MSF teams providing emergency medical and relief aid, integrating mental healthcare into their activities More than a week after the traumatic events in South Asia and the South Pacific, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) teams are beginning to train local counsellors as well as give direct psychological support to disaster survivors. There were fears of more devastation when a tsunami warning was issued on Thursday morning after earthquakes struck off the coast of the islands of Vanuatu in the South Pacific. In the end there was little damage but there was panic on several islands. In the Samoan islands, part of the population again sought refuge on higher ground. It was only one week after an earthquake and subsequent tsunami which took 137 lives and destroyed many houses.

Counselling by local volunteers in Samoa

“Obviously people are traumatized,” says Veronique de Clerck, emergency coordinator in Samoa for MSF, after spending several days evaluating the area which took the full impact of the tsunami on the southern coast of Samoa. “They have lost all their assets and some people have lost a large number of relatives. There was one family who lost 13 family members. People need time to mourn and to bury their relatives and friends but after a few days, they are probably more ready for counselling.” Psychosocial support is already being delivered, even on a mobile basis in the bush. “There have been a lot of volunteers,” says de Clerck. “Samoans themselves have been putting up their hands and saying they want to help, which is great. However, they lack the experience to address such specific problems.” In the next few days, an MSF psychologist will train a team of Samoan counsellors, who will then be able to offer psychosocial support as well as identify people who need more professional counselling, referring those people to psychologists.

Mourning without corpses in Indonesia

In Indonesia, many people have disappeared and any hope of finding survivors has almost vanished. Bodies are still trapped under the rubble and the relatives are waiting. Marlene Lee, an MSF psychologist, provides support to some families in the most affected areas. “Yesterday we went to Tandikat, one of the most affected areas, in the hills north of Pariaman, where several villages were destroyed by a landslide” explains Lee. “People who have lost family members are still waiting for the bodies to be retrieved.” But because most of the roads have been destroyed it is especially difficult to bring in the heavy machinery needed to search the rubble. People go back to the site each morning and sit the whole day waiting for the search teams. “It’s very important that people are able to give their loved ones proper burials as soon as possible,” says Lee. “A lot of these people are in a difficult state now. Most are still in shock, they are grieving, they have not slept for a long time, they have lost their appetite, and they have many worries about the present and the future. There are a lot of unanswered questions.”

Living in uncertain conditions in the Philippines

There are also urgent worries facing people in the Philippines, some of whom have not yet received adequate aid or are living in difficult conditions. Thousands of people are still sleeping in evacuation centres and some will probably have to wait several weeks before being able to go back to their homes, as some areas are still flooded. “We are still living in this corridor. It’s noisy, is not a place for a family,” one father says in an evacuation centre in Pasig. Next to him, a woman was anxious because her home had been destroyed. “I don’t know what to do,” she said. “I have lost everything.” For people identified as the most vulnerable, MSF is offering primary and mental healthcare, as well as basic relief items and water and sanitation assistance.