COVID-19: Lessons for disaster management

Good governance, responsive administration and coordination should be non-negotiable in a process driven by transparency and accountability

By Cherian Thomas
Published: Thursday 11 June 2020

The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) crisis has significantly redefined the humanitarian emergency paradigm and changed our understanding of disaster management in several ways.

First, the crisis is not limited by a geographic area or a cluster or physically defined areas in which the disaster occurred — as in an earthquake, flood or cyclone.

Second, effects of the disaster are so microscopic and invisible that one can easily underestimate its virulence or potency, as it happened in the early days of the pandemic. Earlier epidemics like SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and those due to bird flu and Ebola had a relatively lower geographical influence, but the speed of transmission and virulence of COVID-19 has posed an entirely new challenge.

Third, to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19, we have severely restricted the process of globalisation, travel and access, which we welcomed with wide open arms two decades earlier. 

On the other hand, while human society worldwide is under severe stress due to lockdowns, we are witnessing an altogether cleaner and more vibrant environment both in urban and rural habitats. Nonetheless, what began as a health crisis has now quickly snowballed into an economic crisis, caused, ironically, by some of the very steps that were taken by public authorities to prevent further spread! Little wonder then that several industrialised nations are still struggling to contain the levels of infection and fatality rates in their populations.

In countries like India, we are seeing how high population densities, coupled with the impossibility of physical distancing in small housing units, lack of running water and toilets, shortage of hygiene materials and personal protective equipment can exacerbate infection rates in several clusters that then become hot spots or red zones for the pandemic.

So how we can manage disasters in the future? 

With the nature of disasters changing constantly, they can surprise us by their unpredictability and speed of onset, despite our access to the most advanced and sophisticated information and early warning systems.

We have seen in recent disasters the inability to predict the incidence of mudslides or the amount of water to be held or released in dams during heavy rains — whether in Mumbai, Kerala or Chennai in recent years. The ferocity of volcanic discharges recently in the Philippines and New Zealand surprised many scientists and earthquakes continue to surprise us with their relative unpredictability.

Will the water from melting glaciers or rising ocean levels suddenly assume more catastrophic dimensions or smaller events like lightning incidents assume more alarming proportions in the coming days? The ability of disaster management authorities to reasonably predict or anticipate would be put to test in the days to come.

One of the issues that came to the forefront in the COVID-19 crisis in India was the seeming inability of governments to anticipate the impact of the suddenness of the lockdown on migrant labourers in various parts of the country. One question that we need to ask is this: Did we respond fast enough?

The speed of response would need to be gauged not only how quickly we enforced physical distancing and lockdowns, but also in the speed and reach of preventive messaging. Did we use the time during the lockdown to prepare the government machinery, mobilising and training of health personnel, procuring testing kits, ventilators and personal protective equipment?

The speed of response is often linked to the ability to procure materials in a timely and cost-effective manner in every disaster. Notable among the countries that responded quickly have been Taiwan and Hong Kong which could therefore contain the infection levels quickly.

There is also an urgent need to be “smart” in our responses. In the COVID-19 crisis, several governments took calculated risks as part of their responses — for instance, Sweden chose not to impose physical restrictions on citizens; others continued with a certain degree of economic activitywith very limited restrictions on mobility.

While the jury is still out on the efficacy of each of these strategies in their specific contexts, the key learning is that we should not lose sight of our strategic and tactical responses while implementing steps to mitigate the crisis.

The quick transition of a health crisis to a social and economic crisis of frightening dimensions in India clearly required this unique ability and the need for decisions that took into account the economic impacts of lockdowns on citizens.

This hopefully would also result in a lot more of preventive disaster management plans and strategies being implemented across the country in the future — flood-proofing areas prone to annual flooding; creating infrastructure for community disaster response plans; drought-proofing arid areas by implementing ever-greening strategies combining decentralised, community-based water management, appropriate agriculture choices and agro-forestry with active encouragement by local, central and state governments.

One important lesson is that of coordination between the various stakeholders. This has become even more critical as multiple disasters striking simultaneously, as we just experienced with Cyclone Amphan even in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis.

This requires a certain degree of ongoing investment in proactive preparedness at the community level, recognising the need for all players to actively collaborate to build a certain degree of disaster resilience.

Good governance, responsive administration and active coordination should be non-negotiable features of a dynamic process that is driven by transparency and accountability on the part of public officials.

Finally, our responses have to be humane and people-centric. Often, those infected or at the risk of exposure, including healthcare workers, were treated as criminals — denied entry or asked to summarily leave their houses. Hapless migrants and “violators” of the “curfews” were pilloried, bullied and even beaten up by police personnel.

The images of some of these incidents only bring home, rather poignantly, the fact that the biggest lesson that COVID-19 has taught us is that we have to be genuinely concerned about the condition of our poor, and that the bulk of us have to overcome several fault lines in our minds before we can even think of building an inclusive, just and caring society in the near future. 

Views expressed are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth


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