Counting the dead in the Philippines is grim, slow, and frustratingly inexact work.
Since the monster Typhoon Haiyan slammed into the scattered Pacific islands a week and a half ago, the toll has fluctuated wildly — a few hundred at first, then a nightmarish estimate of 10,000, then a smaller figure given by the president that quickly proved too optimistic.
On Tuesday, the Philippine government put the count at just under 3,982, but no one seemed to believe it would stay there. The United Nations warned that crews have still not reached some remote islands.
“It is unlikely we’ll ever know the exact total,” even after a final and official figure is reached, Steven Rood, the Philippines country representative for the nonprofit Asia Foundation, said by email from Manila.
Casualty reporting after any natural disaster is tricky, subject to logistical challenges that grow with the severity of the disaster itself — downed power lines, telephone outages.
In the Philippines, the problem was compounded by a highly decentralized government and a communications network that relies heavily on mobile technology, Rood said. Radio backup, thought to be unnecessary, was abandoned by civilian offices years ago.
Adding to the chaos was the myth — not unique to the Philippines — that cadavers pose such a health risk that they must be buried before before they can be identified, he said. In fact, health officials say, human remains pose a relatively minor risk of infection and contamination after a disaster.