More than 170,000 volunteer to help UK fight coronavirus

LONDON (Reuters) – More than 170,000 people have signed up to help Britain’s National Health Service tackle the coronavirus outbreak just hours after a request for a quarter of a million volunteers.

“At times of crisis people come together,” Stephen Powis, the national medical director of NHS England, told BBC TV. “This is a health emergency and we can all play a role.”

Britain had called for 250,000 volunteers to deliver food and medicines, provide transport for patients and supplies, and to telephone those who are becoming lonely because of self isolation.

The system aims to reach up to 1.5 million people who are “shielding” – keeping themselves at home for 12 weeks under government advice to protect those with serious health conditions.

The death toll from coronavirus in the United Kingdom jumped on Tuesday by 87 to a total of 422 – the biggest daily increase since the crisis began.

(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge; editing by Kate Holton)

Volunteers rush to aid survivors after Hurricane Michael

50 Star Search and Rescue team members and volunteers unload a pallet of MREs (Meal, Ready-to-Eat) at a relief center at Fountain's Victory Tabernacle church in Fountain, Florida, U.S., October 18, 2018. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

By Brian Snyder

FOUNTAIN, Fla. (Reuters) – After a fitful night of throbbing abdominal pain, curled up in a ball inside her hurricane-battered home trying to wish away the agony, 21-year-old Angelena Sawyer could barely function, let alone tend to her infant daughter.

Writhing in misery, Sawyer had no idea she was suffering from acute appendicitis. Neither did her parents nor her husband, Jacob Sibilia, fully realize the gravity of the situation as they coped with the larger crisis of surviving the aftermath of a natural disaster.

A week already had passed since Hurricane Michael laid waste to rural Bay County, Florida, leaving Sawyer’s family, like many others, essentially stranded without electricity, phone service or running water. They had little if any gasoline, a 3-month-old to care for, and Sawyer’s stepmother, Jessica Melvin, was suffering from an infected foot injury.

Hurricane Michael survivor Yvette Beasley stands in her front yard during a wellbeing check by a 50 Star Search and Rescue team in Fountain, Florida, U.S., October 17, 2018. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Hurricane Michael survivor Yvette Beasley stands in her front yard during a wellbeing check by a 50 Star Search and Rescue team in Fountain, Florida, U.S., October 17, 2018. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

The turning point was a random visit that day by three disaster volunteers – Zach Smith, John Basehore and Robert Pepper – checking on residents door to door in the sparsely populated Florida Panhandle community of Fountain, northeast of Panama City.

Assessing Sawyer’s condition, they realized she needed immediate medical attention. While Smith cleaned and bandaged Melvin’s foot, his colleagues called the local fire department and arranged for an ambulance to transport Sawyer to the nearest hospital some 30 miles away.

Doctors who treated her later told Sawyer her appendix had nearly ruptured. The intervention of Smith, Basehore and Pepper had likely saved her life.

At least 29 deaths in Florida have been attributed to Michael, which slammed ashore on Oct. 10 as a Category 4 hurricane and the most powerful on record ever to hit the Panhandle region.

50 Star Search and Rescue team member Robert Pepper (L) delivers water to Hurricane Michael survivor Denny Chevillot along the Chipola River in Florida, U.S., October 18, 2018. REUTERS/Brian Snyde

50 Star Search and Rescue team member Robert Pepper (L) delivers water to Hurricane Michael survivor Denny Chevillot along the Chipola River in Florida, U.S., October 18, 2018. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

“If it wasn’t for this crew and these men, I wouldn’t have made it to the hospital,” Sawyer told Reuters in a text message following her ordeal.

The three men, all U.S. military veterans, were part of the volunteer group 50 Star Search and Rescue, one of dozens of such outfits formed during previous flood disasters in Texas and Louisiana and reactivated in Florida when Michael struck.

Many, including 50 Star, operated under the banner of CrowdSource Rescue, a larger Houston-based network that coordinated and supported teams on the ground with thousands of volunteers working remotely around the country.

Specialized technology was a key to their work.

