Westmead nurse follows her heart to Burma


Kathryn Halley, RN at Westmead Hospital, gives The Lamp a first-hand account of the humanitarian crisis continuing to unfold to our north.

Several months ago, NSWNA member Kathryn Halley felt a need to leave Westmead Hospital and take her nursing skills to those in dire need in Asia.

She joined Australian aid organisation Partners Relief and Development Australia (PRDA) and headed to Thailand – arriving just as Cyclone Nargis hit neighbouring Burma (officially renamed Myanmar).

It was a baptism-of-fire for Kathryn, who suddenly found herself deeply enmeshed in international politics as she crossed the heavily guarded border into Burma armed with little more than a backpack and a satellite phone.

While the military junta was actively rejecting visa applications from known aid workers, Kathryn’s relative anonymity enabled her to secure entry as a tourist.

Kathryn became PRDA’s ‘advance scout’, helping to assess the fast-emerging humanitarian crisis and secure visas for fellow aid workers.

When The Lamp spoke to Kathryn by satellite phone late last month it had been six weeks since the disaster – more than enough time to launch a full-scale relief operation. Instead, the military junta was continuing to hinder the relief effort and had effectively deprived more than one million storm survivors of any form of assistance.

‘Most NGOs are in the field through local staff, but the majority of expats are being sent back to the city at the many checkpoints,’ Kathryn told The Lamp through a scratchy phone connection.

‘People are in great need of shelter, food and water and there is real concern about the outbreak of malaria, [because of the] salination from the tidal surges and the monsoon rains we’re having.’

‘We’ve mostly been treating respiratory infections and fungal skin infections, though luckily we’re not seeing the incidence of abscesses other workers experienced in the Tsunami.

‘I think the other significant issue that will need addressing will be the cycle of trauma generated by the cyclone.’

Kathryn had just returned from Burma’s low-lying Irrawaddy Delta following an agreement thrashed out between the United Nations and Burma’s generals to allow foreign aid workers into the region. When Nargis tore through the delta at the beginning of May, it swept away most of the bamboo huts leaving some villages without any trace of habitation. The estimated death toll is upwards of 130,000, though, due to an absence of reliable census figures, the true toll may never be known.

The junta continues to frustrate aid agencies by rejecting genuine humanitarian assistance. France recently abandoned its attempt to deliver 1000 tonnes of supplies (enough to sustain 100,000 people) as the junta continues to refuse port access to any military vessels.

‘It’s incredibly frustrating,’ said Kathryn.

‘Communications here are archaic and most foreigners are denied passage at the checkpoints. [The people] are incredibly isolated; some have never seen a white person before.

‘The scale of devastation on the delta is so extensive. They had winds up to 190km/h and some villages have been completely destroyed.

‘Many deaths were the result of houses collapsing, though most who were sleeping in huts out in the rice fields died as they had no protection at all.

While the military junta has officially, and unbelievably, declared the relief effort over, PRDA continues to supply its workers and contacts operating in areas severely impacted by Cyclone Nargis.

Kathryn’s closest support person, Nathan Willis, former NSWNA member and now the National Director of Partners Australia, said the supplies being provided by the Burma regime were ‘meagre, pathetic and falling far short’ of the need in the Irrawaddy Delta.

Speaking from Chiang Mai in neighbouring Thailand, Nathan said PRDA was getting supplies in though they were still being met with passive opposition by the regime.

‘Our awareness is growing that many of the larger NGOs are obstructed from providing these needs, yet we remain effective, albeit limited by the regime,’ he said.

Kathryn and her co-workers have documented the so called ‘relief efforts’ employed by the junta – a 30cm x 30cm piece of a blanket, a 30cm x 40cm piece of towel and a small bowl half-filled with rice. The locals who showed Kathryn’s relief team the scale of assistance were ‘understandably distraught by the heartlessness of their government’.

Partners Relief & Development is running an emergency online appeal at www.partnersworld.org.au.