The mad scramble

published Dec 21, 2011, MST, page 5

Raquel del Rosario-Fortun is new to Twitter. It was her daughter who had convinced her to sign up. Her first tweet, posted on December 11: “Still trying to figure out how it works.” Three days later, she pondered whether the right word was “tweet” or “twit.” “Haven’t finished reading Twitter for Dummies yet.” She also talked about enjoying the UP Lantern Parade.

But it did not take long for the foreign-trained forensic pathologist, who is also a professor at the University of the Philippines College of Medicine, to find something close to her heart to tweet about. On Saturday, December 17, tropical storm Sendong battered Cagayan de Oro, Iligan, Dumaguete and nearby areas, bringing in floodwater and devastation that took the entire nation by surprise. Almost a thousand have been confirmed dead; hundreds more are missing.

As survivors pick up the pieces of their washed-away lives, the more immediate concern is dealing with the sheer number of casualties. What should be done with the corpses piled on the streets? Who’s supposed to be in charge?

Fortun thinks that what’s happening down south shows the inability of our government in dealing with mass disasters. “They are all scrambling. They are always scrambling. This is exactly how it was after the Ozone tragedy,” she says, referring to the fire that razed a disco house in March 1996, claiming 162 lives.

At that time, Fortun had just come back to the Philippines from her studies abroad. Fifteen years ago, she was the only forensic pathologist in the country (now there are two of them, and the other doctor is also in the faculty of the UP pathology department). She was aghast to discover she could not even apply her expertise here because systems lacked the most basic of processes. Still, she volunteered to help the Quezon City government. She then saw how the agents of the state did not act according to established systems, and failed to coordinate their work.

Fast forward to 2011, and nothing much has changed. “We don’t plan; we just react,” she says.

Foremost, it is not clear which agency should be in charge of the dead. Is it the Philippine National Police or the National Bureau of Investigation? There is apparently a “policy” that if the disaster is man-made, it is the police that’s in charge. The NBI takes charge in the event of natural calamities. Given this, the NBI was reported to have sent a 15-man team to Cagayan de Oro. “There are hundreds of dead bodies, each of which must be properly identified. Fifteen people simply cannot do the job,” she says.

Refrigerated trucks would be a good idea. “It would buy the relatives time,” Fortun adds. But of course we’re dreaming—there are no refrigerated trucks. She also wonders what Philippine National Red Cross chairman Richard Gordon means with “dignity “ being given to the dead. Is it gathering them in warehouses until their relatives find them? Putting them in caskets and constructing apartment-type niches for them? “There is no time for the cement to even harden!” she exclaims.

Fortun has a simple yet basic solution: Body bags. Unfortunately, our authorities do not seem to have stacked up on body bags, procuring them only when there is a need to do so. Putting each corpse in a body bag, tagging it (gender, estimated age, clothes worn and perhaps a photograph of the face, if it is not too bloated to be unrecognizable) and then giving it a temporary ground burial, if it could not be refrigerated, would be a better way to handle the dead.

Fortun says she is jobless in her field of expertise; she is employed by the state university to teach. Commenting and criticizing are all she could do in the meantime, but at least she is free to speak her mind. She is especially critical of those who misrepresent themselves as experts when in fact all they have is a position at some agency. Her tweets in the past few days are a mix of practical advice and reactions to the statements of some officials. Here are some more of them:

“Re postponed mass burial: What to do with the dead is now a political issue. Why don’t they try the forensic science approach?”

“There should be a SYSTEM of recovery and post-mortem examination to match with antemortem information.”

“You do NOT store bodies inside warehouses. Keeping the bodies in warehouses for people to claim will not work.”

“How will you produce, procure, transport and bury hundreds of caskets?”

“No coffins, just body bags. No apartment type nichos, just temporary fast ground burial. AND interview relatives for antemortem information.”

“How to manage the dead? SYSTEMATIC recovery, tagging, bagging, postmortem examination.”

“Refrigerate to buy time. No embalming.”

“Dead bodies do not cause epidemics.”

“And you cannot embalm all of them for sure.”

“You do not freeze dead bodies; you refrigerate.”

“Surely, this is not our first mass disaster; we never learn. We still do not know how to handle dead bodies or take care of our dead.”

These all pertain to the dead. After all, Fortun’s Twitter name is “doc4dead”. As for the living, and on what to do so that disasters of this magnitude do not cause as much damage as Sendong just did—that’s another story.

Unfortunately, that story is likely to have the same plot as this one: there is media hype, blame tossing among officials. Maybe because of public pressure, a few things—some ad hoc remedy—will be done. There is a lot of scrambling as if disasters were entirely new to our country. When the next big story hogs the headlines, though, the nation forgets.

That is, until the next calamity comes along. And then, like fools, we scramble all over again.