Their search teams relied on a digital application that enables cell phones to operate as walkie-talkie radios, as well as an Uber-like app with global positioning satellite (GPS) map to pinpoint those in distress.

Much of their effort was devoted to searching for people whom loved ones reported missing in the hardest hit shorefront communities of Mexico Beach, Panama City, and Panama City Beach. Teams also fanned out to isolated areas farther inland to deliver meals, water and medical assistance.

The Lama family hold hot meals prepared by Operation BBQ Relief and delivered by a 50 Star Search and Rescue team following Hurricane Michael in Fountain, Florida, U.S., October 17, 2018. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

The Lama family hold hot meals prepared by Operation BBQ Relief and delivered by a 50 Star Search and Rescue team following Hurricane Michael in Fountain, Florida, U.S., October 17, 2018. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Their mission, said Smith, 30, was to “make sure that medically everyone is safe and sound and that people have supplies and that there’s no medical emergencies.”

After 11 days, CrowdSource teams succeeded in locating more than 2,800 people initially unaccounted for – all found alive – and turned over about 30 unresolved cases to local authorities, the group’s co-founder, Matthew Marchetti, told Reuters. The groups served some 4,500 meals to survivors during the past weekend alone, he said.

While reinforcing the strained resources of official search-and-rescue teams, the volunteers worked largely independently of them, Marchetti said.

Valerie Sale, a Bay County emergency management spokeswoman, said an almost total lack of cell phone and internet service that lasted nearly a week prevented coordination with outside volunteers, but “we’re grateful for their efforts, for sure.”

 

(Reporting by Brian Snyder in Fountain, Florida; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; editing by Diane Craft)

Japanese capital holds first North Korean missile attack drill

Participants run during an anti-missile evacuation drill at the Tokyo Dome City amusement park in Tokyo, Japan January 22, 2018.

TOKYO (Reuters) – Tokyo held its first missile evacuation drill on Monday with volunteers taking cover in subway stations and other underground spaces that would double as shelters for the Japanese capital in the event of a North Korean missile strike.

The choreographed evacuations at a fair ground and park ringing the Tokyo Dome baseball stadium involved around 300 volunteers.

Small groups of protesters scuffled with police as they demonstrated against what they criticized as a war game that fanned public fear.

While hope grows that North Korea’s participation in next month’s Winter Olympics in South Korea may help defuse tension in the region, Japan is escalating efforts to prepare its citizens for a possible war.

Tokyo believes the threat posed by Pyongyang’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons development is deepening.

“A missile from North Korea would arrive in less than 10 minutes and the first alert would come about three minutes after launch, which gives us only around five minutes to find shelter,” Hiroyuku Suenaga, a Japanese government official, told volunteers after the Tokyo exercise.

Small Japanese towns and villages have conducted similar drills as North Korea has pushed ahead with its missile and nuclear weapons programs.

North Korea conducted its most recent and biggest nuclear bomb test in September and has tested dozens of ballistic missiles. The latest missile test in November reached an altitude of about 4,475 km (2,780 miles) and flew 950 km (590 miles), passing over Japan before splashing into waters in Japan’s exclusive economic zone.

Pyongyang says its weapons programs are a necessary defense against a possible U.S. invasion.

Amid public concern over the possibility of more missile launches, Japanese public broadcaster NHK issued a false launch alarm urging people to take shelter six days ago. That came days after a similar false alert caused panic across Hawaii.

“I am not that worried about North Korea, if something happened that would be frightening,” said Hidenobu Kondo, one of the volunteer evacuees. However, the 50-year-old company employee said the drill would not be of much use in the event of real attack.

“If I was at work it might be easy to evacuate, but If I was outside somewhere it would be more difficult,” Kondo said.

Japan’s defenses against a ballistic missile strike include Aegis destroyers in the Sea of Japan armed with interceptor missiles designed to destroy warheads in space. PAC-3 Patriot missile batteries represent a last line of defense against warheads that can plunge to their targets at several kilometers per second.

Japan has also decided to buy two land-based Aegis batteries and cruise missiles that could strike North Korean missile sites.

