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Local govts urged to prepare for disasters amid virus spread

Tokyo, May 1 (Jiji Press)–Japanese local governments have been told to make preparations to prevent the spread of the coronavirus at evacuation centers if natural disasters occur, ahead of the rainy and typhoon seasons.

In a recent notice, the Cabinet Office and others urge the local governments to set up as many evacuation centers as possible in the event of disasters and consider in advance how to cope with infected evacuees.

“The biggest task is how to accept infected evacuees,” an expert said.

Many local governments are not sure whether they can properly run evacuation centers while making sure the virus does not spread among evacuees.

On March 11, a flood warning prompted the government of Shibecha in the northern prefecture of Hokkaido to issue an evacuation order and set up shelters.

A total of 210 people came to take refuge at a gymnasium, where each person was given as much as about 4 square meters of space to avoid a high-risk situation called three Cs, or a crowd gathered in close proximity in a closed space.

Shibecha also made face masks and sanitizers available there.

“We can increase evacuation centers, but a lack of staff makes it difficult” to deal with infected people, a Shibecha official said.

In Chiba Prefecture, near Tokyo, the government of Kamogawa opened three evacuation centers in response to heavy rains April 13. It decided to assign public health nurses to check the temperatures of evacuees at the entrances.

No one showed up for evacuation, but a city government official felt a sense of crisis.

“It’s difficult to separate an area for evacuees with (coronavirus) symptoms completely” from the area for others, the official said.

The notice also said local governments should ask residents to consider taking shelter at the homes of relatives or friends, set aside dedicated spaces at evacuation centers for those with fevers or coughs and make advance preparations to deal with infected evacuees.

“It’s not an unforeseeable risk any longer,” said Japanese Red Cross Hokkaido College of Nursing Prof. Masahiro Nemoto, who is familiar with evacuation center management.

Nemoto calls for stronger measures. “Group infections have occurred even at well-equipped hospitals. The virus may spread in evacuation centers,” he warned.

On Friday, a network of 58 academic societies involved in disaster prevention and postdisaster recovery issued a statement calling for preparations for the combination of a natural disaster and the spread of COVID-19.

According to the Japan Academic Network for Disaster Reduction, an earthquake, volcanic eruption or flooding could injure many people, overwhelming medical institutions. A dysfunctional medical system would raise the risk of an explosive increase in virus infections in disaster-hit areas.

Masako Yoneda, a leader of the network, said she wants the public to make preparations for evacuation in the event of a natural disaster, discussing the matter with neighbors and local administrative bodies during the ongoing Golden Week holiday period.

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