Helping children cope with distress from Taal Volcano eruption

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Evacuees from active volcano Taal rest at a school in Santa Teresita, Batangas province, southern Philippines on Thursday Jan.16, 2020. Taal volcano belched smaller plumes of ash Thursday but shuddered continuously with earthquakes and cracked roads in nearby towns, which were blockaded by police due to fears of a bigger eruption. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

Evacuees from active volcano Taal rest at a school in Santa Teresita, Batangas province, southern Philippines on Thursday Jan.16, 2020. Taal volcano belched smaller plumes of ash Thursday but shuddered continuously with earthquakes and cracked roads in nearby towns, which were blockaded by police due to fears of a bigger eruption. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

MANILA, Philippines — Thousands of villagers near Taal Volcano were forced to leave their homes and livestock in Batangas province after the volcano first belched lava on Sunday (Jan. 12) afternoon.

But even while taking refuge in evacuation centers, victims still need to cope with uncertainty and distress that they experience amid a natural disaster. This is most especially to children, who are considered the most vulnerable during natural disasters as per a 2017 survey result from Harvard Humanitarian Initiative Program on Resilient Communities.

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The Harvard survey showed that 52.3 percent said their children are the most vulnerable to disasters.

Figures from Save the Children, a non-government organization, showed that more than 124,000 children, who are residents of municipalities located 14 kilometers radius danger zone of Taal Volcano, are staying at evacuation centers.

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In a statement, the child advocacy group expressed concern over thousands of children at evacuation centers, who could not return to their schools, “face hunger and disease due to unsanitary and cramped evacuation centers.”

Wilma Bañaga, Save the Children’s child protection adviser, said children will always experience distress as they would be uncertain for their future due to the ongoing unrest of Taal Volcano.

“There is no certainty at all as to what is happening in the future. [They will ask] ‘Are they gonna be able to go back to their homes?’” Bañaga told INQUIRER.net in an interview in Quezon City.

“In some cases, hindi alam kung ano mangyayari with the volcanic eruption and there are some speculations na kapag sumabog and it is going to be devastating baka some [residents living in Taal Island] areas hindi na makabalik sa kanilang bahay,” she added.

(Victims would not know what would happen during a volcanic eruption and there are some speculations that if the volcano would erupt again it is going to be devastating and this would cause some residents to never return to their homes if the volcano continues to act up.)

Bañaga said children’s anxiety would also worsen as they would think of their source of livelihood and future in education.

After distress from disasters, children would “regress on their behavior” such as wetting the bed during nighttime, Bañaga explained.

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Other children’s signs of distress due to natural disasters include inability to sleep, inability to eat and become constantly clingy to their parents.

“All these signs of distress can be seen in these emergencies. These are the things we need to address. Not all people think about these when they do response,” Bañaga said in Filipino.

“People need to understand this is how the child showing distress and what we can do to help the child is providing comfort,” she added.

To help address children’s distress in evacuation centers, Bañaga laid down some tips or guidance for parents, local government units and other stakeholders.

Give children a sense of normalcy

It is important to create a “sense of normalcy” among children in evacuation centers to ease the distress that the children are experiencing amid the Taal Volcano blast, Bañaga said.

To create a sense of normalcy, Bañaga said bringing toys and other forms of entertainment for the children is helpful. Allowing children to talk with their fellow kids in the center will also ease anxiety.

“‘Yung nagdadala ng toys and entertainment sa bata malaking tulong, you want to establish normalcy after a situation like this [Bringing toys and entertainment to children is a big help if you want to establish normalcy after a situation like this.],” she said.

“Nakakatulong makabawas yung distress ay yung na-re-resume ‘yung daily routine sa buhay. [It would help to lessen their distress to resume the daily routine of their lives.],” she added.

Bañaga, however, advised that children should not receive toys that are difficult to clean because dirty toys could become a health risk for victims. It is advisable to give good story books to children, she added.

“Hindi kami namimigay ng stuffed toy kasi walang tubig sa evacuation centers kasi kapag nadumihan tapos maging health risk. [We are not giving away stuffed toys because there is usually a shortage of water in evacuation centers because if the toys become dirty, they pose health risks to children],” she said.

Setting up temporary learning spaces in evacuation centers where children, especially for those who stopped going to schools. Child-friendly learning spaces can be placed in small corridors in evacuation centers where facilitators can conduct storytelling for children.

Safety, psychosocial services

Bañaga said local government units must ensure that evacuation centers are safe for evacuees, noting that individuals entering the centers must be monitored.

“Pwede rin sila pagsamantalahaan ng mga taong may masamang balak. [Evacuees might get abused by people with bad intensions]. Maaaring maabuso ng mga traffickers [They might get abused by human traffickers.],” she said.

She advised village watchmen (barangay tanod) and other government officials to look after the victims taking refuge in evacuation centers.

Psychosocial support must also be offered in evacuation centers especially to children who are already diagnosed with mental illness, said Bañaga.

“Merong iba na mas nangangailangan ng professional support [There are others who are in need of professional support] to talk to a psychologist or psychiatrist. Lalo na kung before the disaster happened meron na silang existing mental health condition. [Especially, those who already have an existing mental health condition.],” she said.

Information dissemination

Bañaga noted that information dissemination is necessary in evacuation centers as victims of the volcanic eruption tend to ask a lot of questions about their safety.

Setting up an information desk in evacuation centers to explain facts about volcanic eruption will help ease children’s distress brought by the natural disaster, Bañaga said.

“Make information to the family about what’s happening about what we should be expecting. It is difficult for these people to have uncertainty,” she said in mixed Filipino and English.

The information desk will also help parents to answer their children’s queries as some parents might be bombarded with questions.

Bañaga said local government units should also help in providing information to facilitators in information desks as evacuees might ask questions that can only be accessed by the government.

“Halimbawa, ‘yung facilitators namin tinatanong, ‘kailan po ba kami babalik sa amin?’ [Some facilitators are being asked when are we going to return to our homes?] Sometimes, we don’t have that kind of information as well because that is the decision of the local government unit,” she said.

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