(Reporting by Tim Kelly; Editing by Paul Tait)

In Puerto Rico, lives depend on volunteer doctors and diesel generators

In Puerto Rico, lives depend on volunteer doctors and diesel generators

By Robin Respaut and Nick Brown

OROCOVIS, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – At a community center in Orocovis, an isolated agricultural town of 23,000 in the mountains of central Puerto Rico, six oxygen-dependent patients drew breath with the help of the diesel generator powering their equipment.

Then the generator sputtered as if it might die.

A dozen volunteer doctors and medical students from San Juan started assessing which patient should be transported first – in the town’s only ambulance – to a hospital an hour away, and which could survive without oxygen for a short time.

Javier Sevilla Rodriguez, a medical student, had only one way to make the agonizing decisions. He removed one woman’s oxygen tube, watching carefully to see how her blood-oxygen level responded.

“This is how we are doing triage right now,” he said.

Two weeks after hurricane Maria, many of Puerto Rico’s sick, frail and elderly are teetering on the edge, one faulty generator away from missing dialysis treatments or having critical medications go bad.

With nearly the entire island still lacking electricity, hospitals, clinics, and shelters are operating on aging generators not intended for long-term use and powered by scarce diesel fuel. Water is still not available for nearly half the population and supplies of medicines and oxygen are running low.

And residents still can’t call for help across vast swaths of the island because of widespread cellular network outages.

Many regions in the interior of the island, like this one, are only now seeing relief efforts, amid a plodding U.S. disaster response to this island of 3.4 million American citizens. The U.S. territory’s battered economy and infrastructure has magnified the humanitarian crisis wrought by the strongest hurricane to hit here in nine decades.

In Orocovis, even the sickest patients have gone largely without medical care since the storm. So the doctors worked quickly throughout the day, conferring with caregivers and writing prescriptions they would take back to San Juan to fill and then dispatch by messenger.

Now at the community center, their last stop before leaving town, time ran out.

With a loud clunk, the sounds of humming oxygen machines stopped and were replaced by a chorus of beeps and chirps warning that power had been cut.

The generator had failed.

A CALL FOR DOCTORS

The medical convoy that visited Orocovis is an entirely volunteer operation, organized by physician Carlos Mellado. After Maria hit Puerto Rico on September 20, blocking roads and crippling power and communications networks, Mellado asked other doctors at his clinic to cover for him and threw himself into hurricane relief work.

On the first day, he headed to Canovanas, east of the capital, checking on people at shelters. He promised to fill many patients’ prescriptions and send back the medications.

The next day, he went to Vieques, an island off Puerto Rico’s eastern coast, and found diabetics without insulin, heart patients under extreme stress and crucial treatments interrupted by power outages.

When Mellado returned to San Juan, he stopped by the local radio station, which in the days after the storm, had become a trusted source of information for Puerto Ricans living without communications. Invited to speak to listeners, he called for other physicians willing to join him.

Now, Mellado has a core group of 18 physicians, who rotate between the trips and their own practices, and a growing list of more doctors who want to join. Each morning, he takes out a paper map of the island covered with notes about where he’s been. The doctors pick a town and go.

The convoys have no official ties, but Mellado reports each evening on what the doctors found to Puerto Rican and federal officials in San Juan. Sometimes Puerto Rico’s housing department coordinates deliveries of the drugs back to the towns, and a pharmacy chain donates medications for patients without insurance.

The government’s death count from the storm more than doubled this week to 36. But doctors across the island believe the total would be far higher if it included people with chronic conditions who died because they lacked access to medical care.

“For these critically ill patients, if everything fails, they don’t have too much time,” said Humberto Guzman, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon and member of the medical convoy. “People are dying.”

‘WE CANNOT WAIT’

In Orocovis, after the generator failed, the doctors looked for a quick fix. Guzman ran up the street to the town’s shuttered urgent care facility.

There, he found a half-dozen oxygen tanks that locals said had been delivered the day before. Each could provide about a day’s worth of oxygen to a patient.

The tanks were quickly moved to the community center, where the doctors taught family members to use them. But before that became necessary, the generator sprang back to life.

