Charity and the reality of disaster logistics

By Bryan • blog, china • 23 May 2008

From danwei.org

Jiao Na had come a long way to help the people of Sichuan. A Chinese teacher living in Kunming, she had seen the pictures and heard the cries for help. Not content to mail supplies, she contacted a local health bureau in Chengdu and arranged to purchase the supplies they said they needed to prevent a looming medical disaster: medical supplies, mosquito repellent, dry biscuits. She solicited donations from her friends in Kunming, some $700 worth, and booked plane tickets along with several companions.

However, when she got to Chengdu, she was astonished to find that nobody seemed to want the aid they’d requested. She made two stops, one at the Chinese Red Cross, and had her goods turned away for being too small in scale. When she met us at the Sichuan Provincial Hygiene Information Research Center, another collecting point for aid, she was tired of rejections. And yet the center appeared unexcited about her donations. Her receipts were not in order. They didn’t want to deal with foodstuffs or mosquito repellent. They suggested she go deliver it to the distressed regions herself, but the roads are closed to individual volunteers and she has no car anyway. “I don’t understand,” said Jiao Na. “I hear all these people in Sichuan appealing for help. I come up here and nobody wants it. If you don’t want this stuff, why do you ask for it? I just think it’s really weird.” And Jiao Na burst into tears.

DART, if dispatched to China, would most likely find itself in a chaotic logistics position which would probably easily null it’s effectiveness and place a burden on already stressed local efforts.

I suspect that such migrations by Samaritans were also present in New York City and in New Orleans and any other disasters experienced in other parts of the world.

But having travelled through that area in 2006 and I know how nasty the terrain is. Don’t fool yourselves…this place is not an interstate serviced major urban area of North America. The roads located in the mountains, while well constructed, are not much larger than a lane and half and any obstruction will back up traffic for kilometers and stall it for hours. I don’t need to tell you that these roads are not exactly in tip-top conditions at the moment. Combine that with 5 million people trying to get out and 130,000 soldiers and relief workers trying to get in and you have a fairly decent snap-shot of why people like Jiao Na are not wanted there, despite their best intentions and supplies, and will just add to the general bedlam.

I read another article regarding a group of Chongqing motor-club members loading up their cars and driving to Chengdu to help out and I’m sure that acts going beyond donation are happening a lot in China – which is amazing to see, given that under normal circumstances, individual acts of samaritanism are essentially absent.

These events are all centered within an internet age where information (and rumors) move fast and are surrounded by a population that is easily rallied and easily motivated. In some ways, it has inadvertently provided me with a different perspective on media control. I am in no way a loosing my belief in free media, but in the case of China, the Sichuan earthquake has really opened my eyes to how easily people can be influenced by the media into action (be it true or false)…but that is another post.

Naturally, everyone wants to do something, but reading about these situations I sense a slight naivety among many who are possibly over-confident regarding their assistance abilities. Everyone can help, but not everyone is an asset in a disaster zone. Not everyone can help with their hands. Certain skills are required and Jiao Na found the deadly logic of disaster triage when told that her supplies were too little to justify attention. I mentioned before that this earthquake represents the first major tragedy directly felt by the new generation of Chinese. As my friend commented that they all remember Tangshan, but this would be the first direct experience in a disaster climate in which information, stories, accounts, images and video is all accessed easily, through many different mediums, and around the clock. I suspect that all of this stimuli is incredibly overwhelming and is instilling a sense of helplessness in many.

As a disclaimer I would say that while I too have never experienced a true disaster, I have had some exposure (my father moonlighted as a forest fire-warden) to some large forest fires in Canada which helped develop a sense of appropriate action in a disaster situation and what an individual can and cannot do to assist. Also, believe it or not, my small-amount of first aid training also really uncovered me to the limits of an individual when placed in an emergency situation. It is not much experience, but I know when I am an asset and I know when I am a liability.

(the photos are actually from an area to the west of the Wenchuan epicenter, but I traversed that region on my way to Siguniangshan. The terrains are similar in many aspects).

Second installment of Everest (Nepal) photos are online.

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