Philippine Red Cross volunteers empower communities to prevent the spread of disease

The Philippines is one of the most disaster-prone countries in South East Asia, hit each year by an average of 20 typhoons and related hazards such as floods and landslides that leave a trail of destruction in their wake.

In December 2011, Tropical Storm Washi hit the northern coast of Mindanao Island, killing 1,400 people and damaging almost 40,000 homes. A year on, in December 2012, Typhoon Bopha swept across the island of Mindanao claiming lives and affecting millions of people.

In response to these deadly disasters, Red Cross-trained community health volunteers reached out to affected persons in the hardest hit provinces.

Luz Hulgin, a 37-year-old mother living in Iligan city, says that in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Washi, they did not have enough water or access to toilets; she would dig a hole anywhere and let her children defecate.

She attended weekly hygiene promotion sessions where Red Cross volunteers talked about good hygiene practices, the importance of sanitation and ways to manage solid waste.

“We learned a lot from the sessions,” Luz says, “we know that we will be the ones who will suffer from the consequence, if we don’t practise the behaviours we learned about.”

She now realizes that the children kept poor health in the past because waste was disposed of anywhere. “The vegetables we ate from our garden were located near areas where we dispose our rubbish and other waste. Because of the sessions we had with Red Cross, we learned what we’ve been doing was wrong,” she says.

Owing to poor waste management practices, residents found themselves wading through rubbish during the floods. The Philippine Red Cross Society worked together with communities to improve the local drainage system. They also rehabilitated hand pumps and wells to increase the communities’ access to safe water.

Since Washi, the Red Cross has been undertaking a range of water and sanitation relief and recovery interventions that have benefitted at least 20,000 households in Iligan and Cagayan de Oro. Hygiene promotion – which also takes place in schools – latrine construction and cash-for-work programmes have engaged communities from project design to final implementation.

Merylin Inongan is among the thousands whose home was damaged or destroyed by the second Typhoon Bopa in 2012 and now lives in a ‘tent city’.

Merylin works as one of the hundreds of community health volunteers who have been mobilized by the Philippine Red Cross to conduct health and hygiene promotion sessions. She is trusted by the community and can communicate easily with them since she speaks the two dialects – Bislayn and Manday – used in Compostela Valley. Every morning, she shares health education messages with her friends and neighbours and explains how the Red Cross is conducting relief distributions.

“There is a sense of relief when I speak with my community members,” Meryln says. “Many of us are still traumatized by what we experienced when Typhoon Bopha hit our town, but we know things will get better and we will recover from this crisis.”

“Training for this position with the Philippine Red Cross makes me feel very useful, and I am happy to contribute as a volunteer,” she says.

The Secretary General of the Philippine Red Cross Society, Ms Gwendolyn Pang, highlights the importance of investing in primary healthcare, first aid and emergency health preparedness.

“We train community health workers on various health issues, through the community-based health and first aid (CBHFA) approach,” she explains.

“Volunteers play a crucial role as health promoters. They are the link between health systems and communities – before, during and after disasters. Without volunteers, it would not be possible to deliver essential services or reach universal health coverage,” Ms Pang concludes.