The doctors packed up to leave, assuring patients’ families that they could switch to the tanks if the generator failed again.

“In every town right now, there are moments like this happening,” Guzman said. “That’s why you need people like us to just go. We cannot wait.”

(This version of the story corrects to fix pronoun in paragraph 4 and change “country” to “island” in paragraph 7)

(Reporting by Robin Respaut and Nick Brown; Editing by Sue Horton and Brian Thevenot)

In time of crisis, Venezuelans help the hungry

Mariano Marquez (L), a volunteer of Make The Difference (Haz La Diferencia) charity initiative, gives a cup of soup and an arepa to a homeless woman in a street of Caracas, Venezuela March12, 2017. Picture taken March 12, 2017. REUTERS/Marco Bello

By Andreina Aponte

CARACAS (Reuters) – Their clothes torn and dirty, nine barefoot children yell and applaud as a convoy of cars approaches on a busy street in Venezuela’s capital.

Volunteers emerge handing out soup and clothes to the delight and excitement of the children who have come from a town a couple of hours outside Caracas.

“We started this because we see people every day hunting for food in the trash, not only the homeless but people on their way to work,” said Diego Prada, a 28-year-old entrepreneur who began a charity in December in response to Venezuela’s dire economic crisis.

His ‘Make The Difference’ initiative is one of a plethora of solidarity projects springing up around Venezuela, in the fourth year of a crushing recession that has forced many to skip meals and jostle for scarce subsidized food.

Concerned individuals, businesses, church groups and high-end restaurants have started projects across the country to serve food, donate clothing and help with supplies for struggling hospitals.

Long accustomed to living in one of Latin America’s wealthiest nations, many Venezuelans have been shocked by seeing more and more people trying to salvage food from the trash.

Diego Prada (L), a volunteer of the Make The Difference (Haz La Diferencia) charity initiative, gives a cup of soup and an arepa to a man in a street of Caracas, Venezuela March12, 2017. Picture taken March 12, 2017. REUTERS/Marco Bello

Diego Prada (L), a volunteer of the Make The Difference (Haz La Diferencia) charity initiative, gives a cup of soup and an arepa to a man in a street of Caracas, Venezuela March12, 2017. Picture taken March 12, 2017. REUTERS/Marco Bello

According to a recent study by three Venezuelan universities, 93 percent of the OPEC nation’s residents do not have enough money to buy sufficient food and 74 percent have lost around 18 pounds (8 kg) in the last year alone.

Critics say 18 years of socialist rule, exacerbated by a fall in oil prices, are to blame for Venezuela’s economic collapse. But President Nicolas Maduro says he is the victim of an “economic war” waged by the country’s elite and the U.S. government.

“If the bourgeoisie hide the food, I myself will bring it to your house. National production should go to the people in order to defeat the imperialist war,” Maduro said at an event this month to promote the distribution of subsidized food.

In Caracas, six upscale restaurants and chefs have formed a charity – “Full Stomach, Happy Heart” – that provides food for a geriatric home and a children’s hospital.

They take turns to cook and serve meals there.

“We serve large portions so that the children can share the food with their parents,” said chef and blogger Elisa Bermudez, adding salt to a broth ready for the hospital.

At a nursing home, 55-year-old Maria Ramirez is grateful for the outside help she receives.

“Sometimes we worry that we’re down to our last bag of spaghetti but thankfully in our most critical moments, we always receive a donation.”

(Additional reporting by Maria Ramirez in Puerto Ordaz and Anggy Polanco in San Cristobal.; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Tom Brown)

Killings, Kidnappings and burnout; the hazards of aid work

Red Cross workers assist a collapsed migrant after he crossed Greece's border with Macedonia, in

By Katie Nguyen

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – You’re an aid worker speeding back to base after a long, cold day questioning people who have fled fighting about what they need to survive. Out of nowhere a girl runs into the road and is knocked over by your driver.

Within minutes, your four-wheel drive is surrounded by bystanders. First they shout, then they start banging windows and rocking the vehicle. Before long they prise open the car door and pull your driver out. Some are armed. What do you do?

