Mass burials may complicate Philippines Typhoon Haiyan recovery

The rush to bury Philippines dead following Typhoon Haiyan could hinder identification, compensation efforts and the country's grieving process, and will have almost no effect on disease, health organizations say.

Unmarked graves hinder identification and grieving process, have little effect on disease,experts say

Typhoon survivors wait for a flight out of Tacloban, central Philippines Wednesday Nov. 20, 2013. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced by Typhoon Haiyan, which tore across several islands in the eastern Philippines on Nov. 8. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila) (Aaron Favila/The Associated Press)

Filipino firemen and emergency workers have spent the past few days in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan filling hastily dug trenches with hundreds of decomposing bodies.

But aid workers say mass graves can complicate the recovery effort by hindering identification and making it difficult for devastated families to locate possible survivors and grieve. 

Mass burials began after officials became overwhelmed with hundreds of bodies — many of them unidentified — piling up near places like Tacloban city hall, triggering fears among some that the corpses could spread diseases.

But that fear is unfounded, proven false by numerous studies — a fact that the world’s most reputable health and relief organizations repeatedly try to publicize during such disasters.

"The health risk to the public is negligible," said Catherine Marquis, the Canadian Red Cross’s manager of public health and emergencies. "It is a myth actually. Unfortunately, there’s a misunderstanding about the actual impact of dead bodies after a natural disaster."

If fecal matter leaches into water sources, there’s a small risk of diarrhea - less than that caused by the living - but that can be corrected by disinfecting drinking water and removing corpses from water bodies, health authorities say.

In fact, Marquis suggests the belief that dead bodies can cause epidemics of infectious diseases is one of the most significant and damaging disaster myths.

In this case, not only do the mass burials hinder psychological recovery of survivors, it also complicates recovery efforts because rights to property and assets can't be sorted out without proper identification or a lengthy process to declare a missing person dead.

"This really makes the whole process more complicated unnecessarily," said Ali Asgary, coordinator for York University’s disaster and emergency management program.

'Big, open pit'

Often, after disasters, government officials and early responders rush to gather the dead and bury them several layers deep in graves on the outskirts of town.

Survivors watch as cemetery workers in Tacloban place bodies of Typhoon Haiyan victims in a mass grave. (Vincent Yu/The Associated Press)

In an interview over the weekend with CBC-Radio’s Day 6, a Filipino congressman representing an area that includes the badly hit Tacloban city, suggested many still believe it is the proper solution.

"In some municipalities, they just decided to dig a big open pit and throw in the dead," said Ferdinand Martin Romualdez. "It’s a choice between becoming sick and even dying from the imminent spread of disease from the uncollected bodies."

"In a country such as the Philippines, we are predominantly Roman Catholic. We respect the dead," he added. "But this catastrophe has not lent itself to honouring them at this time."

It’s these types of statements that frustrate disaster experts.

The myth of quick burial is wrong "but it’s commonly accepted," said Asgary, and "creates some sort of community and local pressure to do something about it."

In part, the notion endures because most of the early responders in an emergency like this are typically locals rather than disaster relief experts, and because there is often local pressure to clean up the bodies. 

But the International Committee of the Red Cross firmly advises against mass burials following disasters, as does the World Health Organization, saying the act can cause more harm than good.

Rushing to bury the dead makes it harder for survivors and relatives of the deceased to deal with their personal tragedies. Without identification of the body, or knowledge of where it might have been buried, family members don't get closure. Nor can they perform funeral rites.

Also, without identification of bodies, it can take a long time to certify the death of someone considered a missing person in order to transfer properties, pensions and other assets that are needed to rebuild.

So far, the international Red Cross says around 35,000 people within the Philippines and beyond have asked them for help tracing family members who've gone missing since Typhoon Haiyan hit on Nov. 8, killing more than 4,000 people.

In Tacloban, media reports suggest authorities are trying to document whatever information they can about the bodies before bagging them and placing them in a trench. They say the burial is temporary.

Among the information being collected, according to Emmanuel Aranas, deputy director of a police crime lab, is gender, location found, clothing, tissue samples for DNA testing and, where possible, fingerprints. This could help later identification, officials suggest.

However, David Alexander, a professor of risk and disaster reduction at University College London, in the U.K., noted that after the 2004 tsunami hit Southeast Asia, Thai officials resorted to mass burials, then later tried identify the victims only to find that the process was made difficult by the interment.

Interpol announced Tuesday that it is deploying a team, at the request of the Philippines, to help with forensic identification. It's the second disaster where Interpol has helped the disaster-prone country.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has sent a forensic expert to help Filipino authorities properly manage the dead bodies, and said Tuesday that they have now agreed on an emergency plan for doing so, keeping in mind the scarcity of resources.

Mass burials 'rarely warranted'

The WHO does stress that dead bodies need to be moved to a collection point as quickly as possible following a natural disaster to minimize the distress felt at the sight of them, as well as the smell of them decomposing. 

Photos of the deceased should be taken and descriptive information written down for each body as they try to identify them, the Red Cross suggests.

But "burials in common graves and mass cremations are rarely warranted and should be avoided," WHO says in a technical note on emergencies.

If there’s no cool location to store the bodies, some experts suggest that they can be temporarily buried since underground is a lower temperature, providing natural refrigeration.

But the burials should be carefully considered, leaving nearly half a metre between bodies, burying them only one layer deep and marking the position of the bodies at ground level, according to a field guide by the WHO’s Pan-American Health Organization.

The trenches in the Philippines contain bodies packed shoulder to shoulder, sometimes two layers deep, according to reports.

Since the late 1990s, experts have waged campaigns to educate the public and the media about misconceptions involving human remains and disease.

In a 2010 study examining the Haiti earthquake, Alexander found that fewer news outlets are spreading the misconception these days, but it was still easy to find articles that continue to suggest bodies could create epidemics.

In fact, few disasters lead to epidemics. A U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found only eight of 1,000 disasters around the world ended in outbreaks of any sort, and in each case the diseases were already present in the area.

But it’s sometimes hard to educate the public, politicians and journalists in the immediacy of a disaster.

And as Filipino congressman Romualdez noted, both local government and health agencies in the region lost many people to Typhoon Haiyan. 

"In Tacloban, from the mayor all the way to casual employees, not a single family has been spared a tragic loss of life and trauma."


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