Three Disaster Myths Busted

The ‘myths’ that the mass media relies on for those attention-grabbing headlines after the impact of a disaster, are generally found by studies to be largely unfounded. The media would have us believe that disasters are truly exceptional events but the reality is that they are a normal part of daily life and in very many cases, are repetitive events.

Here are three common assumptions that news reporters can rely on for sensationalism; yet time and time again turn out to be non-existent, or a very minor part of the event.

1. Myth: that panic and looting will be commonplace and that disasters usually give rise to widespread, spontaneous occurrences of antisocial behaviour.

Myth-Busted: Looting is rare and limited in scope. It mainly occurs when there are underlying preconditions such as when a community is already deeply divided. Generally, disasters are characterized by great social solidarity, generosity and self-sacrifice, perhaps even heroism. The recent explosion in Texas, USA is a prime example of a community coming together for the common good, in the face of adversity.

2. Myth: that unburied bodies are a threat to public health and that disease will be the secondary disaster.

Myth-Busted: Despite the scientific evidence, the belief that dead bodies spread disease remains a chronic problem in disaster relief efforts. The mass media will publish alarming news about the risk of massive disease outbreaks, and authorities then rush to bury bodies in mass graves. This adds to people's anguish and to the chaos. It becomes one more blow to the affected population. The microorganisms that are involved in decomposition are not the kind that causes disease. Most viruses and bacteria that do cause disease cannot survive more than a few hours in a dead body. Most victims of natural disasters die of trauma, drowning or burns rather than infection and victims are no more likely to carry infectious agents than survivors. Basically - someone who died without cholera isn't going to produce it after they're dead. Basic health precautions that applied prior to the disaster are still good measures to prevent the spread of disease after a disaster.

3. Myth: Any kind of aid and relief is useful after disaster including used clothing and large quantities and assortments of medicines, providing it is supplied quickly enough. Therefore, in order to manage a disaster well, it is necessary to accept all forms of aid that are offered.

Myth-Busted: Hasty and ill-considered relief initiatives tend to create chaos. Only certain types of assistance, goods, and services will be required. Not all useful resources that existed in the area before the disaster will be destroyed. Donation of unusable materials consumes resources of that could more effectively used to reduce the toll of the disaster. It is better to limit offers of donations to goods and services that are actually needed in the disaster area. Clothing donations for instance, often leads to accumulations of huge quantities of useless garments that victims cannot or will not wear. The only medicines that are needed are those used to treat specific diseases, have not reached their use-by date, and can be properly identified in terms of their pharmacological content. Any other medicines are, not only useless, but potentially dangerous.