Severe natural disasters take a heavy toll on the health of the survivors. At least nearly 5,000 people died of indirect causes linked to disasters during the Heisei Era, such as illnesses exacerbated by difficult conditions in evacuation shelters, the heavy stress from the radically changed living environment and suicides among evacuees, according to a recent tally by Kyodo News. These are lives that might have been saved if their problems had been properly addressed. It is incumbent on the government to gather data and analyze these deaths to find out what needs to be done to reduce them in future disasters.

The problem of people dying from indirect causes of natural disasters came under the spotlight following the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, in which more than 900 people who survived the temblor that devastated Kobe and its vicinity died after being evacuated — partly due to an outbreak of influenza in the shelters. People who have died of indirect causes are officially recognized as disaster victims through the screening process by local authorities if relatives step forward and apply for condolence money. The number of such deaths is believed to be much larger than the officially recognized figure, however, because some victims who should have qualified were rejected by authorities and because some relatives simply fail to apply for the recognition because they are unaware of the system.

Even though the problem has been identified for some time now, no national government body keeps track of the number of indirect deaths or the reasons behind them. Kyodo compiled the tally — 4,958 — by contacting the local governments where the disasters took place. As a result, efforts to study the circumstances behind the indirect deaths with the aim of preventing health-damaging effects among disaster survivors, such as improving conditions in evacuation shelters, remain slow.