Volunteers Flocking to Quake Zone Asked to Turn Back

Since Saturday morning, when a 6.6Mw earthquake struck near Sichuan’s Ya’an city, thousands of volunteers from students and white-collar workers to Tibetan monks have descended on the affected area to offer assistance. But many of these would-be helpers have proven more of a hindrance than a help, arriving without basic supplies or relevant expertise, worsening congestion on roads already choked by landslides, debris and heavy machinery, and in some cases getting lost, trapped or even killed. Global Times reported that almost 6,000 volunteers had arrived by Sunday afternoon, but that authorities subsequently instructed people to stay away:

Despite the volunteers’ enthusiasm, their efforts have become controversial as most zones near the epicenter, where food, water, electricity and telecommunications are scarce, are cut off by disrupted roads.

The Guangzhou-based Nandu Daily reported Sunday that nearly 300 volunteers, mostly college students, who arrived in Longmen township, did not even bring food and water for themselves, not to mention tools for rescue efforts.

[…] Han Han, a popular writer who volunteered his services following the Wenchuan earthquake, wrote that the help provided by volunteers may actually hamper rescue efforts.

“Volunteers should leave the first few days after the disaster to relief workers because what they can do at the scene is quite limited,” he wrote.

The Financial Times’ Leslie Hook spoke to a team leader in the official relief effort, who complained that “the volunteers have created a certain kind of disaster themselves [….] It seems like there are more volunteers than there are earthquake victims. They have no place to sleep, and nothing to eat, and most of them have no experience or training [….] For some people, the biggest help that they can do for disaster areas is go back where they came from safely.”

Similarly, the BBC’s Damian Grammaticas quoted a military officer’s frustration at “all those volunteers bringing two packets of instant noodles each blocking the roads.” The Economic Observer’s Zhang Xiaohui suggested that the volunteers were not the main problem in terms of traffic, but had few kind words for them in any case.

The situation is made worse by the number of “disaster gawkers” (观灾者) who like to refer to themselves as “volunteers” (志愿者), despite the fact that they’ll often do more harm than good and leave rubbish behind when they move on.

The Sichuan Transportation Bureau (四川交通局) has blamed private vehicles for clogging the roads, in fact we’ve seen that it has more to do with large trucks and rescue vehicles. In addition, due to the earthquake occuring in a mountainous area, the PLA’s air rescue capabilities are limited.

As no-one expected Lushan to be hit by a quake, no emergency transportation contingency plans were ever put in place. The blind zeal of many volunteers who consider themselves better qualified to offer assistance than the army or the government – for example a well-known philanthropist surnamed Chen ["Nice Guy" Guangbiao] – also complicate the situation. Still, the main cause of the transport bottleneck in Lushan county is that the region’s transport capacity is limited.

The same issues have also led China to decline offers of help from abroad. Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a press briefing on Monday that “we currently don’t need foreign teams due to the narrow roads and limited space in the area,” and denied state media reports that a 200-strong Russian team was on its way. The Russians’ reported involvement had offered a curious contrast with Beijing’s refusal of Japanese assistance, amid renewed tension over visits to the Yasukuni Shrine war memorial.

Some have cast doubts on the authorities’ motives for barring volunteers, however. From Verna Yu at South China Morning Post:

Huang [Qi] believed he was barred from helping because of his imprisonment for “illegal possession of state secrets” after he investigated the collapse of school buildings in the 2008 quake. He and others blamed corruption for the destruction of the shoddily built structures.

Huang also campaigned on behalf of parents who wanted to sue authorities over the crushing to death of their children when the schools collapsed.

[…] Many activists believe officials are preventing individuals from helping because they fear they will expose corruption, like in 2008, and embarrass the local government. Huang said he and his associates were driving on country roads and would not have hindered other traffic. He said he wanted to give money directly to quake victims, so that it could not be embezzled.

Fears that financial donations would go astray have been widespread, possibly adding to the stream of volunteers. Offbeat China has posted images of messages scrawled on donated banknotes, such as “fuckhead, I dare you to graft this.” For more on this disillusionment, see ‘Disaster Shows Faith in China’s Red Cross Badly Shaken‘ at CDT.

Some volunteers did at least offer a break from the post-disaster diet of instant noodles. From Zhuang Pinghui at South China Morning Post:

Even locals who were affected by the quake have come out to help those in greater need. Four construction site workers were cooking batches of porridge to give to the hungry.

“Around 400 people have eaten the porridge. It is very popular when all that everybody had was instant noodles,” Liu Xiyi said.