Amid the bombs, airstrikes, guns, and blood that knowingly paint the unfortunate picture of the ongoing war in Marawi, an effect more crucial than the havoc is being overlooked.
Improvised beds made with piles of food cartons topped with deteriorating blankets, spaces so insufficient two to four persons need to shift for some shut eye, and bags and boxes lined up on the side that might signify what they all have left after the war is done and over.
Imagine those scenarios a hundred times, and what you see will take you to the familiar set-ups of schools and barangay gymnasiums in Marawi today. Shoulders, heads, and feet meeting with just an inch of a move are the catalysts of the war-torn city’s overlooked fight—declining public health.
“The displaced are living in public gymnasiums and classrooms. These are not places equipped to function as evacuation centers or temporary shelters. There are no appropriate sanitation facilities and access to clean water is limited,” said Zia Alonto Adiong, spokesperson for the Joint Task Force Marawi.
Though there are 350,000 displaced citizens as recorded by the Department of Social Welfare and Development, only 20,000 sought refuge in the safety centers provided by the government. The remaining chose to stay in their relatives near the city.
So how is public health becoming an utmost concern in all this? The designated safe zones are slowly turning into dangerous havens as the victims are becoming more exposed to health risks due to a war they should not even be a part of.
The Department of Health reported 31 deaths (including infants) in the evacuation centers since the armed conflict between government forces and ISIS-inspired Maute group sparked almost two months ago. However, health rescuers and volunteers say that these numbers are underreported.
According to the spokesperson of the Ranao Rescue Team, Samira Gutoc, this information should not be the basis of the status of the evacuees as the data was only retrieved from 80 evacuation centers. The refugees staying with relatives have not been included in the survey.
“We are seeing a chain reaction. The evacuees are not getting the proper nutrition intake so their immune systems are weakened and they are getting sick. Some are dying,” Adiong said.
Canned food and instant noodles are said to be the meal plans for the evacuees. Not much choice is given to them as being cramped in the gymnasiums leave a little space for proper cooking, forcing them to settle on a diet with insufficient nutrition.
Canned goods, according to the Women’s Health Magazine, use Bisphenol or BPA, a plastic coating used to keep the food inside the can, fresh. However, “BPA is a toxic chemical that causes hormone imbalances and wide variety of health issues ranging from hypertension, aggression, obesity to cancer, and heart disease.”
Furthermore, a South Korean study showed that instant noodles can trigger diseases like metabolic syndrome, diabetes, high blood pressure, hypertension, and heart problems due to the food’s high sodium level, unhealthy saturated fat, and glycemic loads.
The DOH report validates this as there are currently over 3,000 cases of upper respiratory infection, diarrhea, hypertension, and fever among the evacuees.
Moreover, the effects of the war are not only bounded on physical health. The results of the psychosocial evaluations show that the victims have been displaying low to high levels of stress, fear, and phobia, with some even showing early signs of schizophrenia.
“Some evacuees have lost loved ones. Some have loved ones who are still trapped in the war zone. Some report being awakened by memories of bombing and gunfire,” said Dr. Alinader Minalang, a health officer in Lanao del Sur.
This is taking a toll on the victims as their levels of anxiety are at an all-time high, stressing the need for more mental health specialists in the city. Even more so, a much needed discussion on the bizarre topic.
Minalang added, “Many worry about their loss of livelihood and are afraid that they will have nothing to go back to after the war. The high level of stress and anxiety is really affecting their mental state.”
Being an uncommon discussion (paired with stereotypes e.g. mental hospital = baliw) in the country, the victims facing the illnesses refuse to seek diagnosis and treatment due to the stigma.
With the nearest mental health professional a hundred kilometers away, particularly in Cagayan de Oro city, Minalang said the country is “really unprepared to handle a disaster of this magnitude.”
Aside from anxiety, the most common mental health illnesses experienced by the victims of war are Post-traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD and depression.
Recently, the Syrian-American Medical Society coined a new term, Human Devastation Syndrome, to describe the effects of the Syrian civil war that go beyond the symptoms of PTSD.
“The unprecedented violence in Marawi has caused tens of thousands of families to flee, leaving everything behind. This has triggered a sharp increase in humanitarian needs as many of the displaced people are currently deprived of fundamental means to sustain their day-to-day lives,” said Pedro-Luis Rojo, head of the Asia office of the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations.
International aid has been pouring from all borders since the war began. As of writing, the United States, the European Union, Australia, South Korea, and India were reported to have extended needed assistance to the war-torn city.
But even with present aid tantamount to the needs of the displaced, the decline on the city’s healthy physical and mental state will increase if the war will fail to arrive at a permanent halt.
While we are discussing the political and economic effects, public safety, and the ruins, the country will always have a scratch of the fallen heroes and the displaced – all victims of a pointless drive to acquire power through an act of terror.
PHOTO FROM ABS-CBN NEWS SOURCE