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When a helping hand is more of a hindrance

China Daily | Updated: 2013-04-23 02:00

Traveling from Chengdu to the epicenter of the earthquake in Lushan country, or to Baoxing, 30 kilometers from the epicenter, I passed many groups of volunteers on their way to the affected areas.

I understand and admire their desire to help, their compassion for the victims — but it might have been better for them to think twice about what they were doing.

When a helping hand is more of a hindranceI met Cheng Mu, for instance, in Lushan on Monday. The pleasant-faced man in his 30s runs a small business in Chengdu. He helped for nine days when the magnitude-8 earthquake hit Wenchuan, Sichuan province, on May 12, 2008.

Cheng had spent all the time driving his sport utility vehicle across the county between towns transporting Bluesky Rescue Team members.

He told me that was the only way he could really help.

He had met many other enthusiastic volunteers who wanted to go deep into the disaster regions.

But their presence in the area had added to the difficulties the rescue effort faced.

Some had not brought enough food or water with them, he said, and had to use supplies that were meant for the victims.

“There are different types of volunteer. The Bluesky people, for example, are also amateurs, but every one of them is professionally trained,” he told me.

At around midnight on Sunday, Cheng got a message on his phone from a volunteer who was lost and was asking for help.

The location was marked as “2 km south of Baoxing county”, about 40 km from Lushan, where Cheng was staying.

As he hurried to the spot with two other Bluesky Rescue Team members, the lost volunteer messaged that he had found his way out of the mountains and there was no need to come anymore. By the time Cheng’s group got back to their base in Lushan, it was already 5 am, and none of them had gotten any sleep that night.

I also met two other volunteers from Beijing, one 24, the other 25, both office workers.

They had flown to Chengdu as soon as they heard about the disaster. They rented a car and headed straight for Lushan.

Though eager to help, they admitted they had no experience with earthquakes or search and rescue operations in quake zones.

For equipment, they had only two helmets and some commonly used drugs.

The government has issued guidelines suggesting that people should not try to approach the disaster areas without permission, and to let the professionals do their jobs, especially within the first 72 hours of an earthquake — the most important time in the rescue operation.

The famous writer Han Han, who has almost 13 million followers on Sina Weibo, has reflected on the roles of volunteers and celebrities after a disaster, based on his experience in Wenchuan five years ago.

As a news reporter on the front line, I have been reflecting too.

Some people suggest situations like this are too dangerous for the media to get close to.

I think it is my duty to be here, to tell people the facts and to report on the rescue efforts made by everyone.

All that matters for many people at times like this is making a contribution, and having such an attitude is a good thing.

But being professional is even more important, and that applies to reporters and volunteers.

Related readings:

President Xi confident in recovery from quake 

Premier on site of earthquake devastation 

Premier: Rescue every person 

Commentary: Quake-hit China grows in pain 

China's Air Force starts first airdrop in quake zones 

Snapshots of rescue efforts in quake-hit region 

Nation works to restore post-quake order 

Experts assess quake damage to schools


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