On September 19, 2017, in a matter of 10 days after southern Mexico endured an 8.1-magnitude earthquake, another earthquake hit the central part of the country. This one was 7.1 in magnitude, but it spanned a much more populated area, where even 100 miles from the epicenter, 6-magnitude shakes were felt. This earthquake coincidentally fell on the anniversary of Mexico’s disastrous 1985 earthquake, and will probably leave a comparable physical and psychological scar on the country’s public health.
Exact figures of damage are hard to come by in the immediate aftermath of earthquakes, but the number of casualties is generally determined within a few days. Thus far, a total of 273 people have died and around 1,900 have been injured in this most recent earthquake to hit Mexico. Additionally, the earthquake earlier this month killed at least 98 and has left 2.5 million seeking help. Thousands have been left homeless, and many are yet to be found in the rumble. The short-term measurable effects are certainly catastrophic, but long-term effects are going to be immeasurable.
To put it into perspective, there are still hundreds of people displaced by the 1985 earthquake and live in camps infested with disease-spreading rats. Hundreds are also now suffering depression as a result. What took place thirty years ago and only in a matter of three minutes is being felt to a greater extent today than ever.
The unique danger of earthquakes, as Professor Fatahi from University of Technology Sydney explains, is that it is nearly impossible to issue earthquake warnings well in advance. An earthquake moves 50 times faster than a Category 5 hurricane. Due to their incredible speed, earthquakes can strike at any time without warning, making it incredibly difficult to take immediate precautions to avoid casualties as is possible with other natural disasters such as hurricanes.
Although Mexico is not unfamiliar with the effects of earthquakes, the most recent one happened at an extremely vulnerable time and place. The geography of much of its impact, Mexico City, is built on a dried-up ancient lakebed, which makes the area especially susceptible to damage. Mexico City is one of the worst possible places for an earthquake because its soil can amplify shaking by factors over 100, according to California-based seismologist Lucy Jones. This kind of impact left Mexico’s most busy city in utter chaos with a mess of shattered glass from windows, burning and collapsing buildings, and falling trees. Gas leaks and explosions resulted in severe injuries to thousands of people pouring into the streets to seek relief. But this terrifying scene was not just in the capitol. Over 30 million people felt some shaking from the earthquake, and the U.S. Geological Survey predicts that "significant casualty and damage are likely and the disaster is potentially widespread.”
When disasters are not only severe, but widespread, the damage can lead to an overall medical catastrophe. For example, in the aftermath of the September 8 earthquake, a hospital serving as the main health center for its region, was entirely destroyed. With the loss of power, many patients using respirators, in surgery, or in labor faced imminent death. Attempting to continue saving lives, the hospital staff was compelled to take patients to an empty lot and continue working using only the light from cell phones. Some officials turned a grade school into a makeshift clinic for the hospital’s current patients in addition to the hundreds of injured survivors.
Aside from the immediate medical emergencies resulting from the catastrophes, Mexico’s overall public health should be the forefront concern, considering that it could take decades to recover. Bodies still trapped in the rumble are a potential threat in the spread of diseases, and both officials and residents risked their safety to dig through wreckage and pull out the deceased and injured. In addition, the bare minimum quality of care afforded to patients whose hospitals have been destroyed will not be a temporary issue. Hospitals will have to be rebuilt, and the process of recovery will cause many without access to care to fall deeper into mental and physical illness. This all can lead to a vicious downward spiral.
Given the immense risks to the population, it is apparent why the World Health Organization treats earthquakes like a “disease” rather than as an emergency medical or humanitarian matter. Generally, it only takes a few weeks after an earthquake of such gravity until local government and external aid wanes and resources are extinguished. Health authorities then have to face the overwhelming obstacle of providing services to the displaced population as well as those suffering permanent disabilities and mental health problems. In the long-run, adverse effects on a country’s overall public health, such as an increased rate in heart and chronic disease mortalities, should be anticipated. The spread of disease resulting from the displacement and further lack of access to healthcare should be anticipated as well. In short, even when immediate support can be provided to survivors, earthquakes, such as those that recently hit Mexico, still pose significant long term threats to the public health of the country.
Joanna Kluzowska is currently a second-year, part-time law student at DePaul University College of Law. Ms. Kluzowska graduated from Loyola University Chicago with dual degrees: one in Business Administration for finance and another in Life and Sciences for political science. She is an active member in DePaul’s Health Law Institute and Law Review, and will complete her law degree with a focus on health care law in 2020.