By Talya Meyers
When the floods started, staff members from the HOPE Foundation for Women and Children of Bangladesh packed their bags and made the 12-hour journey by bus.
The floods killed 68 people in Bangladesh, the majority of them in the Sylhet region, and left an estimated 4.5 million people stranded, according to Reuters. Homes and livelihoods were washed away. Waterborne diseases, including skin infections and diarrheal diseases, spread rapidly.
HOPE staff have previously responded to mudslides and other disasters in the Cox’s Bazar area where their field hospital is located. They have been training emergency response teams since 2017. But this was the first time they had responded to an emergency away from home, said founder Dr Iftikher Mahmood.
So far, the team has treated over 500 people through a mobile medical clinic stocked with emergency medical kits and medicines from Direct Relief and distributed hot meals and dry food to more than 1,000 people. They continue traveling through flooded areas, providing free medical care, food and water to flood-affected people.
Mahmood spoke with Direct Relief about his team’s response, the situation on the ground for those affected by the floods and what he expects to see in the coming weeks and months.
Direct Relief: What is the current situation in Sylhet?
Mahmoud: Sylhet division has several districts and several districts have been flooded. The water is actually falling now, but the water level is rising in other areas. So it’s better in terms of flooding, but it’s still unpredictable.
It was a big event. A number of people unfortunately lost their lives. At the same time, many people were displaced, properties were damaged and livestock were damaged. [People] became homeless.
But support from all over the country has indeed poured in: social organizations, non-governmental organizations, individuals, but also the government. Many people came to help.
Direct Relief: And a team from HOPE for Bangladesh also responded. Can you tell us a bit about your answer?
Mahmoud: We are far from this area, certainly a few hundred kilometers. In Bangladesh, a few hundred kilometers is a long time.
But because we are a humanitarian organization and have experience with refugees in Cox’s Bazar, we have teams of people who can respond quickly. Also, we have supplies from Direct Relief, and when it happened, we quickly decided to send a team [that included two paramedics] with dry food and medicine.
And the next day we sent four more, and the next day we sent a six-person medical team. So in total, 14 people are in Sylhet at the moment, and we have also recruited volunteers locally. They cook because we distribute hot meals, and also dry food.
Since the arrival of the medical team, we have set up a mobile medical clinic, so we have been going to different places.
Direct Relief: What do your field staff see when they respond?
Mahmoud: Now our people are serving in areas that are still flooded.
When the flood waters receded many people are homeless so they are still in shelters. And there are some outbreaks of intestinal infection, skin infection, respiratory infection. But we serve them, we give them care: medical examinations, free medication. And also, we give them drinking water.
Support is coming, but some places probably got good support and some places probably still need support.
Direct Relief: Tell me about your disaster response training.
Mahmoud: We trained locally in Cox’s Bazar. We trained for this kind of emergency because in our region there are many natural disasters like cyclones, mudslides. So we get agencies trained every year through UN agencies and through our own training.
We have had an emergency response team since 2017.
It’s good exercise for us away from home. This tells us that we can actually mobilize our team to many other locations whenever needed. And also we can increase [our] ability; we can expand the team. In case we need thirty people or forty people, we have the experience to travel to a remote place and render service without any problem.
It went extremely well. I wasn’t just surprised; I was delighted.
Direct Relief: What were the greatest needs when your team arrived, both medical and otherwise?
Mahmoud: When they arrived, what they needed most was food. Now that the water is receding, the greatest need is for medical support. And the next will be rehabilitation. Many people have lost their homes. Some areas are very poor areas, so their houses are small and fragile, and the flood washed them away.
Direct Relief: You had existing medical support from Direct Relief which you felt was helpful. What supplies did you have and how did they help your team?
Mahmoud: We have been receiving emergency response supplies from Direct Relief since 2017. We have had [medic] packs; we have water purification tablets; we have a little procedural equipment. We have antibiotics, antibacterial cream, many ointments. We have a range of things.
Direct relief: how does this flood compare to other disasters you have responded to in the past?
Mahmoud: We have responded to several floods locally. The difference is that in our region there are often mudslides, which can be sharp and dangerous. Sometimes it goes unnoticed. But it’s a big area, so it was different. But both are dangerous. It gave us a good lesson on how to react in different circumstances. It made our team really strong.
Direct aid: Financial inflation has been a major problem in Bangladesh, as in the United States. Did this affect this disaster or its response?
Mahmoud: Yes, the prices are higher.
There are always people who, even outside of inflation, when things like this happen, try to take advantage of it and raise the prices of services and goods. It’s still there. But as a humanitarian organization, our focus right now is only on people and what they need. So we gather resources from different places and try to do some work to save lives.
And also, we received support from good people and organizations, who donated money and other supplies.
So inflation is a problem, but we did what we had to do.
Direct Relief: People are still in the immediate aftermath of this disaster. What concerns do you have for those affected in the coming weeks or months?
Mahmoud: We will monitor different types of diseases. Especially small children, especially old people, I think they will have breathing problems. Asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia. And people who have chronic diseases, if they have diabetes or high blood pressure, if they have lost their medicine, they will have problems. Diarrheal diseases. Some will have to be hospitalized.
I worry about children, pregnant women and the elderly. Because they will have problems they don’t expect.
And of course, after that, they have to find accommodation. In this kind of neighborhood there are a lot of financial problems, so now they will need help to rebuild their houses.
The government has already provided a lot of support, and there is good coordination in this administration, so I think a lot of people will get help from the government, and also NGOs and other organizations and individuals will come together and try to help these people.
A shipment containing more than 4,000 pounds of medical aid, worth $81,000, left Direct Relief’s warehouse on June 29, bound for the HOPE Foundation for Bangladeshi Women and Children. The shipment contains wound care products, surgical instruments, vitamins, intravenous solutions and other medical supplies. Further support is being coordinated.