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China Heals New Wound with Experience from Sichuan Quake

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In a prefab classroom in Yushu in northwest China's Qinghai Province, the students were encouraged to write down and recite in front of their classmates what they experienced in the deadly earthquake that happened nearly two weeks ago.

"We went onto the platform to read out our written memories one after another, and many kept weeping as they read," said Bayang, an 18-year-old girl, when recalling the first psychological intervention class she attended on the weekend.

The intervention program, conducted by Pei Shuangyi and his colleagues from the Tangshan psychological aid team of north China's Hebei Province, proved effective in comforting the victims after the even more dreadful earthquake that hit Sichuan on May 12, 2008. The 8-magnitude earthquake left nearly 90,000 people dead or missing.

"It is a method known as group intervention for psychological trauma," Pei Shuangyi said. "It can help students unload their distress."

Often, the speaker and the listeners in the classroom were both weeping, a scene that Pei became acquainted with nearly two years ago.

Pei's team was stationed in Anxian County for a month after the Sichuan earthquake. They offered psychological counseling for children and other victims. In the later half of that month, they held three or four classes of group psychological intervention every afternoon.

Before the Sichuan earthquake, domestic study on big disaster intervention was far from sufficient.

"In Sichuan, for the first time, I faced so many people mentally scarred. But thanks to that experience, we can do our work in Yushu more effectively and efficiently," said Pei, who has been engaged in psychological counseling for 12 years.

Pei's team has been analyzing what they learnt from the Sichuan quake over the last two years, and it has enabled them to handle the situation in Yushu more scientifically.

They decided to target Bayang and her peers facing the upcoming college entrance exam first, as their mental state may impact exam performance, which is believed to be a key fate-changing opportunity in this fiercely competitive society.

"We were all driven to tears in his class, but we all felt relieved after that," Bayang said.

Like Pei Shuangyi, many involved in the relief efforts in Yushu worked two years ago to rescue Sichuan from the country's worst disaster in three decades. The disaster two years ago has become a practical reference point in the effort to heal the new wound.

Song Weiguo, a volunteer rescuer in Yushu, kept warning the inexperienced members of his team about the dangers of working in rubble while searching for survivors. His rescue experience in Sichuan informed him dangers lie everywhere.

"Once they tried to remove a plank pressing against a survivor. They didn't notice that a stone might roll down to hit the survivor without the support of the plank," Song said while recalling one dangerous situation two days after the Yushu earthquake.

Song immediately stopped his team members from moving the plank. He worked side by side with professional rescuers, both Chinese and foreign, in Sichuan, and he was happy he could put that experience to use in Yushu.

Professor Xia Xueluan, a Peking University sociologist, said a nation's progress is built on lessons learnt from past disasters.

"The rescue efforts after the Yushu earthquake were faster and more efficient than those two years ago in Sichuan," Xia said. "The government has shown greater competency in coordinating rescue teams from all over the country. Volunteers didn't swarm into the quake-hit areas blindly. They cooperated with government teams in a harmonious manner."

The Sichuan earthquake prompted the government to enhance disaster management efforts. The China Earthquake Administration adjusted its response plans and increased its rescue team numbers to 500 members from 200.

Meanwhile, the professional, rapid-response teams established in 27 provinces raised the total number of relief workers from 3,000 at the time of the Sichuan earthquake to 5,000 today.

Servicemen and women with the People's Liberation Army have also received regular emergency response training since the Sichuan earthquake.

The rescue teams have been equipped with better technology and equipment. In Yushu, communications have been improved with wireless facilities and maritime satellite systems. Remote-control aircraft also helped rescuers by sending aerial images of the earthquake-hit regions.

As the relief work enters a new phase focusing on reconstruction and resettlement of those who lost their homes, audit authorities have also vowed to tighten supervision of the use of donated funds and supplies.

He Guoqiang, head of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, called on audit officials earlier last week to learn from the experiences of the Sichuan earthquake and strengthen the supervision of quake relief work in Yushu.

The National Audit Office has recovered 300 million yuan (US$44 million) of misappropriated funds allocated for Sichuan's reconstruction.

After the Yushu earthquake, officials from audit and finance departments were sent to work with civil affairs authorities to supervise the allocation of relief funds. The details of how donations are used will be publicized on a regular basis.

According to Zhang Guangrong, deputy governor of Qinghai Province, as of 5:00 PM on Sunday, the province had donations totaling 3.5 billion yuan (about US$515 million) and relief supplied valued at 4 billion yuan.

Due to its high altitude, volatile climate and different language and religious traditions, Yushu posed a new challenge for rescue and relief operations.

"A lot more shall be learnt from this earthquake, too, making our rapid-response system more comprehensive and effective," Professor Xia Xueluan said.

(Xinhua News Agency April 27, 2010)

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