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Editorial: Post-disaster relief work needs new strategies in age of COVID-19

  • July 29, 2020
  • , The Asahi Shimbun , 1:59 p.m.
  • English Press

This year’s prolonged “tsuyu” rainy season is causing rivers to flood in various parts of the nation, resulting in heavy damage to the affected areas.


With the COVID-19 pandemic hardly under control yet, how should those disaster zones be supported from the outside?


Should disaster relief NPOs and individual volunteers from around the nation cause COVID infections to spread in the affected areas, the outcome could not be more counterproductive to speedy recovery and reconstruction.


For now, the basic rule for everyone to follow would be to refrain from any rash action, and to act only in response to requests from the affected areas.


In southern Kumamoto Prefecture, where torrential rains claimed many lives in early July, the prefectural government’s policy is to allow only Kumamoto residents and organizations based in the prefecture to volunteer for aid work.


This policy echoes two guidelines on activities during the coronavirus pandemic, issued previously: One by the Japan National Council of Social Welfare whose local branches oversee the establishment and management of volunteer centers in disaster-affected areas, and the other by an incorporated NPO consisting of various disaster relief organizations around Japan.


Both guidelines warn against traditional styles of volunteering and recommend that only residents of neighboring municipalities be allowed to volunteer, and that when this restriction is to be relaxed, the volunteers would still be limited to residents of the prefecture.


However, substantial manpower is needed to dig out homes from landslide sites or remove household items ruined beyond repair. Some municipalities have taken measures such as running more buses that originate from within the prefecture to transport volunteers, but the problem still remains unsolved in a good number of municipalities.


There are national subsidies for the disposal of debris from landslides and floods, and local governments ought to be sufficiently flexible to take advantage of the system. The central government should consider expanding the subsidies as needed.


Sooner or later, the time will come for volunteers from outside the prefecture to come, and preparations ought to be made for that eventuality.


In Kumamoto Prefecture, a non-resident civil servant who went to a disaster zone to assist in relief work was found to have been infected with the virus, and so was a non-resident news reporter.


This resulted in many disaster survivors, who could have come into contact with them, having to take PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests.


A government experts’ subcommittee on COVID-19 response recently added a line to its basic thinking and strategy on the testing system that went to the effect, “As for how to deal with disaster-hit areas, we will study the matter separately to ensure that relief work will proceed smoothly.”


We hope the subcommittee and the government will be quick to come up with specific plans on who should be given priority in COVID-19 testing.


What we must not forget is that there are ways to help disaster survivors from afar, and that they are already in practice.


Using the internet, one does not have to be in the disaster zone proper to advise on-site aid workers, or volunteer to listen to survivors who need to talk. And donating money is always a good way to help.


We need to start with whatever support we can keep providing from afar.

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