Covid lessons – why everyone needs to be disaster ready
Covid is a teacher. Of the many lessons it has taught us, the most prominent one is that disasters are no longer bad things that happen only to poor people in faraway places; they are right at our doorsteps.
This change had started creeping in a few years ago, when we began seeing severe flash floods in cities like Mumbai, Chennai, and Srinagar. It was still not as widespread and as devastating as Covid-19 when everyone suffered, no matter how many resources or contacts were at one’s disposal.
If there has to be one takeaway from the experiences of the past year, it is that everyone should anticipate and prepare for the worst situations in life. Everyone, including national and local governments, offices, factories, farms, schools, hospitals, neighbourhoods, utility and service companies and departments, families, and most importantly, individuals need to realise this and be prepared accordingly.
Disasters - a cocktail of hazards and vulnerabilities
To take up `worst scenario’ planning, one needs to understand what ingredients make a perfect disaster.
A simple equation to grasp this is Hazard + Vulnerability = Disaster. In other words, there are two conditions that need to be met for a disaster to come true, a hazard that triggers adverse conditions, and vulnerability that exposes inherent weaknesses of an individual, or society, or system, leading to damage and suffering.
We can’t eliminate hazards such as earthquakes and cyclones. Vulnerability, on the other hand, is internal and easier for us to address. Weak houses that get damaged in the face of hazards, low lying neighbourhoods that flood during the rains, decaying infrastructure that crumbles or suffers damage easily, and limited response capacity of hospitals and fire stations that gets overwhelmed are all examples of vulnerability.
Building capacity, by learning skills to handle disaster situations and acquiring equipment and materials to do so well are great ways to remove vulnerability from the equation, thus living with hazards without letting them turn into disasters.
Hazards are changing
Though major hazards such as earthquakes and cyclones can’t be stopped, climate-related hazards such as cyclones, floods, and heatwaves have now been proven to be getting worse due to human activities.
Geotechnical ones such as earthquakes and tsunamis will cause more devastation in the future because of the way unsafe buildings are being constructed on hazardous lands that were earlier left unoccupied.
Increasing impact of climate related disasters needs to be addressed through climate change mitigation actions so that they don’t worsen further, and adaptation actions that help us learn to live with the damage that has already been done.
Mitigation actions include cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions by switching to cleaner fuels such as solar and wind energy, and adaptation actions include better preparedness and protection actions such as early warning systems, evacuation plans and safer buildings.
Good land use planning in our neighbourhoods, and resilient infrastructure are a must to survive these impacts. Much of this work is systemic and requires large, concerted efforts.
Vulnerabilities have been made much worse by Covid
In this already complex process of trying to reduce disaster risks, Covid-19 has added new challenges and setbacks. The economic impact of the pandemic has left families, local governments, civil society organisations, and funders all cash strapped.
While there has been significant investment by all to fight Covid through treatment, vaccination, and Covid appropriate behaviour, the available resources to improve early warnings, strengthen infrastructure, and train communities on disaster preparedness have shrunk.
Cyclones during Covid
Such problems were highlighted during the six significant cyclones we witnessed during the pandemic. Cyclones Amphan, Nisarga, Nivar, and Burevi in 2020, and Tauktae and Yaas in 2021, impacted the states of West Bengal, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Maharashtra, and Gujarat significantly, and other neighbouring states in limited ways.
While they may have escaped national attention as the bigger struggle of fighting successive Covid waves was underway, they threw up very severe challenges for communities and governments where they struck.
Evacuating millions of people including Covid patients, ensuring safe shelter for them, organising relief distributions and reconstruction activities with lockdowns and fear of Covid spread is something that everyone learnt to execute literally while on the job.
We are now in our second season of floods during the pandemic, with impacts more widespread and less visible than in the case of cyclones. Nature has fortunately spared us from an earthquake or tsunami kind of acute event so far.
Water logging and heat
It is, however, not only the large catastrophic events that we need to worry about. Small scale but widespread stresses such as water logging and heat have a less visible but huge impact.
Waterlogging that takes place in almost every settlement of the country in the monsoons is a major factor for the outbreak of epidemics such as malaria, dengue, and chikungunya. Besides the lives lost, millions of working or learning days are lost for society as a whole when people can’t go to work and students can’t go to school.
Similarly, heat takes a massive toll on productivity and loss of GDP during the summer months. We have started seeing fewer deaths in heatwaves, thanks to concerted efforts by governments and increased awareness at the community level, but the incidence of heat has moved indoors in recent decades as we moved to using modern materials such as cement, steel, and glass, that make buildings hotter than traditional mud, stone, tile, and thatch ones.
More hard paved surfaces in the neighbourhoods, and lesser trees, make this worse, leading to what is called the urban heat island effect.
All of society – nobody spared
All of society was a term coined to ensure that no one is left behind in efforts to make communities safer. Disasters too seem to have learnt the concept and are now taking an all of society approach, sparing no one.
While earlier a flood news would throw up imagery of remote rural poor folk stuck on a mound of land or a rooftop with their small livestock, floods are now a frequent phenomenon in cities.
The pandemic took this to a new level, where every family suffered or knew someone close who did. Many initially called the pandemic a black swan event, implying that it was severe and unpredictable.
The unpredictability was, however, soon questioned, as many sources had warned the world of such an event, and there is evidence of such events having occurred in the past. The fact is, the pandemic was predictable, it had been predicted, but the world was too busy chasing economic growth to care.
Cities are the new frontline
A significant feature of the changing face of disasters is that risk is urbanising, and more and more disaster events were striking cities. This is not a one-off thing, and cities are the new frontlines of disasters, being hit with increasing frequency and severity. Disaster impacts are now larger than ever before in terms of economic losses and hardships.
The losses continue to mount in the villages too, but they are losing out in terms of visibility and attention they require. This changing risk landscape is adding to the growing complexity and variability of disasters.
The only way forward for us towards a safer future for ourselves, our children, and our future generations is a comprehensive risk assessment and preparedness approach.
The next big disaster
The one question that will set us on this path with a sense of urgency is: What will the next big disaster to strike us be, and where and when will it hit?
We may not be able to get a conclusive answer to this, but there is enough knowledge available to narrow our focus down to a few areas where we can then focus our attention.
The Covid wave is certainly not the last one. A big earthquake is overdue on our subcontinent; urban floods have only begun to show their ugly face; and we know the cities that have a high probability of seeing one in the near future.
In other times, our cities will see increasing water stresses that some are calling the urban drought, as Shimla and Bengaluru have witnessed in recent years; cyclones are getting stronger while the population and our investments in coastal areas are growing; pest infestations and new, drug resistant diseases are raising their heads again after decades of a sense that we were getting control over them.
Only one way forward
The risks are clear, the hotspots are known, and the action required is well established. New technologies at our disposal, including artificial intelligence and digital communications, give us the power to act with unprecedented precision and scale.
All we need is public and political will to put safety first.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)