National and International Issues

COVID-19 and the Science of Disaster Management

The foremost lesson taught by Coronavirus is that we are all unsafe no matter how rich and powerful we are, and no matter how microscopic and humiliating the enemy is; it can even be excretion of a toxic cell?

Anyways, COVID-19 is a disaster we are dealing with and we need to deal it with the science of disaster management. The philosophy of this science stands on two dictums:

▪ Risk is compulsory, loss is optional

▪ Convert the adversity into opportunity

The first applies to a situation that arises before or during a disaster where loss is minimized by management and/or reduction of risk, and the second to a situation which arises after a disaster where rehabilitation and reconstruction is carried out through the window of opportunity by “building back better”.


The philosophy of disaster management can only be executed through the proactive approach, whereas the world at large was reactive till 2005 when 168 countries from around the globe (including Pakistan) voluntarily signed an agreement in Hyogo (Japan) to modify their basic approach to disaster management; to be proactive rather than being reactive in much the same way that we get vaccinated to prevent the occurrence of an infection or minimize its impacts rather than getting infected and then taking antibiotics.


The philosophy of disaster management can only be executed through the proactive approach, whereas the world at large was reactive till 2005 when 168 countries from around the globe (including Pakistan) voluntarily signed an agreement in Hyogo (Japan) to modify their basic approach to disaster management; to be proactive rather than being reactive in much the same way that we get vaccinated to prevent the occurrence of an infection or minimize its impacts rather than getting infected and then taking antibiotics.

The secret of successful disaster management unfolded with a universal undertaking to focus more on pre-disaster than post-disaster management inline with a popular slogan that reads “prevention is better than cure”. The management and reduction of risk was declared the prime obligation to be attained through five priority areas.

1. Ensure that disaster risk reduction is a national and local priority with a strong institutional basis for implementation.

2. Identify, assess and monitor disaster risks and enhance early warning.

3. Use knowledge, innovation and education to build a culture of safety and resilience at all levels.

4. Reduce the underlying risk factors.

5. Strengthen disaster preparedness for effective response at all levels.

Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA) is known as a paradigm shift in attitude towards disaster management, with which the focus of the science of disaster management shifted from reduction of loss to reduction of risk. The risk we know is the probability of loss, which transforms into a disaster after its actualization to such an extent of loss which cannot be managed without external help. The risk is defined by the following equation:

                Risk = Hazard * Vulnerability * Exposure/Capacity

Hazard is anything that can cause damage, and Vulnerability and Exposure are the factors because of which a hazard causes damage. Vulnerability in fact is our susceptibility to a hazard and Exposure is the degree to which “elements at risk” are exposed to a particular hazard.

There are two types of hazards; natural such as earthquake, flood, and drought etc., and human induced such as terrorism, traffic accidents, and global warming etc. However the disasters are always human induced as vulnerability and exposure (factor because of which a hazard transforms into a disaster) have nothing to do with nature (both these factors are dependent on human interference).

It is taught that vulnerability has five types: social, financial, attitudinal, physical and environmental, however, one has all the reasons to replace “environmental” (far bigger a term than its scope here) with “climatic” and include “educational” (a new type) in the list to make them six. Let’s define and redefine these types which are placed horizontally (not vertically) since all are equally important and interlinked.

The people are socially vulnerable to disasters if they are not united under a collective cause, and driven by their individual benefits get divided on the basis of caste, creed, and race etc., and so wide are the differences that the pandemics cannot even bridge them.

The people are financially vulnerable if the expense part of their budget exceeds their income, they are unable to meet their needs from within their own budget even before the occurrence of a disaster, and they cannot afford to implement building codes or purchase ventilators or do any other such thing even if they want to do so.


It is taught that vulnerability has five types: social, financial, attitudinal, physical and environmental, however, one has all the reasons to replace “environmental” (far bigger a term than its scope here) with “climatic” and include “educational” (a new type) in the list to make them six.


Attitude comprises three components: thoughts, feelings and behavior. The people are attitudinally vulnerable to disasters when they are handicapped to think, feel and act positively under the circumstances, to them COVID-19 or any other such thing is a heavenly curse which can only be dealt with by seeking forgiveness from God. So deep is their fear that they even forget that this “heavenly curse” is infectious and they are spreading it by congregational prayers in respective worship places.

