The statistics coming from Haiti now are like telephone numbers, numbing our sense of scale.
Two million people needing food; up to 800,000 people living in transitional shelter; up to 4000 temporary classrooms needed; some 240,000 pregnant and lactating women requiring nutritional support. This is the measurement of human misery. Yet, underneath this horror, we know we have been here before. And we must continue to learn from previous disasters.
Last night, I came across an excellent report from the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP). Well-researched, it is a catalogue of what has gone wrong in previous mega-quakes. It also provides some instant answers to topical issues – such as the two currently chasing each other through newspaper columns: ‘How many people have died? And how many were injured?’. The answer: there is no rule of thumb – but getting it wrong may mean that you have a lot of under-employed field hospitals on your hands, as happened after the Indian Ocean tsunami.
And then there are the dead. Contrary to popular belief, dead bodies are rarely infectious; but they do pose a more insidious threat. In Aceh, I looked out over the silent, red-earth field that was the final resting place for an estimated 80,000. It had just been covered; and the smell of death was mixed with the smell of freshly-turned soil. In what remained of the city, the collective grief was like an endless, silent scream. On this, the ALNAP report is unequivocal: ‘In dealing with the dead, agencies should give priority to the needs of the living…. the real disease posed by dead bodies is not epidemic disease but the risk of mental illness caused by the lack of closure over the missing.’
I don’t underestimate the size of the challenge. I see that the Haitian government estimates 112,250 dead; how can you deal with this number of bodies? It is inevitable that many have already been consigned to mass graves. What will be important now is the support that the world can give to ease the mental anguish of the survivors.