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  • Ezgi İrgil

Everyday Politics of an Earthquake

What happens when a government prioritises its own image over the people affected following a major earthquake? Micromanagement of pain, micromanagement of outburst, and micromanagement of despair. How does the government manifest this micromanagement? By controlling what goes on in the region in the aftermath of the earthquake through its channels that it has sent there. One of the most prominent of these channels was the National Medical Rescue Team (UMKE in Turkish acronym), which is the governmental emergency service organisation for medical assistance in natural disasters and accidents that consist of specialised health care personnel.

In the earthquake-affected region, the situation was tense, the area was destroyed, and the people were left helpless. People came to the hospital either on foot or hitchhiking, and the hospital was located on the outskirts of the city. That is why when people arrived, we knew they came for the hospital. People came because they had complaints, but also because they did not know what to do with all the grief, stress, and anxiety. Therefore, when we were to give the news to the people that the field hospital was shutting down, all everyone asked was “What are we going to do? Where are we going to go?”

This was the very question I asked the UMKE personnel when, one day, they appeared at our field hospital out of thin air and stayed until it closed. They responded with a dry “I do not know.” I asked “Then, what are we going to tell the people?” and they said, “Tell them you do not know; that, too, is an answer.” To me, that was not an answer, that was adding insult to injury.

According to UMKE, what they were doing at the field hospital was “reporting the shortcomings they observe” and not answering questions. Yet, UMKE sought answers to their own questions, including whether we volunteered at the field hospital on our own will or were directed by an organisation. Even a foreign emergency volunteer asked me “I understand everything, but what exactly is UMKE doing?” Their presence was puzzling to the foreigners as well as for us, as we did not know their exact purpose, except that they were the tentacles of the government. However, UMKE’s questions continued.

Much like these questions, despite the government’s attempts to micromanage, what was missing in the earthquake-stricken region was way too many. First, although there were many hospitals, established by various foreign governments, municipalities, and other organisations, nobody knew exactly what the other hospital had to offer to patients. One said they have tomography, the other refused. The other said they have cardiology services, only for another to point to the third hospital. On top of that, there was a shortage of medication, broken machines or monitors, and an urgent need to coordinate with city hospitals for transferring patients. Hence, the major shortcoming to report was the government’s inability and incapacity to establish a safe and sustainable information network. Therefore, rather than micromanaging, the government should have concentrated on coordinating the information flow among the established hospitals through its existing tentacles.

Second, even though the government should have been well-prepared for such disasters, it became evident in the first week of the earthquake that they were entirely ill-equipped, particularly due to the severe shortage of tents. Most of the patients arriving at the hospital also emphasised this urgent need. Therefore, when our field hospital was getting ready to leave, the government, through UMKE, was inquiring whether they would consider leaving behind their tents, medications, and any other available supplies. This approach could have made sense if the government adopted a macro-level coordination strategy to collect necessary supplies and then distribute them to those in need. However, the government was collecting whatever they could that would be given by foreign teams through individual incentives left to the UMKE personnel’s discretion.

The government's approach to disaster management that prioritises micromanaging and controlling the ongoing efforts over coming up with higher-level long-term plans for providing more sustainable living conditions manifested itself in the field as a lack of organisation, planning, and coordination. The behaviour of UMKE personnel emphasises this very point. While the UMKE personnel were assigned to "monitor" the ongoing activities and seemingly to show off, there did not seem to be anyone or any teams in charge of replacing the foreign field hospitals with UMKE-operated hospitals once the foreign field hospitals left. As word of mouth was a major source of communication among people in the region under these conditions, and the hospitals’ location had become widely known; an immediate transition to UMKE-operated hospitals at the same sites was a pivotal step that was apparently not taken by the government.

With these untaken steps, over six months have passed since the earthquake struck, and many areas in the region still lack access to clean water, let alone proper information provision, tents, and medication. We still do not know exactly how many people died, how many buildings collapsed, or what are the future service provisions for the earthquake-affected region. But, what we definitely know was the micromanagement of everyday politics of an earthquake by the government at the expense of its own people.

*Based on my observations during my volunteer work as a translator at a foreign field hospital in the earthquake-stricken region in March 2023.

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