Natural disasters an increased threat during pandemic

Natural disasters an increased threat during pandemic

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NBC News cameraman Tim Walton covers the LNU Lightning Complex Fire as it engulfs trees and brush in Lake County, Cal., U.S., Aug. 23, 2020. (Reuters)

The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic and its economic impacts have made life difficult for people around the world. Unfortunately, natural disasters have not stopped; in some cases, climate change is intensifying or increasing the frequency of such disasters. Government authorities, aid organizations, and communities and individuals are being forced to find ways to cope with both disasters and the pandemic.

The US has one of the biggest COVID-19 outbreaks in the world and has experienced multiple extreme weather events this year. The western US, particularly California, is experiencing some of the worst fires in the region’s history. Organizations such as the Red Cross had time to prepare for the combination of the pandemic and the fire season and have taken steps to provide more shelters that allow for social distancing, but the pandemic still complicates people’s ability to find shelter. The fires are also worsening air quality, creating a new concern for people with pulmonary conditions. And the smoke forces people to spend more time inside, which limits opportunities for safer outdoor forms of exercise and socialization.

The Atlantic hurricane season is forecast to be particularly extreme this year. Currently, Tropical Storm Laura and Hurricane Marco are threatening the US coast, particularly Louisiana and Texas — two states that are dealing with large COVID-19 outbreaks. If both storms reach hurricane strength in the Gulf of Mexico at the same time, it would be a historic first. There are also concerns that many people might not evacuate for fear of catching the virus, while authorities are aware that more people might lack the financial resources to evacuate due to the economic impacts of COVID-19, and so might need assistance. The pandemic complicates hurricane response in other ways, too, such as reducing the number of disaster relief volunteers, who often travel from other US states.

Two weeks ago, the Midwest was hit by an unusual derecho with hurricane-force winds. It caused widespread damage to physical property and crops, particularly in Iowa. The storm caused long-lasting power outages and forced several COVID-19 testing centers to temporarily close. The economic impact, particularly to the agricultural sector, comes on top of a tough year for farmers for multiple reasons, plus the pandemic’s effects.

Natural disasters continue to pose threats in many other parts of the world, too. Cyclone Amphan hit India and Bangladesh in May as those countries were dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak. While there were some successful evacuations, the pandemic complicated shelter provision, including because some locations were reportedly already in use as COVID-19 isolation centers. Later, historically devastating monsoon floods swamped parts of South Asia, putting at least a quarter of Bangladesh under water. In addition to the challenges of finding shelter, many who lost their homes and crops were already struggling from the economic consequences of COVID-19, including the loss of remittances from family members in urban areas.

There are multiple other examples. The Middle East experienced an unusually strong cyclone in March while coping with the early spread of the virus. Northern India dealt with a severe heatwave in May, while parts of Europe endured one this summer that contributed to people crowding British beaches in violation of social distancing measures. Locust swarms in the spring and summer in East Africa, the Middle East and South Asia added to farmers’ misery.

The pandemic complicates responses to natural disasters; it makes it harder to move supplies, to ensure safe shelter, and to find volunteers to help, among other problems. The pandemic also exacerbates the economic effects of disasters and diminishes the economic and psychological resources that people have to cope with them. Natural disasters undermine efforts to contain COVID-19; they can force people to group together, negatively affect access to medical services, reduce testing efforts, and add to health problems. The economic consequences of the pandemic have damaged many governments’ fiscal health and ability to respond to disasters, while natural disasters threaten to absorb the resources necessary for combating the pandemic.

It makes it harder to move supplies, to ensure safe shelter, and to find volunteers to help, among other problems.

Kerry Boyd Anderson

The combination of the pandemic and natural disasters also presents a series of psychological blows to people. Australian communities trying to recover from the severe, widespread fires of late 2019 and early 2020 found themselves dealt another blow when the pandemic undermined businesses’ and individuals’ recovery. In the US, some of the states facing fires, the derecho and hurricanes are also among the states that were already struggling to manage COVID-19 rates. Both the pandemic and natural disasters also increase the risk of domestic violence.

Pandemic plus natural disaster is a double whammy for many people. However, while the combination can pose logistical, economic and psychological challenges, there are also many examples of communities pulling together to face these difficult circumstances. And many authorities and aid organizations demonstrated an impressive ability to plan ahead; people had time to prepare for the natural disasters that are hitting now, rather than earlier in the pandemic, and to develop strategies for responding in the time of COVID-19. The year 2020 is very challenging, but many people are demonstrating the depth of human resilience and how communities can support each other.

  • Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 16 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica and managing editor of Arms Control Today. Twitter: @KBAresearch
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