This is the third of a series of five articles from Michele Penna, reporting on the Philippines typhoon aftermath in Tacloban

When a disaster is hard on everybody, it is usually harder on children. They are more fragile, more prone to be traumatized by events, more subject to diseases. Typhoon Yolanda, which has been exceptional in so many ways, has played by the book in this regard: the children of Tacloban are likely the city’s worst affected group.

According to Diana Valcarcel, a member the UNICEF Philippines Emergency Response Team, there might be over 100,000 children affected. At this stage it is not possible to know the exact number, but if you consider that 90 per cent of the population has been affected and that roughly half of it is not yet adult, you can get an idea of how many children have seen their lives changed. Some cannot go to school. Some have lost their houses. Some have lost relatives. Some have lost everything, including their lives.

Pic: Michele Penna.

A group of teenagers I met on my very first day in town was wandering on the promenade which skirts the sea. Asked about what they were doing, one of them replied “we are looking for food”. A vaguely apologetic expression appeared on the young boy’s face as he explained the obvious. They lamented the lack of food and water. The rice they get, they say, is not enough for the whole family.

Farther down the road I bumped into another four youngsters who shouted at me from across the road. “Hey Joe, wanna join for looting?” said a skinny boy as he carefully made his way through the debris.

For the children whom I saw sitting in front of the City Hall looting was way too difficult an operation. Aged – I guess – between 5 and 10, they could only rely on others for the food they were munching on. Sitting at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the top of the hill, they picked rice and sauce up from paper plates with the smile that only unaware children can have.

Even when food is provided, there are still special challenges that young victims have to face. “Kids were so sad and quiet at the beginning. There have been huge improvements since then, but still many children need support,” said Krista Armstrong, Save the Children’s global media manager. They are setting up child-friendly space, where playing activities will be organized. “It is important for adults, too, because they will have more time to work,” said Ms Armstrong.

Another priority issue is breast feeding, which according to Ms Armstrong must be maintained despite the crisis. Using milk powder – potentially a ready-made solution – is a tricky business: the city is short of drinkable water, and the powder is not as good as natural milk. “Breast feeding is so much better,” said Ms Armstrong.

Heather Papowitz, Senior Advisor For Health in Emergencies at UNICEF, stressed that helping the youngest of  theyoung victims is essential. “It is very important to take care of newborns, because they do not have access to the usual care,” she told us on the sidelines of a vaccination campaign against measles and polio on November 26.

The campaign, which targeted around 30,000 children, was being held in collaboration with the Red Cross in front of a local church. When we arrived a number of women were sitting on a bench inside an open building. One by one, each child received pills, drops and an injection. The pill was not much of a problem, the drops were easily gobbled up. But small patients resented the injection.

A young child receives vaccinations in Tacloban. Pic: Michele Penna.

According to Ms Papowitz, the most common problems are acute trauma, measles, diarrhea and newborn illnesses. “All that was common already before and with this situation things have got worse,” she said. “It is normal, kids get sick. The problem here is they do not get assistance.” Polio is a big worry. It has already been eradicated, but “with dirty water and crowded places it could come back.”

Despite the hardships one sees around, personnel at UNICEF are optimistic, not least because of the response engineered by the government, which Ms Papowitz deemed very good. Sure enough, the kids who roamed around the UNICEF tent did not seem tragically traumatized. They were playing in the yard, running around up and down in the square, sitting on the metal swing. For at least one of them, as a matter of fact, the most immediate threat could have been be spinal trauma: in an effort to impress the onlookers, he was hanging upside down from a metal bar, his face stretched in a wide smile.