Wenchuan Earthquake in retrospect

Two weeks from now is the one year anniversary of the deadly 8-magnitude earthquake that jolted China’s Sichuan province and took away nearly 70,000 people’s lives. May 12 outstands in the calendar in a sad red. It’s time for a sum-up, not with tears but with sober retrospect.

Government: People First

No matter right after the quake or the in following reconstruction work, the Chinese government always puts people at the top of its agenda.

Only two hours after the devastating earthquake on May 12 last year, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao flew to Chengdu, the nearest city to the epicenter Wenchuan County, and mobilized more than 100,000 people to rescue the victims.

Salute to the 14,000 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers, along with more than 48,000 medical-care workers who toiled around the clock to rescue people trapped in the debris after the deadly earthquake. The instruction they received was as long as there are survivors, they shouldn’t give up digging. According to the vice governor of Sichuan Province Li Chengyun, nearly 84,000 people were pulled out of the debris.

Miracles did happen due to the rescuers’ persistence. An 80-year-old partially paralyzed man, Xiao Zhihu, was pulled alive from the rubble 266 hours after the big tremor hit.

Quake victims were always put in the limelight. Their health concerned the top government. Hospitals were timely mobilized for treating patients to mass vaccinations for preventing disease outbreaks.

Ministry of Health spokesman Mao Qun'an said during an online interview on www.gov.cn in early June last year “Water and food safety, proper hygiene at shelters, and the disposal of dead bodies and garbage remain the top priorities.”

When rescues found out that a threatening 200 million cubic meter Tangjiashan quake lake which overlooks Mianyang, about 70 meters above the city. An evacuation team whose mission was to transfer the residents menaced by second disasters was formed before the looming flood season.

In the following combat-like month, headlines concerning quake victims were prevalent in Chinese newspapers. Major website for victims to find their missing relatives was set up and warmth permeated between people known or unknown.

Policies also lean to the quake-affected victims preferentially. Parents who were crippled in the earthquake have been given the right to have another child. Those whose only child was seriously wounded in the quake can also have another. This is against the backdrop of China’s fundamental One Child Policy.

Humanity sparks, continually.

Helping hands all around

Chinese donations for the quake-stricken zone, including those from Chinese companies, have exceeded 100 billion (US$14.64 billion) yuan, according to Liu Jing, vice chairman of the China Association of Social Workers.

International community offered all kinds of help, ranging from sending rescue teams to the frontline to offering donations both in money and goods continually. The Chinese government discarded ideological differences and embraced international aid, which earned it applause in stark contrast with the self-concealed Myanmar government after the cyclone which also occurred in May.

The Armenian government has donated 100,000 U.S. dollars in aid, while the Rwandan government has sent 50,000 dollars. Equatorial Guinea has donated 1 million euros (about 1.55 million U.S. dollars) for those affected by the quake, according to CCTV—a stated owned TV station.

The donations seem to be well-managed so far. No daring embezzlement was found against the tight regulation of the government. Ministry of Civil Affairs sent up a database online to monitor the quake donations, which strengthened the transparency of the donations.

Since the disaster, every needy survivor has been eligible to receive 10 yuan and 500 grams of food a day. In the state’s new subsidy plan each survivor experiencing financial hardship could get 200 yuan (US$29) per month.

One hundred days after the disaster, survivors have seen their new permanent residences being built in southwest Sichuan Province. The state vows to finish the reconstruction work by 2010.
A survey of 548 people conducted by Horizon Research Consultancy Group, found that quake-affected residents were 98.8 percent satisfied with the central government and 96.8 percent with volunteers.

Official’s death: a grey area

Despite the high profile achievements in the after-quake efforts, there’s still a grey area crying for more attention. It is enlarged by the suicide of a Beichuan official, Feng Xiang.

Feng Xiang, 33, vice director of the public affairs department, hanged himself on April 20 this year. His 7-year-old son was killed in last year’s massive earthquake.

Because of his job, Feng had to accompany inspectors to the reconstruction site and inevitably had to recount the earthquake over and again. The loss of the beloved etched in his heart in the process of retelling.

In preparation for the anniversary, Feng was assigned to work out a brochure commemorating the earthquake. The trauma-revealing assignment was believed to precipitate his suicide.

Feng’s case doesn’t stand alone. An acquaintance of Feng, Dong Yufei, 40, the agriculture commission head and disaster relief office director of Beichuan who also lost his 12 year-old-son and other relatives in the quake, hanged himself in October.

Experts attribute both suicides of the quake-zone officials to their psychological trauma that haven’t been effectively treated. These offficials dived into their respective work with subtle psychological troubles.

The mental health of quake victims once more triggered off heated debates. It should be noted that the problem of psychological health was brought up right from the beginning of reconstruction work but somehow efforts to redress it didn’t suffice.

An article published by the China Youth Daily was titled “They came and they gone, all like wind”. It depicts a vivid picture of the psychological counseling volunteers. Liu Meng is a senior psychological counselor who led a volunteering team ,“National Psychological Aid League”, to Dujiangyan—a city hit by the quake. Two months later, he was the lone fighter. His teammates left in succession with various reasons.

Liu has spent more than 100,000 yuan out of his own pocket to carry on his counseling work in Dujiangyan. He said the volunteers left not due to lack of love for the victims, but because there wasn’t a well-conducted volunteer system. Those volunteers came more pricked by passion than by belief, so they were likely to be discouraged facing the dysfunctional volunteer mechanism.

There may be more Feng Xiang-like victims out there. The real question is: How to help them. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can lurk for a long time span. The effort of psychological counseling shouldn’t be let loose in any second.

Victims are not likely to seek counselling themselves. Psychological counselors have to find those hidden Feng Xiang, in another one year and in the years to come.