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7 Lessons from Relief Work in Japan for the COVID-19 Response

OMF worker Mike McGinty led a relief team in northeast Japan after the 2011 tsunami. Here he reflects on seven principles he learned in that time that help us think about the response to COVID-19 around the world.

As I gazed over the vast wasteland of what was once a thriving coastal city in Japan, I wondered how the local residents could ever recover from such destructive forces. The search continued for bodies among the rubble and we witnessed survivors wandering aimlessly about the ruins of their former homes, business and schools.

Within a few minutes on that fateful day of March 11, 2011, life was forever changed for thousands scattered along the coast of northeast Japan. Arriving shortly after the disaster, it was our privilege to live and serve among these hardy, resilient people for two years.

Now that the world is facing a different sort of crisis in the form of COVID-19, I have thought many times of the parallels from our past experience doing relief work and what is presently transpiring on a global scale. Below are seven of my observations.

1. Ever changing circumstances produce ever changing needs

In the wake of the 3.11 disaster in Japan, we were tasked to coordinate OMF’s relief work effort. But we soon discovered that it was difficult to meet the rapidly changing needs. When we first arrived, clean water, certain paper products, food, fuel, warm clothing and shelter were the most pressing needs. After we dispersed the limited supply of relief goods that we brought with us, we immediately put out a call for more such items to be collected from across the country. By the time they arrived a couple of weeks later, disaster victims had moved on to other, more pressing felt needs such as underwear, fingernail clippers, and socks.

We experienced this cycle many times in those early days of relief work. In the wake of a disaster, the so-called “market demands” move at a blistering pace so there is a greater lag time in recognizing and, consequently, filling those demands. Perhaps it is helpful to recall this pattern when present responses seem frustratingly slow or woefully inadequate.

2. Fast but imperfect efforts are far more effective than perfect procedures requiring costly time

Time is a scarce commodity when it comes to dealing with a national emergency. Risks must be taken and mistakes will inevitably result. Because the alternative of delaying critical responses to get everything exactly right may cost lives and delay meeting critical needs.

Time was our enemy in those days. Those on the outside looking in often failed to understand this important concept as they were still operating in their safe spaces using their normal values and procedures. A crisis of major proportions generally calls for new initiatives and acts of entrepreneurship to provide significant solutions, although these do not always work without failure. Unfortunately, many sideline critics tend to shine their spotlight of disapproval on the mistakes and overlook any progress that was also achieved.

3. The government and private sector both have important roles to play

It is easy to criticize the government’s seeming ponderous efforts in dealing with a natural disaster. However, one must not overlook its incredible capacity to mobilize desperately needed resources on a large scale. Conversely, the private sector (including the church) is typically much lighter on its feet and can, in many instances, respond much more rapidly to pressing demands with a personal touch that is equally important.

Each group offers important services that are distinctive to their differing capacities, so instead of criticizing each other, it is far more helpful to recognize the unique role each has to play and work together as much as possible. Second guessing the other’s responses is generally not helpful in the midst of a crisis, but lessons learned along the way can certainly be kept in mind for future reference.

In particular, once the immediate crisis has passed to the point where medical personnel and first responders are no longer needed in great numbers, there are great opportunities for the private sector to make a real difference.

In our own case, we soon discovered there were many skills possessed by eager volunteers across the country that would be welcomed by the local people. Over the following months, beauticians, musicians, skilled laborers, counselors, massage therapists, pastors, cooks, hobby enthusiasts, and even hula dancers from across Japan and around the world passed through our center. They all offered a helping hand or a listening ear to bring healing to a hurting community. They came sacrificially to minister to others, but in turn, many of them were ministered to as they experienced the joy of giving. It was exciting to watch the gradual transformation of not only a local community, but the creation of a wider community among God’s people as they served.

4. Perseverance and perspective are essential ingredients for a healthy recovery

The way people respond to a disaster is important for their long-term recovery. It is easy to lapse into a victim mentality when you are alone, afraid, facing various shortages, and normal life patterns are drastically disrupted.
But we observed among the Japanese a different response, as they place a high value on a concept known as gaman. This is usually translated as “perseverance” or “patience”. However, on a deeper level, gaman means to “endure the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity.” Therefore, a person who exercises the trait of gaman demonstrates maturity and strength in the face of adverse circumstances and strives not to be a burden on those around them. Despite the harsh realities of their crumbled world and lives, we witnessed the incredible capacity of the Japanese people to persevere and come together with a new vision or perspective as they slowly began to rebuild their fallen way of life.
Such a mentality must begin on an individual level and eventually seep its way into communities so that real reconstruction at every layer of society can take place. Outsiders can do much to assist in this process, but those efforts must be matched with healthy initiatives by those on the inside as they are able. Bold perseverance and a balanced perspective are key ingredients to a positive outcome, particularly as we face so many unknown and fearful prospects during our current crisis.

5. It is not possible to eliminate the pre-existing culture of ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’

Natural disasters destroy much within their paths, but unfortunately, other age-old destructive forces remain. Greed, selfishness, slothfulness, and theft unfortunately continue undisturbed by the disaster. In drastically changed circumstances, such vices often manifest themselves in new forms such as hoarding, looting, and complaining while clinging to unrealistic expectations and unhealthy comparisons. No amount of outside assistance can eradicate such problems which threaten to derail many good efforts.

