Rebuilding God’s Own Country

Although ARMMAN works in the maternal and child health space, when a disaster of this magnitude strikes, everyone comes together. This is the story of ARMMAN’s Sharmila Shanmugasundaram who volunteered for the flood relief efforts in Kerala and witnessed the scale of damage at a personal level.  

When I reached Aluva, a municipality in the northern suburbs of Kochi, on Sunday morning (August 26th), I was heartbroken to see the streets filled with trash comprising damaged household goods. I sighed at the thought of how just three months back I was right there, appreciating the pristine green and blue backwaters. I met my extended family who had 5 feet of water inside the house, damaging everything at home.

That afternoon, I travelled to Chalakudy, a town in Thrissur district, to visit the camp that I had sent relief materials to after raising Rs.75,000 the previous week. After meeting the ward counselor, I went around the streets looking at how badly the houses were affected. While 8 families had lost their homes, most families had suffered damage to their household items – beds, furniture, vessels, clothes, electrical appliances and more.

Later that afternoon, when we went to drop some relief materials at a camp in Karingamthuruth (a small village in North Paravoor), the people residing there recounted their rescue stories. Some of them were rescued by boats from the second storey after their houses were submerged under 12 feet of water. Every house, kutcha or pakka, humble or palatial, was severely damaged, and all belongings including cars and motorbikes were lost. As the people tried moving back to their homes, they were welcomed by a house that had no electricity, food or water and needed weeks of cleaning.

The next week at Ernakulam General Hospital in Kochi was an eye-opener in terms of disaster management. I worked with the post-disaster surveillance team at the district control room to assist in developing surveillance tools and document the events and activities that had taken place from the 14th August until 30th August, including rescue, relief and rehabilitation phases which can potentially be included in disaster management protocols in future.

In the week that saw the evacuation of 55,000 people in Ernakulam district, the Rapid Response Team of Ernakulam General Hospital had worked tirelessly to conduct 116 rescues, including the rescue of the critical patients from flooded hospitals. They had organised rescue operations by airdropping a medical team at the site of a church that had collapsed and become inaccessible even by boat. The team recounted horrifying stories and heartbreaking scenes such as hundreds of people sheltered in suffocating camp halls and being forced to defecate in the open. Things were bad.

In the week that followed, medical and non-medical teams addressed thousands of calls on the helpline and visited hundreds of camps each day. IVRS-based SMSes were sent out to health workers to identify shortage of medical supplies. 58 health facilities in the district were damaged, but the team ensured the continuum of treatment for critical patients while managing the heavily crowded outpatient department.

Tools for the surveillance of communicable and non-communicable diseases were also developed. The three layers of surveillance included an active IVRS system supported by visiting houses to identify and report patients with symptoms of communicable disease, an online reporting system to identify early outbreaks was shared with health facilities and a rapid surveillance for non-communicable and chronic diseases was carried out at the community level using an online application.

There was also an active survey being conducted at the community level to identify water resources and any potential contamination, followed by chlorination of water tankers with NaDCC tablets to ensure safe drinking water. I visited 14 hospitals in the district to enquire about suspected cases of leptospirosis and sensitize the hospital teams about the need for reporting.

Although Ernakulam district has recovered quite early, it is only when I read the newspapers do I realise that places like Kuttanad, Idukki, Chengannur and Wayanad are still in need of relief work. With materials pouring in from all over the country, these places require volunteer support to help with cleaning and setting up homes for people to restart their life. Helplines are receiving several calls from people who are clouded with fear and anxiety and show symptoms of post-traumatic stress. For so many people, a lifetime of savings and investments has been washed away. There is a clear need for psychological intervention, especially for children who may not be vocal about their fears. It’s good to see that most corporates, NGOs and volunteers are constantly reaching out to the affected areas and contributing their best, but we need to do more.

Written by Sharmila Shanmugasundaram, Manager, mMitra

Editor’s Note: During a natural disaster, healthcare facilities and providers are stretched even further than usual. Despite the presence of health centres in the relief camps, very often there are no special provisions for pregnant women, lactating mothers or any post-natal care available.  Pregnancy complications and childbirth in unsafe conditions also increase maternal and infant morbidity and mortality. ARMMAN believes in the tremendous potential of technology to make connections in the time of natural disasters and reverse the detrimental effect of chaotic tendencies and incorrect information. Leveraging technology can make a huge difference in ensuring access to the right information, services, and care.


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