In Shadow of Nuclear Disaster, Elderly Worry About the Future

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This morning, Japan is transfixed by the high stakes operation taking place at the Daiichi nuclear plant in Fukushima prefecture. Japanese police are dumping seawater from the air on Thursday morning in an attempt to cool down the No. 3 reactor at the Fukushima power plant, and soon will bring in high power water cannons to shoot into a busted reactor wall.

But as the live streams from the scene unfold, another, quieter crisis is taking shape on the fifth day after the earthquake and tsunamis hit Japan’s east coast. NHK, Japan’s national broadcaster, reported that 14 hospital patients, most of whom were elderly, who had been evacuated from the nuclear radiation zone to a shelter at a high school had died en route and in the shelter. According to NHK, two of the patients died in the bus on the way to evacuation center. At the shelter, there were four medical staff, but they only had basic medical equipment. They placed the patients on blankets atop tatami mats, with a heater nearby, but there was little else they could do.

The news highlights the difficulty that Japan has been having over the past week to juggle the triple disasters of an earthquake, tsunami, and the prospect of nuclear fallout. At the highest levels, the emergency response to all three has felt scattered and disorganized, surprising in a society so well known for its orderliness. On the ground, search and rescue teams, the heroic employees trying to stop a meltdown at Daiinichi, and public employees at shelters throughout the northeast are all showing tremendous dedication and sensitivity to the task of caring for their citizens.

But for such a rich country, the resources they have to do that have been puzzlingly absent. On the expressways, open only for vehicles with official emergency passes, the ubiquitous aid vehicles seen in disaster zones around the world have been absent. Evacuations from the areas deemed to have unsafe levels of radiation around the nuclear plant have been disorganized. Now medical staff, it seems, do not have the basic tools they need to save the lives of people coming into their care – particularly the elderly, who are among the most vulnerable of the hundreds of thousands of people who have been displaced.

The fact is not lost on the evacuees themselves, many of whom are elderly. Japan has one of the world’s fastest aging populations, and caring for this demographic in the coming weeks, months and years will be a central part of Japan’s recovery. Kuniyoshi Tanaka, an 82-year-old farmer from the evacuated town of Minami Soma, sits next to his 84-year-old sister on a pile of mats and blankets at an evacuation center in Yonezawa, about an hour’s drive inland from Fukushima. Between bites of onigiri, he explains that the they’re very nervous. “The hospitals aren’t operating,” Tanaka says. “We don’t know if we can get treatment if something happens to us.”

The medical staff here at the public health center in Yonezawa are doing everything they can – mostly to calm people’s nerves who are worried they have been exposed to radiation. In the past two days, the center has tested nearly 1500 people for radiation with Geiger counters; only three have shown levels approaching anything dangerous. For the hundreds of people coming in everyday, the doctors and nurses here are some of the first official help they’ve received in this terrifying triptych of events.

But for many elderly evacuees, a sense of resignation seems to be setting in. Rebuilding a new life after this diaster will be hard. Amongst the mats and the folding metal chairs in the Yonezawa gymnasium, senior citizens nap under layers of blankets, or sit alone, staring into space. Mitsuko Kushimi, who is 61, says that she got tested for radiation when she arrived in Yonezawa, but she was more concerned about her grandkids. “We’re the people of the past,” she says sadly, sitting next to her elderly mother in law. “It doesn’t matter what happens to us.”