Volunteers at a TC Harold relief supplies distribution in Vanuatu. Photo by: Vanuatu Red Cross Society via Facebook

CANBERRA — Tropical Cyclone Harold, a category 5 cyclone, couldn’t have picked a worse time and location to hit. As countries world-wide were implementing travel restrictions and lockdown measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Harold hit Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, and Vanuatu in early April, with the greatest impact to remote and regional communities.

In responding, humanitarian workers have faced restricted access to communities because of the lockdown measures put in place to prevent potential outbreaks. For the Red Cross, work to support and empower localized responses has been important in building capacity at local levels — but no amount of planning could have prepared them for this, and innovative approaches have been required to support responding to a disaster within a pandemic.

There are lessons from the Pacific response that are already being put into place supporting aid organizations responding to Tropical Cyclone Amphan, which made landfall in India and Bangladesh on May 20.

What were the challenges faced?

When TC Harold struck Vanuatu, it passed through the middle of the 83 islands that make up the nation — and both the cyclone and COVID-19 restrictions meant the Vanuatu Red Cross society was limited in its ability to reach provincial areas most affected by the cyclone.

“We had a lot of Red Cross volunteers well trained and on the ground, but there was nothing to distribute because it was all here at Porta Villa,” Jacqueline De Gaillande, secretary general of the Vanuatu Red Cross Society, told Devex.

In Fiji, a similar situation was unfolding.

From Suva, the Fiji Red Cross Society needed to organize volunteers to support the remote islands and coastal regions affected by TC Harold. But restrictions implemented in response to COVID-19 meant volunteers were not permitted to work in communities outside of their own.

“We found that our response has been limited in the first round,” Ilisapeci Rokotunidau, director general of the Fiji Red Cross Society, told Devex. “The government was focused on ensuring COVID-19 was not spread to the islands. It would have been harder to manage [the cyclone response] that if COVID-19 reached the islands. But this in effect has impacted the way we deliver our response.”

“Our people on the ground are dedicated to supporting each other — they are resilient. They are empowered and are not waiting for people outside to help. We are doing it ourselves.”

— Jacqueline De Gaillande, secretary general, Vanuatu Red Cross Society

Despite Red Cross working on training volunteers and empowering communities to lead in responses, supplies were not accessible to the most affected communities — they needed to be transported from major towns or even through international supply chains.

In Fiji, Rokotunidau said that some communities had to wait 10 days for initial support.

“The clothes they were wearing were all they had left,” she said. “No one should have to wait that long for support in poor conditions.”

Ongoing logistical challenges, with grounded flights, impacted supply chains regionally and internationally and limited access to transport continues to impact the response, leading to concerns that communities are at risk of diseases.

“Water is one of the biggest issues,” Rokotunidau said. “A lot of the water supply systems have been damaged. Some islands are living on dire straits.”

How the response is shifting

The nature of challenges facing humanitarian responders in the region is now making them think innovatively in how they are delivering services and support.

“A key pivot has been to the way we deliver technical assistance,” Fiona Tarpey, head of advocacy for international programs with the Australian Red Cross, told Devex. “It has forced a significant change to the traditional modality of sending international technical advisers overseas  to provide training — to very quickly using online and digital training methods by staff based at home.”

In Papua New Guinea, training materials on community-based health surveillance have moved online, and are being utilized by Red cross staff and volunteers. Logistic staff based in Australia, Fiji, and New Zealand are working remotely to support operations required to deliver goods to Vanuatu and other outer islands.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has established a health hotline, providing national health guidance and staffed by trained volunteers. Social media used to support local monitoring and evaluation is also under investigation, and the use of apps such as WhatsApp among humanitarian workers has accelerated further.

“It’s the first time for the Fiji Red Cross Society that we have had to re-look at how we were doing our training with our volunteers,” Rokotunidau said. “A lot of it before was face-to-face, so we had to quickly develop and design training for on-line and select people from geographic areas that would allow us to reach as many people as possible.”

Purchasing mobile top ups is an important part of the TC Harold support, according to Rokotunidau, thus enabling volunteers to access training material from YouTube and call for advice and support at any time.

But the response also highlights the importance of the work that has been done to support localization.

“TC Harold was very hard and complicated for us to deal with, but our volunteers and support network are working tirelessly,” De Gaillande said. “Even within these constraints, we are doing well because our people on the ground are dedicated to supporting each other — they are resilient. They are empowered and are not waiting for people outside to help. We are doing it ourselves.”

Learning to be more efficient and proactive, De Gaillande said, are critical lessons from this disaster.

Increased attention to more localized procurement processes and the procurement of local goods, Tarpey said, will support communities in being more efficient and proactive, along with facilitating access to real-time data to help with decision making. But another key lesson is that everyone needs to take new risks and invest in emerging networks and relationships.

“A lot of the compliance focus of international humanitarian work is focused on risk aversion,” she said. “These risk tolerances need to change if we are to fully support trusted and experienced local partners. Change in this area has been very slow.”

Applying this knowledge with Amphan

IFRC is currently supporting the Bangladesh Red Crescent, India Red Cross, and Myanmar Red Cross as part of the response to Cyclone Amphan — which has already proven deadly.

The lessons learned from TC Harold are being applied to ensure affected communities are not left vulnerable, and hygiene is at the top of the agenda for responders.

“In the Pacific, TC Harold reinforced the importance of localized response and community responders,” Jess Letch, manager of emergency operations coordination for IFRC’s Asia Pacific Region Office, told Devex.

“In India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar, thousands of Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers have been quickly mobilized within their local communities to prepare and evacuate vulnerable people. In Bangladesh, more than 1,700 Cyclone Preparedness Programme volunteers are already trained in hygiene and prevention measures and know how to integrate them in their work in evacuation centers.”

IFRC has released 760,000 Swiss francs ($786,000) through their Disaster Relief Emergency Fund and the Forecast-based Action mechanisms to support immediate needs, but Letch said that TC Harold has shown that restrictions on the movement of goods and people may hinder a large-scale response.

“There are prepositioned relief supplies in all three countries,” she said. “If more goods are required, our experience in TC Harold and the COVID-19 response will help us to navigate some of the technicalities of shipping, port clearance, and quarantine in the COVID context.”

Physical distancing in evacuation centers is also expected to be a concern.

“Many of the spaces that are designated cyclone shelters are currently being used for COVID-19 quarantine, which puts further pressure on the available facilities,” Letch said.

India Red Cross and Bangladesh Red Crescent have helped identify alternative evacuation spaces and are cleaning and disinfecting cyclone shelters. Personal protective equipment, hand washing facilities, and hand sanitizer are also being supplied for volunteers and people in shelters to reduce the risks of COVID-19 spreading.

For Mercy Corps, support for the response in India has highlighted the importance of localization — echoing the lessons from TC Harold.

“We are working very closely with partners in the local communities to ensure that they are prepared,” Amarinder Cooner, media and communications officer for Mercy Corps, told Devex.

“This includes community stakeholders, district administration and other local NGOs. We believe it's really important that communities are empowered to lead responses, drawing on their knowledge of their local environment. This is especially vital with COVID-19 restrictions in place.”

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.