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WhatsApp in Nepal: How one little app saves lives

An app that connects people for fun conversations showed its value when connections were needed under difficult circumstances
Nepalese earthquake survivor Krishna Devi Khadka meets with IsraAID head of mission to Nepal Yotam Polizer on May 8, 2015 (Photo credit: IsraAID)
Nepalese earthquake survivor Krishna Devi Khadka meets with IsraAID head of mission to Nepal Yotam Polizer on May 8, 2015 (Photo credit: IsraAID)

On May 12th a second devastating earthquake shook the nation of Nepal.

Although I’ve been on the ground since the first quake, it still took me a few seconds to recognize that this was not just another aftershock.

No, this was the real deal.

That minute of trembling felt more like an eternity as the ground beneath tossed and turned us to the tune of 7.3 on the Richter scale.

Dozens of thoughts, questions and worries crossed my mind that minute. But one thing was clear– this was a major blow for communities still struggling to pick up the pieces over the last two weeks.

Yotam Polizer, IsraAID Team Leader assess damages following May 12 earthquake in Nepal. (Photo: Mickey Noam-Alon/IsraAID)
Yotam Polizer, IsraAID Team Leader assess damages following May 12 earthquake in Nepal. (Photo: Mickey Noam-Alon/IsraAID)

The quake caught me in the middle of a UN coordination meeting in Kathmandu together with IsraAID’s psycho-social team. We were working on our strategy for the next phase of the operation: the transition from emergency relief to early recovery. It’s a critical and delicate phase that humanitarian agencies have yet to master.

But our experiences have shown that incorporating psycho-social initiatives in the early stages of a response is crucial. IsraAID trauma experts flew in from Sierra Leone, Israel and Japan to help. We had made great progress and strengthened our network of partners. We recruited and trained talented local counsellors and therapists and together developed a pilot program modeled after our successful initiatives in Asia and Africa which uses non verbal therapy to address the many fears of children and adults alike. Fears of an imminent disaster, of more destruction and untimely, tragic deaths.

And then, perfectly timed and on cue, the earthquake jostled us, notes and all, as if to prove those fears were not unwarranted.

Chaos and confusion ensued on the streets of the capital as people quickly evacuated buildings, looked for loved ones and huddled around outdoors.

Once again, all communication lines were down.

Except for one.

Miraculously, my WhatsApp was still working.

But, it was back to square one. Recovery plans would have to wait for now. We quickly change gears and get back into emergency mode. Back to saving lives.

Thanks to this simple App, we were able to trace and save seven little lives in the last 48 hours alone.

IsraAID's Medical Team Leader, Prof. Mick Elkin, treats babies in the remote Gorkha District.
Dr. Asher Moses treats babies in the remote village of Gorkha district. (Photo: Mickey Noam-Alon/IsraAID)

In fact, technological Apps have helped us in unprecedented ways these last few weeks.

Our IsraAID Nepal Relief WhatsApp group was activated within minutes of the April 25th earthquake.

Day and night, our group is filled with messages and updates, connecting our teams on the ground with IsraAID headquarters in Israel as well as extra program staff based in Asia, North America and Africa, all on stand-by to support and assist with planning and problem solving.

Through the use of this App, information is quickly gathered, shared and analyzed in real time, enabling us to better assess and prioritize not only the needs on the ground, but IsraAID’s added value and unique strengths which can have the greatest impact in the overall international and local relief efforts.

I quickly post to the group that I’m fine and begin to trace the rest of the team currently working in several different sites across Nepal.

IsraAID's sets up medical clinic in the remote communities of the Himilyans. (Photo: Mickey Noam-Alon/IsraAID)
IsraAID’s Medical Team reach remote communities in the Gorkhu District of the Himalyans. (Photo: Mickey Noam-Alon/IsraAID)
Destruction in the Gorkha District.
Destruction in the Gorkha District. (Photo: Mickey Noam-Alon/IsraAID)

Within a few minutes, I get a message that everyone is safe, including Nirjan, a 3-month-old baby our medical team evacuated from the mountains.

