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Editorial: After Japan rain disaster, COVID-19 prevention must be balanced with recovery

Local authorities in areas devastated recently by torrential rains focused in the Kyushu region in southwestern Japan are restricting volunteers for the recovery effort to those from their own prefectures and surrounding areas to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Some affected regions, however, have seen a shortage of manpower when it comes to cleaning up damaged houses and buildings or engaging in other recovery work. In Kumamoto Prefecture, which was hit hardest by the recent downpours, over 8,000 houses were damaged. Many people are still staying at evacuation centers, raising concerns about the impact of their prolonged stays on their physical and mental health.

If the current situation is left unaddressed, it may hinder recovery and reconstruction of those regions.

Restrictions on the scope of disaster volunteers follow guidelines released by the Japan National Council of Social Welfare over the management of volunteer centers in disaster-affected regions amid the coronavirus crisis.

The guidelines recommend measures such as requiring volunteers to report their health status before joining recovery efforts, as well as introducing a pre-registration system to prevent volunteer centers being overrun by crowds of people.

Certainly, it is essential to take preventive measures against virus transmissions. But there is also a need to create a system in which the national and local governments, volunteer groups and other parties join hands to enable disaster areas to receive broader assistance while ensuring safety.

One option could be to accept volunteers from other prefectures if they are able to serve as volunteer leaders. It is advisable to make use of the knowledge and skills of experienced volunteers.

Authorities could also expand the scope of volunteer recruitment to neighboring prefectures while placing limits on the number of volunteers who are engaged in operations involving frequent contact with disaster victims.

Some people suggested that volunteers from outside disaster-hit prefectures be accepted on condition that they undergo polymerase chain reaction tests in advance. However, it is impossible for the affected authorities alone to conduct such testing. It is necessary to look at methods to assist this process, examining which parties will implement such testing and shoulder the costs.

As Japan's population decreases and ages, self-help and mutual assistance in times of disasters are no longer viable options. Meanwhile, it has been pointed that public assistance by authorities can only go so far. Volunteers have increased their presence amid such social changes.

Nevertheless, relying on volunteers amid the coronavirus resurgence has its own limits. Authorities should take this opportunity to review how public assistance should look, while reinforcing mutual assistance systems among local bodies, among other options.

While an end to the coronavirus pandemic is nowhere in sight, no one knows where other disasters, such as typhoons and earthquakes, will hit next in Japan.

It is vital to develop an environment where we can provide support for early reconstruction of people's livelihoods in the wake of a disaster while preventing a further spread of infections.

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