In the aftermath of the shake, rattle and roll

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EARTHQUAKES do not target a specific gender, race or religion. They seemingly strike with a tacit salutation that reads something like “To whom it may concern,” delivering a wide range of devastation and leaving a trail of damage to life and property on top of the psychosocial strain that leaves countless people deeply scarred for the rest of their lives.

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We can never really know when the next big one will strike, but an adequately prepared response in the aftermath would be more than enough to meet the demands of the hour after the earth has shaken, rattled and rolled.

In the aftermath of the magnitude 7.8 temblor that rocked Luzon and caused widespread damage to life and property on July 16, 1990, the government gathered psychologists and sociologists to come up with an appropriate intervention for people who were affected by the disaster.

The damage to life and property was immense. Six provinces were significantly affected—Aurora, Nueva Ecija, Nueva Vizcaya, Tarlac, Pangasinan and La Union—in geological terms, but the damage to property, estimated at more than P10 billion, went far beyond the boundaries of the six provinces. At least 1,100 people died, and more than 1.2 million people were directly affected by the earthquake.

“The physical desolation that followed forced its presence into the consciousness of a stunned nation, and everybody jumped to contribute what he could to help. The physical destruction, which was readily seen and thus more dramatic, was easily captured by mass media and projected to the rest of the country,” according to a paper authored by Dr. Antonio Perlas, M.D., of the Department of Health’s National Program for Mental Health.

The obvious was easier to grasp—the victims whose homes were destroyed and those who fell ill—the intervention not so complicated and could be immediately delivered.

But there were also changes happening deep within the psyche of the survivors in the way they were processing the disaster that befell them in relation to their newfound place in the strata of the larger social environment.

“These were the psychosocial consequences that necessarily accompany any sudden, significant disruption in the established relationship and activities of people,” Perlas noted.

Because the psychosocial trauma in the aftermath of a disaster is usually deeper, less obvious and at times quite difficult to grasp and relate to, such impact on a person or groups of people who survived the ravages of a natural disaster are often unknowingly ignored by authorities.

“However, if no action is taken to prevent, minimize, if not altogether eliminate the abnormal manifestations of this trauma, the psychosocial stresses could lead to a disability far worse than the consequences of a physical dislocation,” Perlas noted.

We will never know for sure when the next earthquake will hit which part of this country, like what happened at 4:03 p.m. in Leyte and nearby provinces last Friday. The full extent of the damage to life and property are still being tallied.

But by the looks of it, the magnitude 6.5 earthquake was no small-timer, crashing buildings, toppling houses, and killing at least two people.

In the end, the only way to lessen the suffering of the people is the foresight of the government and civil society groups to prepare for the consequences of a natural disaster that takes into consideration the availability of trained search and rescue teams, makeshift medical clinics and evacuation centers, and plenty of doctors, psychologists and social workers.

Dr. Perlas hit the spot when he penned this memorable passage in his paper on psychosocial intervention: “I am sure there will be no disagreement if I were to say that the common pathway, after all, of all the physical effects of the earthquake is ultimately man himself, with all his feelings, emotions and consciousness. Thus, ultimately, man must be the focus of aid and rehabilitation.”

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