real, un-debateable needs?

Okay, water, and water systems. One Palawan resident, Kevin Lee (A Single Drop for Safe Water) works in water systems and was immediately called in after Typhoon Yolanda in 2013. Individuals, and communities, must have water, and in Tacloban, he had the water system up and running again in record time. And water is not only to drink but to set up sanitation systems – without which epidemics can thrive.

But for war refugees and groups such as the fleeing Rohingya, physical safety comes before anything else. And then of course water and food, both still lacking to too many Rohingyas.

But as soon as the absolute physical needs are met, we get to a broader field in which health, education, and culture vie for position. I for one would assume health is paramount and would suggest that Reproductive Health is extremely important. In every disaster there will be a certain number of pregnant women, women who have just delivered, and women who will run out of their usual contraceptives during the crisis. Many women and many teenagers will be living in makeshift and inadequate shelters, which may lead to changes in sexual behavior. There will be unintended pregnancies.

On the other hand, this may be a very good moment to teach new behaviors, to help both men and women see that they have to be responsible for their own reproductive health.  And this requires a combination of health services and education.

So educational needs have to be met too. And these efforts should go way beyond teaching for immediate health and safety needs. Kevin Lee’s wife Luzviminda says she always starts inquiring, right after the water systems go in, when they will start teaching the kids. Children in crisis definitely need school: they need structures, they need verbalization, and they need interaction. Ateneo’s Dr. Honey Carandang has had tremendous success with education, drawing, painting, and verbalizing to help guide children through extreme trauma, especially the traumas of war and fighting. There are several educational groups now making efforts to reach children in Marawi.

My good friend Dr. Antonio Socrates, Orthopedic Surgeon, founder of Bahatala, and a long time doctor in the public sector, used to say that while of course doctors and health are important, teachers and education are more so, as doctors deal with the body while teachers deal with the mind. And when you deal with the mind, you deal with artistic expression in art, music, and writing. These are the things that feed the spirit, the things that make us human. They must always be part of the whole crisis package!



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