It’s perhaps the toughest dilemma aid workers face during their brief stint in war-torn “Badistan” – in reality, a training camp in the grounds of a golf course near Gatwick Airport where they are confronted with mass casualties, a minefield and gun battles in various role-play scenarios.

The three-day course run by security risk management company, International Location Safety (ILS), is one of scores aimed at mitigating the risks of working in the field where aid staff kidnappings have quadrupled since 2002.

The perils of the job came under scrutiny in November when a court in Oslo found the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) guilty of gross negligence and awarded damages to a former employee abducted by gunmen from a Kenyan refugee camp in 2012.

It was the first case of its kind to reach a court judgment, igniting debate over whether aid agencies would become more risk-averse as a result.

“There has been an increasing bunkerisation of aid workers who operate out of compounds and are restricted in where they go,” said ILS Managing Director George Shaw.

“It does worry me that it will continue to happen. But that would be a lack of understanding of what the (NRC) ruling means. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do high-risk programs. It means we should do high-risk programs safely.”

NO SUCH THING AS RISK-FREE

Michael O’Neill, a former director of global safety and security at Save the Children International and now deputy chair of INSSA, an international NGO safety and security group, said the NRC case made it clear that organizations could do better.

“It’s not enough just to write (a security risk management system) down on paper. It’s not enough just to say it’s there,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “If it can happen to NRC, then who among us is not vulnerable at some level?”

Convening the first World Humanitarian Summit on the biggest issues facing the delivery of relief, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called on warring parties to respect and protect aid workers, as well as the wounded and sick, from attack.

The summit in Istanbul later this month comes as leading aid officials warn of ever-increasing humanitarian needs due to crises ranging from Syria’s conflict to climate change.

The year 2013 was the worst for aid workers with 460 killed, kidnapped or seriously wounded, according to Humanitarian Outcomes which has collected data on the topic since 1997.

Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, Pakistan and Syria have gained a reputation for being most dangerous for aid workers, with the majority of attacks over the past decade or so occurring there.

Afghanistan alone accounted for 27 percent of those attacks between 2005 and 2014. But Somalia, with fewer aid workers, has seen an even higher rate of violence against humanitarians.

National staff are by far the most vulnerable. In 2014, they accounted for 90 percent of victims, roughly in proportion to their numbers in the field, Humanitarian Outcomes said.

REDUCING THE THREATS

Few believe all risks can be eliminated, but many agree that one of the most important ways to lessen them is to get the support of locals.

Too often aid workers are targeted because they are no longer perceived to be neutral. Wouter Kok, a security adviser for Medecins Sans Frontieres, said assuring all sides in a conflict of the agency’s impartiality is key to its security approach.

“We have to get back to that independence,” said Kok, who works for the Dutch arm of the medical charity.

“What we’ve seen in the last 10 to 20 years is that belligerents have tried to use humanitarian aid to win hearts and minds, and sometimes organizations have allowed themselves to be used,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Understanding the nuances of a conflict, the local culture and people’s motivations, together with strong negotiating skills, are also critical to mitigating risks, experts said.

Big organizations are increasingly aware that aid programs need to be designed with security in mind, INSSA’s O’Neill said. “Good programming and good security go hand in hand.”

For example, poorly designed food distributions can quickly turn ugly. But seeking the input of local communities, giving people a clear idea of what they will receive and setting up a complaints table away from the lines are some ways to reduce the risk, he said.

Caring for the mental health of aid workers is an overlooked but crucial aspect of keeping them safe, said Sara Pantuliano, director of humanitarian programs at the London-based Overseas Development Institute.

“The one thing that is forgotten the most is the levels of stress and trauma aid workers experience, and that is particularly true for local staff because they often have family affected by this crisis,” Pantuliano said.

“I think people don’t even raise the issue of being under stress or the threat of burning out or needing a proper break, needing to recuperate, because they may be accused of not being fit for the job,” she added.

For more on the World Humanitarian Summit, please visit: http://news.trust.org/spotlight/reshape-aid

(Reporting by Katie Nguyen; editing by Megan Rowling and Ros Russell. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)