Physical vulnerability pertains to material and physical characteristics including one’s physique as well as the structures a human being inhabits and uses i.e., your body, buildings, roads, and bridges, etc. For example, persons with weak immune systems are at greater risk from COVID-19 than able people. Similarly, structurally mitigated buildings are less vulnerable to earthquakes than buildings for which appropriate designs and materials have not been used.

The people are climatically vulnerable when they annoy nature with their excessive greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere, by burning of fossil fuels, explosion of population, and deforestation and forest degradation. Nature bounces back with an increasing frequency and impact of disasters as per its inbuilt system of recovery. 

Finally, the people are educationally vulnerable because the curriculum at their schools does not correspond to their current needs. For instance, what to talk of any other thing, they do not even give first aid training to their students, which should have been a top activity at schools, since they are surrounded by a range of deadliest hazards such as Coronavirus.

Elements at risk are eight: population, housing, critical facilities, livestock, infrastructure, land use, local economy and environment. 

And capacity is the sum total of resources, skills and enabling environment. For instance, a fire extinguisher is a resource, the know-how to use it is skill, and the obligation to place it in the office is an enabling environment.

From the referred equation (Risk = Hazard * Vulnerability * Exposure/Capacity) one may also learn three more things:

▪   Risk is a quantifiable term (on a given scale); if we know the values of respective entities, we will be able to calculate risk by multiplying and dividing them.

▪ Risk is directly proportional to the product of hazard, vulnerability and exposure. The more product there is, higher the risk.

▪   Risk is indirectly proportional to capacity; one can reduce risk by increasing capacity.

By drafting and signing the Hyogo Framework for Action voluntarily, the world by choice decided to pay more attention to “mitigation and preparedness” than “response and recovery” phases of the disaster management cycle.

The Hyogo Framework for Action led to the need of a classified focus on mitigation and preparedness phases of disaster management (DM) cycle, and disaster risk management (DRM) cycle came to the front, which comprises four steps (Fig 1) and works as under:

▪   Community identification and disaster risk assessment: Communities at risk and the other stakeholders are identified. Hazards and vulnerabilities are analyzed to assess the risk a particular community is exposed to.

DRR planning: Structural and nonstructural measures and capacity building initiatives required to be taken are identified and streamlined through a formal plan.

Implementation: Capacity building training sessions on “how to carry out implementation” are conducted; implementation procedures/regulations are managed, and resources are mobilized and allocated.

▪   Monitoring and evaluation: The M & E plan is designed and executed. Data and information is collected, analyzed, documented and shared for rectification and improvement.

This management tool has an inbuilt mechanism of “monitoring” to check whether the project is “efficient”, and “evaluation” to see whether it is “effective”? But there is nothing to assure that it is “sustainable” as well. Sustainability can only come if the DRM cycle is executed in a “participatory” manner by its transformation in community-based disaster risk management (CBDRM) cycle (Fig 2).

The philosophy of CBDRM cycle is that sustainable disaster management is not possible without community participation because the community being the first victim is the first responder as well.

Methodology of the community-based disaster risk management cycle, as I have learnt from my practical experience in the field, is as under:

Sensitization

▫ Establish contact with community and other stakeholders through meetings, workshops, seminars, etc.

▫    Make them conscious of the risk they are exposed to by discussing their vulnerability to various hazards.

▫  Make them believe that they can reduce risk by shifting from a reactive to a proactive approach towards disasters. Quote simple examples to prove the point both from the developing and the developed world.

Confidence Building

▫   Encourage them to participate in discussions.

▫   Give them a sense of ownership by involving them in decision-making.

Partnership Building

  ▫ Make disaster management committees with a fair representation from the community to include both men and women.

▫   Promote team spirit and create an environment of trust and respect for each other’s views with a preference for the collective good.

Capacity Building

▫ Provide resources through stockpiles of emergency response tools.

▫  Impart skills through training, exercises and drills.

▫ Develop an enabling environment through formulation of rules, policies and procedures.

Institutionalization

▫ Determine the functions, roles and responsibilities with input from representatives of the community in light of national and international priorities.

▫ Organize TORs of various assignments to economize efforts.

▫   Enforce rules, policies and procedures.

Execution. Implement the CBDRM cycle.

