COVID-19: Lessons from past epidemics, natural disasters

India has a robust legal framework for disaster management, yet there are gaps in response and preparedness to fight COVID-19 outbreak

By Franklin Jones
Published: Friday 15 May 2020

The world is experiencing one of the most destructive and profound economic shocks in recent history in the wake of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. The damage the virus is unleashing is only by way of human infection — it will not affect the infrastructure like other natural disasters such as floods or earthquakes do.

Yet, the chaos COVID-19 has brought is more devastating than previous occurred catastrophes.

India has a robust legal framework for disaster management, yet reports are replete with gaps in response and preparedness to fight the COVID-19 outbreak. One of India’s primary weapons against COVID- is a 123-year-old colonial legislation — the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897.

While it empowers officials to enter any house and forcibly examine a suspected sick person, it does not authorise the government to enforce a lockdown or even screen passengers at airports. There was no air travel when the law was enacted to deal with bubonic plague outbreak in India’s commercial capital, Mumbai. But authorities soon found a way forward.

By declaring the catastrophe a national disaster instead of an epidemic, they were able to invoke comprehensive disaster management laws to empower the executive to deal with the situation.

The 2004 Tsunami led to the enactment of National Disaster Management Act, 2005, and setting up of disaster management bodies to deal with catastrophes.

The Act provided for the establishment of a national authority at the Centre and for state authorities for each state and union territory for the effective management of disasters. For the first time, this law has been pressed into service on a pan-India basis. It is also the first time it has been invoked to address a public health crisis —  COVID-19.

The moment has not quite arrived though. The Damocles Sword hangs dangerously on the untold numbers of largely defenceless heads, a massacre almost too appalling to contemplate. The country has been under lockdown since March-end. It’s not easy for any nation to let its economy stand still and bear heavy losses. Yet, India took that hard decision to protect hundreds of thousands of lives.

A halted economy brought despair and paralysed commerce across various key sectors.

Even if the preventive action is proven effective, it would have failed to take into account that many poor and low-income people could not afford to self-isolate. Despite being one of the major economies, India is still struggling with third-world issues. For example, about 70 per cent of Indians living in rural areas or slums do not have options to self-isolate in a pristine environment.

Rather, they live in the fear of contamination in their own surroundings. The status of healthcare providers is another major concern. The first responders — government officials and volunteers — dealing with suspected patients are inadequately equipped with personal protective kits (PPK), essential to the handling, evacuation and isolation of the infected.

Despite our efforts to contain the virus, the number of cases positive to it are only increasing by the day. The need of the hour is to ensure that all departments work in cohesion for a win-win situation.

It is imperative for stakeholders to make the disaster management policy work. At a time when co-operative federalism is essential, our administration and leadership, at every level, cannot, and ought not to fail its citizens.  

If India wants to create an impactful response to the crisis, we need to pool in all our resources, may be even look at reallocation of budgets. Extraordinary situations such as these require extraordinary responses.

The country needs to think about how the protection of the unorganised and informal workforce. A limited form of targeted basic income for the daily wager, using the Union government's Jan Dhan scheme could be used to ensure sustenance. It is important, however, that any policy made for these emergency purposes come with sunset clauses.

An epidemic does not fall within the purview of the disaster management sector, though in terms of scale and suffering, it should. Ironically, in India, disaster response preparedness still means rebuilding what has been destroyed.

Franklin Jones is Head, Humanitarian Emergency Affairs, World Vision India

Views expressed are the authors’ own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth


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