Preparing for a disaster in the middle of a pandemic

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COAST worked to make vulnerable people aware of Cyclone Amphan through its community radio, Radio Meghna, in Bhola, Bangladesh. Photo by: COAST

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — As floods hit East Africa, as India and Bangladesh reel from the effects of Cyclone Amphan, and as the Caribbean gears up for hurricane season, governments and organizations are putting disaster preparedness and response plans into practice. In some cases, they are having to manage large-scale evacuations — all amid a pandemic, where social distancing is key.

Ahead of Cyclone Amphan — which killed 85 people in May — Mohammad Shahjahan, assistant director and project coordinator at the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society, said that people’s unwillingness to move to crowded shelters for fear of catching COVID-19 was a challenge. So too was maintaining social distances between people in the shelters and ensuring the safety of volunteers and staff, he added.

Still, the cyclone proved that evacuation is possible amid the pandemic, said Isabel Gomes, global director of humanitarian operations at World Vision. “The logistical hurdles to overcome are immense, but with strong preparedness in place, a lot is still possible,” she said.

“Weather patterns don’t care about coronavirus, and weather-related disasters are becoming more frequent and severe.”

— Isabel Gomes, global director of humanitarian operations, World Vision

Burst riverbanks and mudslides have left almost 500,000 people displaced across large parts of Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia, many of them now seeking shelter in temporary accommodation centers. To protect those being affected by such a crisis within a crisis, organizations should all be “reviewing current disaster readiness plans and COVID-ifying them,” Gomes said.

Devex asked the experts what that means in practice.

Communication is key

“Mass awareness is the first key to managing dual challenges,” Shahjahan said, explaining that the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society conducted awareness-raising activities among volunteers and in communities prior to the cyclone’s arrival, sharing key messages on how to both prepare for the cyclone and protect themselves against COVID-19.

The Cyclone Preparedness Program — a joint program with the government of Bangladesh and Bangladesh Red Crescent Society provides an early warning system for 13 coastal districts — also released revised draft guidelines for volunteers. They included recommendations such as switching in-person contact for public announcements and mass communication tools, sharing awareness messages much earlier, and hoisting more early warning flags.

First came the coronavirus. And then the cyclone hit.

No amount of preparation could have readied the Pacific for the combined effect of Tropical Cyclone Harold and the pandemic. Humanitarian leaders share what has had to shift in their response.

“Getting messages to people is hard when they’re not gathering in groups, or in traditional meeting places such as markets and schools, so mobile technology — as long as it works — and radio broadcasts are vital,” Gomes said.

A critical component of preparedness is also fighting rumors, of which there are many, according to Simon Missiri, regional director for Africa with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. “A lot of preparedness is psychological, it’s messaging, it’s explaining, and understanding what’s coming,” he said. It also involves mobilizing resources and not waiting for other actors to provide support.

Planning ahead

For slower-onset disasters — such as droughts, flooding, and cyclones — there is more time to allow for preventative measures to both crises, such as vital supply pre-positioning, Gomes said. She warned, however, that everything will take twice as long right now.

She recommends creating good stockpiles of relief supplies — water, food, shelter, and hygiene kits in particular — ahead of time to avoid supply chain delays when the disaster arrives.

“Weather patterns don’t care about coronavirus, and weather-related disasters are becoming more frequent and severe. So there is every reason to continue to do what we know works — monitor, respond, and recover as best as possible — albeit with reduced resources given the current global focus,” Gomes said.

While the coronavirus has placed a burden on supply chains and limited travel, air bridges, such as those being run by the European Union and the World Food Program, can be used to help NGOs pre-position staff and supplies ahead of time.

Shahjahan advised that steps should also be taken to plan the emergency response, crisis management, resource allocation, a fund mobilization strategy, communication procedures, and business continuity in advance. He suggested spending time creating a database of shelters, suppliers, vehicle owners, and drivers while coordinating with all supporting stakeholders, and reviewing roles and responsibilities.

COAST worked to make vulnerable people aware of Cyclone Amphan through its community radio, Radio Meghna, in Bhola, Bangladesh. Photo by: COAST


When it is time to evacuate people, this can be difficult to do in a way that respects social distancing, Gomes said, adding that extra thought has to be given to how long people can stay in a shelter and their conditions.

Shahjahan said the shelters in Bangladesh were only filled to half capacity in an effort to create space between people, and masks were provided. Make-shift shelters were also quickly set up to accommodate the overflow. During the cyclone, more than 2 million people took to storm shelters in Bangladesh.

Sumaia Mariam, deputy director of COAST Trust, a Bangladesh-based NGO that works with the Cyclone Preparedness Program, advised others facing similar disasters to make use of solid buildings that can withstand high winds as well as official shelter centers to accommodate the need for physical distances. But they must be disinfected before use and have isolation centers within, she warned.

“By thermo scanner, the body temperature of the people can be measured and those who have high fever or sickness can be taken to isolation centers,” Mariam said, adding that shelters should provide an adequate number of washrooms and soap given the circumstances.

Staff and volunteers also have to be protected through personal protective equipment, restrictive travel, and training about how to adapt their movements, Missiri said. For example, in Kenya, the Red Cross is limiting in-person contact by using drones and satellite images to conduct assessments in 16 counties, while also airlifting household items to families that have been marooned by floods. The region’s prior experience with epidemics such as Ebola helps in this regard, Missiri added.

“Like almost every industry in the world, we in the humanitarian sector have got to change and adapt the way we do everything,” Gomes said.

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About the author

  • Rebecca Root

    Rebecca Root is a Reporter and Editorial Associate at Devex producing news stories, video, and podcasts as well as partnership content. She has a background in finance, travel, and global development journalism and has written for a variety of publications while living and working in New York, London, and Barcelona.