During late September and early October 2017, Motivation Australia and our Ni-Vanuatu partners were able to respond to the evacuation of the residents of the island of Ambae, due to our previous partnership work strengthening walking aid and wheelchair services in Vanuatu. Approximately 11,600 people were evacuated. Close to 6,000 were sent to Santo, with others going to Maewo and Pentacost.
Motivation Australia, the Vanuatu Society for People with Disability (VSPD), the Ministry of Health (MoH), and the Ministry of Justice and Community Services (MOJCS) are working in close partnership to strengthen mobility device services in Vanuatu through the Pacific Mobility Device Services Project (Pacific MDS). The Pacific MDS project is funded by the Australian Government through the Australian Non-Government Cooperation Programme (ANCP), the Latter-day Saints Charities (LDSC) and the Morris Foundation.
At the time of the evacuation, walking aid and wheelchair services were established only on the Island of Efate, through a network of providers including VSPD and the physiotherapy department at the Vila Central Hospital (VCH). Walking aids and wheelchairs donated by the Latter-day Saints Charities were in stock, stored and managed by VSPD in Port Vila. Both VSPD and VCH have staff trained and well-practised in the assembly and provision of walking aids and wheelchairs. The week prior to the evacuation, a Motivation Australia and VSPD team had just completed a consultation visit to Santo, to discuss with Government and Non-Government stakeholders the way forward to expand mobility device services from Efate to Santo.
The need for mobility devices for people evacuated from Ambae was identified very early by those coordinating the evacuation. All stakeholders including VSPD, MOH, MOJCS, Santo Provincial Government, the Vanuatu Disabled Persons Association, the Latter-day Saints Church and Motivation Australia worked closely together and through the Health Cluster and the Gender and Protection cluster to meet this need as well as possible given available resources and time.
A total of 16 wheelchairs, 8 walking frames, 25 walking sticks and 1 pair of forearm crutches were provided to evacuees. The vast majority of people who received mobility devices were based at the LDS Church in Luganville, which had been identified as an accessible location for evacuees. One person in a host family required a wheelchair and 4 people in other evacuation centres on Santo required walking sticks. Unfortunately, it was not possible to meet the needs of people evacuated to Maewo or Pentacost.
Motivation Australia was highly impressed with the professionalism of the personnel who worked long hours in the second week of the evacuation to provide the above mobility devices. Many of the individuals who received a mobility device had not previously had access to a mobility device service, and either had no walking aid / wheelchair or the device they had was inappropriate.
Due to the presence of trained personnel on the ground, it was possible to carry out basic level wheelchair assessments, assemble, fit and adjust devices; and provide basic training for individuals in how to use their devices. However, the short time frame meant it was not possible to provide individuals with more comprehensive training in how to maximise their use of the mobility devices (for example transferring in and out, mobilising over different terrain). It was also not possible to meet the need of those with complex mobility and postural support needs, which highlighted the need to increase the reach of rehabilitation services and mobility device services in Vanuatu.
Throughout the response, Motivation Australia and our Pacific MDS partners maintained a high level of awareness amongst all stakeholders that in providing mobility devices, a commitment needs to be made towards putting in place opportunities for follow up of recipients. Follow up includes ensuring the device continues to meet the user’s needs, potentially offering more training (frequently needed to support new mobility device users in effective use of their device in their home / local community), and meeting maintenance and/or repair needs.
Through the Pacific MDS project, there are plans already in place to expand the wheelchair services currently on Efate, to Santo. MA will be working with partners now to identify both systems and funding opportunities to build on these existing plans to include provision for a sustainable system of follow up support for people living on Ambae.
“We were at church…and we noticed ash falling down. We thought ‘the volcano has fired up’. A man came to tell us that we needed to move to a village further north… That afternoon we moved… We thought we would only be gone for a short time so we only packed small bags… But then we were told that some ships and planes would come to take everyone off the island. We were told that planes would carry older people and people with disabilities like Helina.”
Helina is an elderly woman who had a stroke earlier this year and as a result, is no longer able to walk. Helena travelled to Santo with her daughter Mary as part of the Ambae evacuation who tells us that it was really hard to leave the island. They are worried about what they will find when they go home, fearing there will be no crops: “what are we going to eat when we go back?”
Since her stroke, Helina has used a second hand wheelchair. The wheelchair allows her to sit out of bed, and go outside but it is old and difficult to use as the brakes are broken. During her stay at the evacuation centre, Helina was assessed and provided a new wheelchair and a pressure relief cushion by staff from Vanuatu Society for People with Disability (VSPD) and Ministry of Health, with the support of Motivation Australia. Helina is looking forward to using the wheelchair once she is back on Ambae to go to the beach close to her house.
Marsden had Polio when he was five years old and lost movement of his legs as a result. Now 70 years old, he relies on a wheelchair to move around. Marsden recalls the previous volcanic eruption on Ambae in 2005, but says that this time things were different: “I heard this time, we had to leave”.
Marsden spent a day waiting to be put on a plane to Santo but there were too many people and he had to return home. When Marsden did get a seat on the plane he had to travel alone as there was no room for a carer to travel with him. Upon arriving in Santo, Marsden was placed at an evacuation centre: “It wasn’t really set up for people like me. But it is not a complaint, we manage.”
Over the years Marsden has purchased and been given wheelchairs from various organisations. “A lot of the wheelchairs were too big, but I managed as I didn’t have another choice”.
While he was at the evacuation centre, Marsden was assessed for a new wheelchair by staff from Vanuatu Society for People with Disability (VSPD), Ministry of Health with support from Motivation Australia. However, due to some complex postural needs, he instead chose to keep his old chair. He was provided with a pressure relief cushion and technicians repaired his wheelchair. Marsden is really happy and much more comfortable now. He is looking forward to returning to Ambae and hopes to move back to his village and spend more time with his family.