GENEVA - Some of the world’s most disaster-prone nations are
gearing up for their greatest challenge in the coming months
when cyclones and floods can be expected to force the evacuation
of millions of people while COVID-19 remains a widespread menace.
India, Bangladesh and the Philippines have significantly reduced
loss of life from hydro-meteorological events in recent years
thanks to the effectiveness of their early warning systems combined
with timely evacuations in the face of extreme weather events.
National disaster management agencies, Red Cross and Red Crescent
national societies and NGOs already engaged in the COVID-19 response
are now blending those efforts with preparations for monsoon and
cyclone seasons which usually displace millions of people across
Asia and the Pacific.
“COVID-19 has underlined that our response mechanisms, particularly
for black swan events - in both developing and developed countries
– require a lot of strengthening,” said Kamal Kishore, a senior
official with India’s National Disaster Management Agency with
responsibility for the COVID-19 response.
Mr. Kishore was one of the disaster management leaders who spelt
out the changing approaches to disaster preparedness in a wide-ranging
webinar today on “Combatting the Dual Challenges of Climate-related
Disasters and COVID-19”, the latest in a series on learning from the
pandemic organized by UNDRR’s Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific.
It attracted 1,169 participants from 91 countries.
UNDRR regional chief, Loretta Hieber Girardet, opened the discussion
with the observation that a taste of what is to come has already been
experienced this month by small island developing states in the Pacific
where recovery efforts continue following category five Cyclone Harold
which struck the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Tonga and Vanuatu leaving 28
dead and many thousands homeless and living in shelters.
Sanaka Samarasinha, UN Resident Coordinator, UN Multi-Country Office,
Fiji, highlighted the situation in Vanuatu where 160,000 people were
affected by Cyclone Harold and many had lost their homes. The country
which was already in a state of emergency because of COVID-19 had suffered
severe damage to critical infrastructure including health facilities,
schools and agriculture.
Mr. Samarasinha said an earlier initiative to combat a measles outbreak
has been adapted for the COVID-19 response and the UN was also stepping
up its efforts to combat violence against women and girls in the COVID-19
lockdown, but social or physical distancing is a major challenge in the
evacuation shelters. There have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 but
there is also no testing available.
Mr. Kishore spelled out eight key considerations for addressing the challenges
ahead in India where there are more than 12,000 cases of COVID-19 and nearly
400 deaths. “It’s reasonably well controlled compared to other countries.
We are under lockdown for the last three weeks and we have another two and
a half weeks to go.”
He highlighted that out of over 700 districts, almost 400 are affected. This
created huge challenges because unlike other disasters it was not geographically
confined to a small pocket.
Mr. Kishore said it was a key priority to work doubly hard to minimize the
burden on hospitals arising from other hazards, such as heatwaves, by treating
people at the community level in primary health care centres wherever possible.
Hospital preparedness required strengthening to ensure their capacity to
function in response to extreme weather events.
The Standard Operating Procedures for the management of cyclone shelters will
need to incorporate physical distancing which would create a need to augment
capacity by identifying other facilities for use as temporary shelters.
Bangladesh set a record when the country’s Cyclone Preparedness Programme (CPP)
evacuated 2.1 million people last November before Cyclone Bulbul made landfall,
saving many lives.
Bangladesh CPP Director, Ahmadul Haque, Ministry of Disaster Management and
Relief, who manages a network of 56,000 volunteers said all attention was currently
on responding to COVID-19 and the usual preparedness and response planning for
the cyclone season would have to be adapted accordingly.
There was a contradiction between the measures necessary for one scenario versus
the other, staying at home to avoid COVID-19 but being forced to gather in large
numbers in shelters to avoid the impact of a cyclone.
“This is the greatest challenge we are facing,” said Mr. Haque, along with
providing personal protection equipment (PPE) to volunteers.
He said they would have to take the risk of late evacuations and to minimize
the time spent in shelter. Priority would be given to older persons, persons
with disabilities, pregnant women, children and girls to be evacuated first.
Alternative shelter spaces will also have to be identified to reduce density.
The CPP is redesigning its approach to disseminating early warnings at the
community level to ensure physical distancing and greater use of mass communication
tools including public address systems and social media.
The Philippine Red Cross is playing a major support role to the Government’s
efforts to fight the spread of COVID-19. In addition to providing helplines to
the general population and distributing PPE to small hospitals in Manila, the
Red Cross this week started testing for the coronavirus and set up tents to
augment hospital capacity, according to Secretary-General, Elizabeth Zavalla.
The Red Cross is also preparing for the rainy season in May and the 20-plus
typhoons which typically strike the country in any given year mainly in June,
July and August. The Red Cross is pre-positioning emergency supplies around
the country in anticipation of the typhoon season.
“The situation now is difficult. If you have a typhoon, an evacuation centre will
be difficult to maintain now because usually there is no distancing which we have
to practice now,” she said.
Lemau Afamasaga from the Palau Red Cross Society highlighted the importance of
making trustworthy information available and ensuring community outreach,
especially with regard to the dual impact of drought and COVID-19 in the north
Daniel Gilman from OCHA pointed to the logistical challenges, for instance,
COVID-induced travel restrictions that will impede humanitarian response in
case of a major disaster, and hence the need to rely on remote sensing and
analysis and less on direct assessments to calculate humanitarian needs.
Equally important is the need for greater localization of preparedness and
response efforts, underscored by local partnerships, pointed Jeremy Wellard
from the International Council of Voluntary Agencies, and routing funding
directly to local actors.
United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction,
Provided by the IKCEST Disaster Risk Reduction Knowledge Service System