CBDRM cycle is upheld across the globe because it is a proactive tool which can cater for any operational level: individual, team, organizational and national. It has an inbuilt mechanism to ensure not only efficiency and effectiveness but sustainability as well. It is subject to continuous improvement because of its cyclic nature. And it is executed with a multi-hazard approach to deal with each and every hazard the people are vulnerable and exposed to.

However, the current episode of Coronavirus stands witness to the fact that the world is yet to utilize CBDRM with its actual scope because people are caught off-guard yet again by a disaster of similar origin; they were not trained even on basic things such as “quarantine” despite a well-documented history of viral pandemics. Why did we not adopt the first aid training as a compulsory activity at schools in the first place? Did we not even know that first aid crosscuts the management of each and every hazard, let alone the particular case of an infectious disease?


The people are attitudinally vulnerable to disasters when they are handicapped to think, feel and act positively under the circumstances, to them COVID-19 or any other such thing is a heavenly curse which can only be dealt with by seeking forgiveness from God. So deep is their fear that they even forget that this “heavenly curse” is infectious and they are spreading it by congregational prayers in respective worship places.


Before coming over to what needs to be done in the aftermath of COVID-19, we must not hesitate to admit that our wrongdoings have made the world a hub of some of the deadliest natural and human induced hazards, and no one else but we are at an acute risk from them because of our six types of vulnerabilities. It is, therefore, the foremost duty of every government of the world to mainstream disaster risk reduction into its priorities and formulate a CBDRM action plan with a focus on all four layers of a society (individual, team, organizational and national). The plan has to be formulated under six headings (social, attitudinal, physical, financial, climatic and educational) to pinpoint who will do what before, during and after the triggering of a particular hazard.

The social plan should aim at providing a common platform to unite people and it has already been provided by Coronavirus which has attacked the entire human race irrespective of caste, creed or any other concern. How can we fight such challenges without getting together under a collective goal? What else can be the common goal if not the safety and security of the human race standing at the verge of mass extinction?  We have no option but to prioritize ourselves as a human being first and then as a member or representative of any group of human beings.

The attitudinal plan should focus on the fact that a great number of people are suffering from stress which is known as “fight or flight response” under our biology as it gives us additional strength to either fight the mental and physical imbalances we are confronted with or to take flight from them. The people in general are handicapped to fight or take flight, the situation has prolonged, and their stress is transforming into stress disorder. Anger, haste, frustration, doubt, denial, and distrust have become normal practices. People want positive things but they are focused on the negative, they don’t even know that negative thoughts, feelings and behavior cannot bring positive results. The only solution is the sublimation of their additional strength to anything positive, and by doing this converting the adversity into opportunity.

The physical plan should converge on taking care of two things, the first that 11% of the world’s population is undernourished, 22% of the children below the age of five are stunted, and one in nine people globally, is suffering from moderate or severe food insecurity. And the second thing is that the majority of the people have to live and work in the buildings where there are no mitigation measures to confront hazards.

The financial plan should extend grants and/or interest free loans to the vulnerable communities, so that they can undertake the mitigation and preparedness measures for waging war on enemies like Coronavirus, by increasing the capacity and reducing the risk.   

The climatic plan should help in checking the burning of fossil fuels, explosion of population and deforestation and forest degradation.

We all know that world is meeting more than 80% of its energy requirements through fossil fuels which contain heavy amounts of carbon, and to add insult to injury the world population has raised from 2 billion to an alarming 7 billion during the last 100 years or so (more people mean more requirements for energy and more utilization of carbon emitting fossil fuels to meet that requirement, more people also mean more breathing wherein oxygen is inhaled and carbon dioxide is released by human beings). The situation is aggravated further by deforestation and forest degradation which accounts for over 15 to 17% of global carbon dioxide emissions responsible for global warming.

The educational plan should target the incorporation of community-based disaster risk management as a compulsory subject in schools with an obligatory hands on first aid training. 

If planned and executed on the recommended lines, the fail-safe success of the CBDRM project seems quite logical and self-explanatory as the most crucial and demanding first step of the proposed project methodology has already been taken, what else if not the wrath brought by COVID-19 can sensitize us more on the urgency of the need to anticipate disasters and prepare to take them on rather than waiting for a surprise attack.


The writer is a disaster risk management consultant currently working with Asian Development Bank as Regional Coordinator for National Disaster Risk Management Fund.

E-mail: [email protected]
 

 

 

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