UNICEF chief gets an up-close look at response efforts in the Philippines
by Marissa Aroy
TACLOBAN, Philippines, 16 December 2013 – Five weeks after Typhoon Yolanda left its trail of destruction, UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake visited the Philippines to see first-hand the progress of relief efforts and to meet families still struggling to cope with the damage – both physical and emotional.
"The devastation still is incredible, sort of like the devastation I saw in Sendai in Japan after the tsunami," Mr. Lake said. "Just horrible, and yet wherever you go, the people are not just smiling, but they’re working together."
Nearly 4 million people remain displaced from their homes, including around 102,000 people living in 384 evacuation centres. UNICEF emergency response for typhoon-affected areas includes support for education, child protection, nutrition, health, and water, sanitation and hygiene.
"We have to keep working"
Mr. Lake spoke privately with children and families during visits to Tacloban and Guiuan, two of the areas hardest hit. "What's interesting is when you talk in greater depth with the children, they start out smiling, and then something will trigger very fresh memories of loss, and their faces crumple, and they start crying, so they're not over it yet," said Mr. Lake. "And this is very strong evidence of why we have to keep working here."
According to the Department of Education, the typhoon damaged 3,375 schools, 87 per cent of them in the regions of Eastern and Western Visayas.
At the Tacloban Convention Center, now an evacuation site housing 460 families, three UNICEF tents have been put up on the Convention Center grounds: a temporary learning space holding informal classes in the morning and afternoon, a child-friendly space for children to play and learn, and a parent/baby-friendly tent to give mothers a calm space to breastfeed, play and bond with their babies away from the crowded sites where they live.
Across the areas affected by the typhoon, UNICEF has established 193 temporary learning spaces, which serve around 20,000 students, and has provided 50,000 children with school supplies. In partnership with Save the Children, UNICEF has also supported the Government's gradual reopening of schools, with a 'soft' back-to-school launch starting on 2 December. A full reopening of schools is projected for January.
In Guiuan, a coastal town in the province of Eastern Samar, Mr. Lake gave polio drops to a 2-month-old baby during a vaccination campaign held by the Philippines Department of Health (DOH). The DOH, in collaboration with UNICEF and the World Health Organization, has vaccinated more than 35,000 children against polio and measles. A mass vaccination campaign is targeting 1.1 million children across the affected area.
In order to transport the vaccines, partners have been re-establishing the cold chain, the system of refrigerated transport for keeping vaccines viable from manufacturer to patient. The vaccination campaign also screens children under 5 for malnutrition and provides vitamin A supplements.
Eager to learn
At a UNICEF temporary learning tent at Eastern Central Elementary school, also an evacuation centre, Mr. Lake asked 12-year-old Jeka Lascano if she preferred playing or studying. She explained why studying was more important to her than playing: "I want to study, because if I'm home, then nothing would happen [with my life], so I want to study, so that anywhere I go, I can do something."
Mr. Lake then asked her what she'd like to do. She replied, "Teacher."
Parents, teachers and Government officials also showed their dedication and enthusiasm, discussing the education needs of their children with Mr. Lake.
"Let me thank all of you for doing so much for the thing that we do also, and that is trying to help these wonderful children," he said to them. "I'm always impressed with how these children want to study, as you said, so that someday you can do what you want to do. And that's good for the children, and that's good for the whole community."