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Many Japan local gov'ts say accepting special needs people at shelters hard amid virus

This April 2011 photo provided by the municipal government of Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, shows a facility designated as a "welfare evacuation center" in this northeastern Japan city following the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.

TOKYO -- About 60% of large local governments in Japan reported that the spread of the novel coronavirus has made it difficult to accept individuals with special needs at "welfare evacuation centers" in the event of disaster, it was revealed in a survey conducted by the Mainichi Shimbun.

    Fifty of 90 major bodies across Japan -- consisting of 47 prefectures, 20 ordinance-designated cities, and Tokyo's special 23 wards -- reported concerns over accommodating the elderly, people with disabilities and others requiring assistance at facilities designated as welfare evacuation centers. There had been calls for an enhancement of the facilities during the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake, which brought about prolonged evacuations and a large number of evacuees. However, many coronavirus cluster infections occurred in care facilities for the elderly this year, and local authorities' concerns have surfaced through the survey.

    Up to around 470,000 people evacuated following the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. There was a shortage in welfare evacuation centers at the time, which gave rise to disaster-related deaths where elderly people and those with special needs who were made to stay in regular evacuation centers could not receive sufficient assistance and died after falling ill. According to a 2012 report by the Reconstruction Agency, people aged 70 and older accounted for around 90% of disaster-related deaths in the three northern Japan prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima. Some 30% of disaster-related deaths were reportedly caused by physical and mental fatigue due to life at evacuation centers.

    The Mainichi Shimbun sent the questionnaire to 90 local governments in August, and obtained responses from all of them. When asked to choose among eight options (while allowing multiple answers) on difficulties that arise when assisting individuals with special needs amid the coronavirus pandemic, 50 local governments selected, "accommodation of evacuees from care facilities for the elderly and the disabled." One reason for this was that "under circumstances where there are limitations on residents of nursing facilities meeting with their families, it is difficult to take in evacuees." The greatest number, or 63 local governments, chose "responding to potential cases where evacuees with special needs become infected," as a task posing difficulty. This was followed by "securing employees to take measures against infectious diseases," selected by 59 local governments.

    The questionnaire also asked each local government the number of people it has estimated to accommodate at welfare evacuation centers in times of disaster, as well as the number of people that the facilities are actually capable of accommodating. As a result, only 20%, or nine of 43 local governments of ordinance-designated cities and Tokyo's special wards, were able to answer both questions. It was also revealed that many local governments have not been able to sufficiently grasp their own needs and facilities' capacity to accommodate individuals.

    According to Yoshiteru Murosaki, head of the Graduate School of Disaster Resilience and Governance at the University of Hyogo, although the number of facilities designated as welfare evacuation centers increased after the Great East Japan Earthquake, space inside the facilities for evacuees and manpower for nursing have been lacking. In addition, accommodating individuals has recently grown difficult due to the novel coronavirus. As long as accommodation at evacuation facilities poses difficulties, plans to implement a system resembling welfare evacuation centers at normal evacuation shelters, as well as organizing available personnel, should be discussed.

    (Japanese original by Shunsuke Sekiya, City News Department)

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