IsraAID’s medical team had just returned from treating hundreds of people in Gorkha, one of the worst-affected districts of the Himalayas and the epicenter of the the first earthquake. Among those treated, were two babies with meningitis that the team finally stabilized. But Nirjan was in critical condition and we worried that he would not make it through the night.

WhatsApp to the rescue!

We post that we need to immediately evacuate a mother and child.

A mother holds her baby as IsraAID's medical tream provide urgent care. (Photo: Mickey Noam-Alon/IsraAID)
Nirjan is held by his mother as IsraAID’s medical team provides urgent care. (Photo: Mickey Noam-Alon/IsraAID)

Within seconds, suggestions and solutions come in from far and wide and we manage to quickly sort out an emergency evacuation plan. It helped that we saw a UN helicopter fly by earlier in the day and we were able to make contact with the pilot.

So, we hitched a ride back to Kathmandu.

Emergency medical evacuation. (Photo: Mickey Noam-Alon/IsraAID)
Emergency medical evacuation. (Photo: Mickey Noam-Alon/IsraAID)

Everything was ready upon Nirjan’s arrival. Thanks to this simple App, we were able to quickly secure a bed at the Children’s Hospital, organize an ambulance at the landing pad and prepare a team of doctors for the intake.

Nirjan and his mother arrive safely in Kathmandu.
Nirjan and his mother arrive safely to the Children’s Hospital in Kathmandu.

And then, another message comes through, only this one is from Israel.

‘Four newborn babies were evacuated from the Grand Hospital. They need to be incubated immediately!’

The babies were born under a week ago to surrogate mothers and were being sheltered in the Hospital’s vehicle until help arrived.

Dr. David Shacham, a specialist in internal medicine with experience in neonatal care and Dr. Asher Moser, a pediatrician, rushed to the scene. Our team quickly improvised and established a ‘pop-up’ neonatal unit, using our Search and Rescue team’s tent.

A make-shift neonatal unit.
A makeshift neonatal unit. (Photo: Mickey Noam-Alon/IsraAID)
Keeping warm in the 'pop-up' neonatal unit.
Keeping warm in the ‘pop-up’ neonatal unit. (Photo: Mickey Noam-Alon/IsraAID)

We cared for all four babies into the night and managed to stabilize their conditions.

In the morning, one of the fathers conveyed his appreciation to our team. In his words:

“Little angels in the form of IsraAID saved my child.”

Although we have yet to fully understand the damage caused by this last quake, we do know that many more people are now further traumatized and vulnerable as a result. More people are afraid to enter or sleep in buildings and are seeking refuge in the tent cities sprawled across the capital. With the monsoons just around the corner, the humanitarian situation could become worse.

As IsraAID teams continue to address these urgent needs, new messages flood our WhatsApp group:

‘Amir is helping local surgeons operate at the main government hospital’

‘Tomer can extend his stay and help treat new injuries but needs someone to update his family back home.’

‘We reached the orphanage in Khuncha and are now treating 150 children and members of the community.’

‘Sending pics now…’

WhatsApp Phone final

About the Author
Yotam Polizer is the CEO of IsraAID – Israel’s biggest humanitarian NGO. Founded in 2001, IsraAID has worked in more than 60 countries, helping people affected by crisis re-build their lives, their communities, and their futures, together. Following the September 2015 refugee crisis in Europe, he led IsraAID’s humanitarian mission in Lesbos, Greece, to support Syrian refugees on the island and also established IsraAID Germany, which provides long-term support for Yazidi and Syrian refugees in Germany. During the last 10 years, Polizer has also built and led humanitarian aid programs in Japan after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, and in South Korea to support the reintegration of North Korean defectors. He has also led missions in Nepal following the 2015 Gorkha Earthquake and in Sierra Leone for Ebola survivors, health workers, and affected communities. He has more than 10 years’ experience in education, humanitarian aid, and international development
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