by Giovanni Zambello
The plight of thousands of people continues in Europe where forecasters say that icy conditions are unlikely to improve before the end of this week. In the last 11 days, several Red Cross societies have been in a race against time to reduce the impact of the extreme cold. Estimates so far suggest 389 have died, and official sources say the winter has been the most brutal in decades.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has allocated a total of 576,000 Swiss francs to supplement National Societies’ aid efforts in support of 50,000 of the most vulnerable people, especially homeless and elderly people. Emergency funds are being directed to Red Cross societies in Belarus, Ukraine, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia to distribute warm clothes, stoves, food parcels and warm drinks, while hundreds of volunteers have been mobilised to help get aid to remote villages and temporary shelters. Volunteers are also taking part in rescue operations, and evacuating elderly or injured persons to receive medical care.
Alberto Monguzzi, Disaster Management and Shelter delegate in the Europe Zone office, said the cold was having a serious impact on the most vulnerable, but that the weather was not the only problem. “An increasing number of people have fallen below the poverty line as a consequence of the economic crisis, and were forced to live on the streets and at the edge of national health systems. They are then more exposed to such phenomena.”
Ukraine is registering the highest number of deaths due to the cold, mostly homeless people, who number up to 14,000 in Kiev alone. Latest figures suggest 135 people have died in the country.
In some area, other problems make the effects of the cold much worse. In Bulgaria, floods hit the Haskovo region after two dikes broke, causing nine deaths.
A campaigns to raise funds for affected people has been started by the Bulgarian Red Cross, in partnership with the country’s three mobile operators, as well as by public broadcaster Bulgarian National Television.
In Serbia, where over 70,000 villagers are stranded by snow and cut off from the world, nine people died and one person is missing. The Red Cross is providing food, warm clothes and hygiene items to some 8,000 people, mainly elderly households or older individuals living alone in remote areas, and families with small children.
In Albania, the Red Cross is providing food and clothes to 70 homeless Roma in Tirana and preparing food parcels, hygiene kits and blankets for a further 200 families in hard-to-reach rural areas.
In Macedonia, 16 Red Cross branches in coordination with local authorities are distributing basic necessities to the homeless and those worst-hit by the cold, and have taken part in the evacuation of people trapped in the snow on the mountains. The local Red Cross branch in Skopje, which since last winter has been had a shelter in the capital’s main station, has opened the doors of the reception centre around the clock. At the moment, 20 people are staying in the centre, while another 80 are using its services on a daily basis.
Italian Red Cross volunteers and staff are working in several reception centres for homeless people throughout the country. Street units are also visiting affected towns and villages bringing blankets, hot drinks and basic necessities and offering health services. In Rome, where the National Society’s headquarters is currently accommodating 52 clochard, the local Emergency Operations Room coordinates a street unit service with 30 volunteers distributing hot tea, blankets and basic necessities to the homeless.
In Hungary, where 12 deaths have been reported due to cold, more than 4,000 people turned to the Hungarian Red Cross for help in the last three days. The National Society is helping the needy in 50 settlements in 13 counties, distributing tea, food and clothes and providing social street services. The 15 day-and-night centres for homeless people run by the Hungarian Red Cross extended their opening hours and their capacity according to the needs, and over the weekend have helped more than 2,000 people. The Hungarian Red Cross has also launched a new donation line where everyone wishing to contribute to their work can donate.
In the Netherlands, local Red Cross branches are taking help to the streets with a truck providing shelter to homeless people. Branches are also closely involved in providing first aid in the ice skate tournaments organized across the country. The National Society is getting ready to deploy first aid volunteers along the track of the Eleven Cities Tour, a 220km speed skating competition and leisure skating tour, which is to be held in the country over the next days, with the participation of 10,000 people and the presence of over two million visitors.
“National Societies are setting up effective campaigns and information sharing tools to raise awareness among the population of how to protect themselves from the cold” said Monguzzi. “As the grip of the cold does not seem likely to loosen, communications remains crucial.”
Update: A Latvian Red Cross Night shelter in Riga has doubled the number of people it supports to 160 people and is now running a 24-hour service. Meals, clothing, hot showers and medical support services are provided by six staff members and 15 volunteers. The organization accepts every person who arrives or, if the shelter is overcrowded, ensures they have transport to another night shelter. Branch volunteers are also providing hot tea to the homeless and to outdoor workers, and blankets and clothing to a number of families whose houses have been burned down due to accidents with their heating.