12 October 2020

Natural disasters during a pandemic: Between a rock and a hard place

As the impact of COVID-19 continues to be felt globally, countries are struggling to cope with natural disasters due to the added burden placed on emergency response personnel.

The COVID-19 pandemic has complicated preparations for and response to natural disasters. Authorities across the globe have struggled to update plans and respond in ways that reduce the risk of transmission. In addition, emergency management agencies also need to grapple with shortages in manpower, equipment and other resources due to efforts directed towards tackling the COVID-19 pandemic. This in turn limits the effectiveness of emergency response and hampers post-disaster recovery. Those affected by evacuation orders or forced to seek communal shelter following a disaster may be at higher risk of contracting the virus as some distancing measures – such as 'stay at home' – may not be possible. These issues are amplified in developing countries with limited resources and large populations.

In the Carribean for example, many island nations, such as the Bahamas and Barbados, are left more vulnerable to the impact of the Atlantic hurricane season as usual hurricane preparedness and response have been negatively affected by the pandemic. Emergency funding and resources typically allocated for disaster preparedness and response during a hurricane have been redirected towards efforts in combating and preventing COVID-19, leaving disaster management agencies short-handed.

With a record-setting Atlantic hurricane season forecast this year, even well-resourced countries like the United States (US) will struggle and experience considerable strain on emergency management systems; such was the case during Hurricane Laura in August and more recently Hurricane Delta in October that impacted the southeastern US. Large-scale evacuations were hampered in Louisiana as COVID-19 concerns prevented the use of mass shelters and many were forced to sleep in their cars. In addition, many coronavirus testing centres in the path of the hurricane were also forced to close, negatively impacting health authorities' capacity to isolate and limit potential infections in the community.

At the peak of the California wildfires in mid-August 2020, as air-quality levels in affected areas were considered hazardous, there was an acute shortage of N95 masks, essential for going outside in such conditions, due to stocks being bought-up by hospitals and medical centres for COVID-19 response. That shortage could in turn worsen the infection rate there, since recent studies by researchers at Harvard and Stanford universities have shown that breathing polluted air leaves the lungs more susceptible to the coronavirus. In addition, fire fighting authorities in California also faced personnel shortages as inmate labour, which has been relied upon to fight wildfires, has been significantly depleted by both COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons and the early-release policies instituted to prevent them.

A severe cyclone (Amphan) and a typhoon (Ambo) that hit India-Bangladesh and the Philippines, respectively, during mid to late May 2020 underscored the problems faced by developing countries in coping with a pandemic during a natural disaster. Efforts aimed at promoting social distancing in shelters housing evacuees proved extremely difficult. In Bangladesh, the cyclone severely affected Cox's Bazar, where almost one million Rohingya refugees are housed. The living conditions of the camps combined with post-cyclone monsoon rains likely exacerbated the spread of the virus.

Deadly floods across India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Afghanistan between June to September also highlighted the difficulties in emergency response during a pandemic. Reduced capacities due to social distancing measures led to a shortage of shelters, increasing the number of displaced people. Additionally, a lack of testing capacity in these developing countries reduced their ability to identify and isolate those who are infected before they can infect others, thereby increasing the risk of an outbreak in the aftermath of a major natural disaster.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the dire need for countries to bolster their infrastructure, emergency management services and healthcare systems to better cope with natural disasters. However, with resources being finite, this is proving to be incredibly challenging even for the most well-developed nations.