We must acknowledge that shortages and inequality in distribution inevitably occur in national emergencies, despite the best organizational efforts and preparedness. These shortfalls can in turn bring out the worst in some individuals, but even so, many refuse to let such adverse circumstances corrupt their integrity. I will never forget the offer of a grimy canned drink as a gift from a disaster victim, who had lost all he had, after we fed him his first hot meal in days. His concern for me in the midst of his absolute personal devastation is a lesson we would all do well to remember during such times.

6. A few inevitably bear the burden for many

Following the triple disaster in 2011, when the world’s largest recorded earthquake caused a huge tsunami that created a nuclear meltdown, we heard story after story of the few who sacrificially gave themselves to serve others. Some braved radiation in attempts to stem a nuclear leak. Others overcame extremely adverse circumstances to provide medical and practical aid to victims. Many endured sleepless nights, meager rations, and poor living conditions for weeks on end in their ongoing effort to assist thousands of destitute survivors.

Not everyone has such skills or physical fortitude to make substantial contributions in a major crisis, but we must all do what we can to recognize those who selflessly serve us. Some may have greater roles to play, but such times require all of us to dig down deep and do our part for the team.

7. Other losses will be revealed over time

In our day of mass and social media, the initial losses following any natural disaster are rather obvious. Lost lives. Lost property. Lost health. Lost community. Lost income. Lost freedom

Yet in many cases, even years after, when recovery efforts are in full swing and much progress has been made, other losses start to become more evident as the more catastrophic ones slowly fade from our consciousness. PTSD may become the new normal for many survivors. The local social support network that many previously relied on may no longer exist as several members have died or moved on to other locations. Some industries will never recover, leaving many permanently without work and in turn, forever altering the fabric of small communities centered upon such livelihoods. Even the professionals and volunteers who came temporarily to help are not immune to loss, as many will continue to carry around painful memories of what they observed or experienced and shoulder an undefined burden that stubbornly refuses to dissipate with the passing of time.

Nine years have passed since that fateful day in Japan on March 11, so government assistance and other restorative initiatives have mostly finished. However, many are still hurting and the church in Japan has not lost sight of this fact and continues to do good, as James encourages us to do in the Bible (James 4:17). May the same be said of us as we minister to the hurting on both a short term and long term basis.

A Final Memory—I want to return to those days

The dawn had just broken as I walked alone with my thoughts on the frozen ground near the Kamaishi harbor, surveying the unimaginable destruction that seemed incongruous to the promise of a beautiful new day.

Overturned cars, large ocean-going ships beached in the middle of town, twisted train tracks, heaps of putrid mud mixed with trash, empty foundations where houses once stood, and freshly plowed roads through the heaps of rubble everywhere testified to the power of an angry ocean that had swept across several coastal towns in northern Honshu. Everywhere I looked, mountains of debris representing the lives of the town’s inhabitants lay exposed for all to see. Yet one particular item caught my eye… an old 45 rpm record. I hadn’t seen one in several years so I wiped off the mud revealing the title of the song「あの日にかえりたい」. (Translated: “I Want to Return to Those Days”)

As I stood there quietly in the midst of so much sadness and loss, this song, written in a bygone era, seemed to represent the heart cry of the survivors who were now desperate to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives. Our little relief team that had traveled from Sapporo with the noble aim to help people return to prior days now seemed hopelessly feeble in light of such enormous needs. Loved ones who were missing were unlikely to ever return home. Possessions and homes that were destroyed would not be easily replaced or rebuilt. Community life would never be restored to its former vibrancy. Previous plans and dreams that had been swept away by the tsunami were now subject to a new, harsh reality. Life was now reduced to waiting in lines for basic necessities and sleepless nights in crowded evacuation centers while continuing to endure frequent aftershocks. These new conditions only served to heighten the longing for those days that would never return.

A new day now brings a new disaster. One that is beyond our experience and preparation. Like others before us who have endured life-changing destructive forces, we long to linger in the past and return to former days when our lives weren’t affected by the coronavirus, even though those days are beyond our grasp. But as Christians, our faith enables us to not dwell on our past, but rather on the future as the redeemed people of a God who beckons us to set aside self-concerns to serve others in the present.

God has not yet revealed the outcome of this present calamity and the impact it will have on each of us, but what we have we must offer to him. It is certainly natural to mourn the loss of days gone by, but as we do so, we must not neglect to turn with expectant hope to a God who will make all things new. Those are the days we should live for.

Discover how we’re responding: Read our update on COVID-19

Pray with us: Four ways to pray in light of COVID-19

Picture of Written by Mike McGinty (OMF US)
Written by Mike McGinty (OMF US)

Mike McGinty lived in Japan with his wife, Rowena, for 34 years serving with OMF International in various ministry endeavors. He is originally from Texas, but they currently reside in the Denver, CO area where they continue to work with OMF to equip gospel workers for Japan. You can read more from Mike on his personal blog.

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