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Lack of Access Could Raise Death Toll in Myanmar

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And now we're joined by the United Nations emergency relief coordinator in New York, John Holmes.

Mr. Holmes, welcome to the program.

Mr. JOHN HOLMES (Emergency Relief Coordinator, United Nations): Very nice to speak to you.

BLOCK: It seems that the fear now is clearly of a second catastrophic wave in Myanmar; first those who were killed by the cyclone itself, and now those who appear likely to die because of the lack of medical care or clean water or shelter; is that right?

Mr. HOLMES: I think that is our main concern at the moment, that people are living in extremely difficult conditions down in the delta where the worst of the cyclone and in particular tidal wave was. Most of it's flooded, the wells are flooded, so there's lack of clean water and there are many, many bodies of people and livestock in the water and lying around, so the obvious risk of contamination.

So the fear is of - of disease, of cholera or dysentery or something of that kind, malaria spreading through mosquitoes, obviously with the water there. And this will have a potentially devastating effect on people who are weakened through lack of shelter and lack of food as well. So that is the major concern, to avoid this kind of second catastrophe, which always looms when you've had a first catastrophe if you can't get the aid in there quickly enough.

BLOCK: And it's not coming in quickly enough, specifically not just because of the difficulties on the ground, but because of the intransigence of the government in Myanmar.

Mr. HOLMES: It's a combination of the two. I mean even we had full cooperation we would still be struggling to get enough aid down to these very difficult of access regions where the roads are washed away, the bridges are down. But of course, as you say, this is compounded by the difficulties of cooperation with the government. They have said they welcome international assistance, but in terms of speed of clearance of air shipments coming in, in terms of ease of access for the really experienced international relief workers we need, that's where we've really been struggling, and that's where we're pressing them to be as fast and cooperative and as open as possible, because we're simply trying to help them to help their own people.

BLOCK: And how would you describe their response? What words would you use?

Mr. HOLMES: Frustrating and disappointing. Although, as I say, there has been a degree of cooperation in accepting that they need international assistance, which wasn't to be taken for granted and not all countries, even in desperate situations, do ask for help. But it's moving much too slowly given the scale and potential of the disaster we're facing.

BLOCK: Frustrating and disappointing, you said. Other diplomats, as you know, have used much stronger language. The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Zalmay Khalilzad, said that if U.S. is outraged by the slowness of the response from the Myanmar government. Is that language helpful, hurtful to your effort?

Mr. HOLMES: Well, my focus is on getting the aid to the people as quickly as possible, and I will do whatever I need to do to achieve that, and that is much better achieved by working with the government. It's not clear to me, at this stage anyway, the bludgeoning them over the head is going to make any difference or make it any better. We have to work with them.

BLOCK: It's been five days now. The more time that goes on, the more people who will die.

Mr. HOLMES: You're absolutely right, but it's always a slow process, even in the best of circumstances. You know, it is always slow and frustrating. Everybody wishes it could be quicker, most of all me. But we have to sort of work with what we've got and do it as fast as we can.

BLOCK: We mentioned earlier that U.N. planes arrived today in Myanmar, in the largest city, Yangon. What is on those planes?

Mr. HOLMES: They're World Food Program planes loaded particularly with high-energy biscuits. The significance of that is - this is food which can be distributed easily and quickly, eaten without any cooking or preparation, when we still have the problem of getting it from the airport in Yangon to the people on the ground, you know, hundreds of miles from there in extremely difficult terrain.

BLOCK: And how quickly might that happen?

Mr. HOLMES: Well, it'll happen as quickly as we can possibly do it.

BLOCK: John Holmes, thanks very much for talking with us.

Mr. HOLMES: Thank you.

BLOCK: John Holmes is emergency relief coordinator with the United Nations. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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