The HR officer at MSF called me on the 12th of November in the morning and asked if I was available to go to the Philippines. I left the same night. It was all so quick - I did not have much time to prepare my bags, let alone to mentally prepare for what I was going to see.
But I do not know if it is possible to mentally prepare. You have to be open. All that I knew was that it was not going to be easy.
One of the most astonishing things is that even though people are suffering, even though they have lost everything, they are still functioning and still smiling. They are still going. There have even been times over the last week when we have met people and we have offered help and they have said no.
I arrived in Manila and then flew the next day to Roxas City on Panay Island. Firstly, I went with the teams to carry out some assessments on the eastern coast of Panay, the area on this island most affected by the typhoon. In some of the places we visited, up to 95% of the homes were destroyed. It was devastating to see. Most of these villages are fishermen’s villages, and the houses were constructed from bamboo. There was no way they could survive the force of the typhoon. The saddest thing is that the people have completely lost their livelihoods – their boats were destroyed so there is no way for them to maintain their business.
I’ve been surprised and humbled that even in the face of this, the people in the villages were so happy to see us. They were welcoming and they were shaking our hands, always with a smile. It has been so impressive to see how they have the capacity and the willingness to build their lives back together only days after they have been torn apart.
We are now based in Estancia and we are carrying out mobile clinics from here. We’ve got three teams who go to a different location each day, trying to reach the more remote locations where people have not seen help yet. There used to be eight health centres in Estancia, now there is only one, and it is stretched to the limit.
Yesterday, we went to a village about ten minutes drive from Estancia. It was completely destroyed. People cannot even walk to the main health centre in Estancia. There are trees everywhere and they have essentially been cut off. We set up in the destroyed former health clinic and received a lot of patients. It was non-stop and people were happy to see us arrive. Today was the same, we went to another remote village and the patients did not stop coming. It is clear that there is a massive need. As MSF, we are not going to save the whole country, but many people are currently without medical care and we will try to fill that gap until services are restored.
We are mainly treating respiratory infections, and we’ve also seen some patients with diarrhoea. Without proper shelter and being exposed to the elements, a lot of people have colds and fevers, especially the kids. We are also seeing people who have been affected mentally by the typhoon. They will present with physical symptoms that you can’t really pinpoint, but often we see that this indicates psychological distress. It’s common to see this after such a traumatic event, so psychological care is going to become an important part of our program.
In some remote places where MSF teams arrived 9 days after Haiyan, villagers told them they were the first aid to reach the locality. Panay Island, 17th November ©MSF
We are working alongside the Filipino Ministry of Health staff, who have been so generous with their time and their insights. They have been kind and open and the cooperation is impeccable. One of the nurses has been working since the day after the typhoon and she hasn’t stopped since. She has also been going through the trauma herself. She has nightmares, she does not sleep so well, and she is clearly affected by what happened and what she has lost. It is remarkable that she continues every day, that she still wants to give everything to her people. We know that many of the Filipino staff we are working with will have experienced the trauma of the typhoon, and we are offering psychological care to them as part of our program.
Working with the international MSF staff has also been great. We are all very different personalities, as is often the case in MSF, but we get along. It is so impressive to see an emergency team swing into action, everything happens so fast. This is the first time I have worked in an emergency, and it has been superb to learn from all of the people who have so much experience working in these kinds of environments.
The Filipinos have been through hell and back but I have only seen strength in the past week. That has been incredible to witness. They are able to see the positive in everything, and are ready to rebuild their lives. This place is affected by storms on a regular basis, so maybe it is normal to have this ability to move on quickly. But this is devastation on such a massive scale – their resilience is nothing short of extraordinary.