Dual Threat in the Pacific: COVID-19 and Natural Hazards

When natural hazards, such as severe storms, strike Pacific islands during a pandemic, a dual threat is created that challenges leaders and planners. Photo: Trevor McKinnon
When natural hazards, such as severe storms, strike Pacific islands during a pandemic, a dual threat is created that challenges leaders and planners. Photo: Trevor McKinnon

By Anupma Jain

The pandemic demonstrates that disasters are triggered by multidimensional risks and hazards, and that a country’s approach to urban resilience needs to be multifaceted.

Tropical Cyclone Harold in the Pacific reminds us of the impact of dual emergencies, such as cyclones and COVID-19, can cause. It was a category 5 cyclone with winds of up to 215 kilometers per hour. How do countries address emergency situations caused by natural hazards during a public health pandemic?

Across the Pacific, we have seen national governments taking action to deal with COVID-19, including social distancing, handwashing, and port of entry restrictions. They have taken proactive measures by restricting travel from a fast-growing list of affected countries; declaring states of emergency; requiring a 14-day quarantine and the completion of health declaration forms and/or medical checks on arrival; and banning the entry of cruise ships.

Solomon Islands and Vanuatu have both declared states of emergency as a result of COVID-19 and have taken steps to prepare for the public health impact (e.g., procurement of personal protective equipment and health equipment). In Vanuatu, the country has closed its borders and people have been asked to adhere to social distancing rules. Fortunately, neither country has any confirmed cases as yet of COVID-19; hence emergency shelters have been activated with social distancing rules related and resources directed towards cyclone emergency relief.

But what happens the next time? This experience has raised an important concern regarding dual or multiple emergencies.

Pacific countries are highly exposed and vulnerable to natural and geophysical hazards (e.g., volcanic eruptions and earthquakes). At the onset of a disaster caused by a natural hazard, people evacuate in large numbers to emergency shelters. Balancing the nature of these facilities with the need to reduce social contact during a health emergency poses a challenge in countries where COVID-19 cases are present and/or the rate of infection is increasing. Emergency evacuation shelters, for instance, are not built to accommodate social distancing standards.

In the United States, for instance, as spring rains approach, researchers and local governments are already beginning to discuss the dual challenges of severe flooding and COVID-19. Their analysis shows that areas with the highest infection rates and flooding risks tend to be rural areas where access to health care is limited. The 2020 National Hydraulic Assessment estimates that 1.2 million people are at risk of major flooding, while 128 million face an elevated flooding risk and 28 million are at risk of moderate or greater flooding.

  When disasters strike during a pandemic, plans and preparations are put to the test.

In Asia and the Pacific, this dual threat is an opportunity to think ahead and prepare for responses in the near- to long-term following hazard risk maps. Some possible measures include:

  • Emergency response allocation: Historical data and hazard risk mapping provide information on areas of greatest risk and populations most vulnerable to hazards such as severe flooding. Combined with the current prevalence of disease, this would enable governments to target areas for a reallocation of resources and initiation of activities for greater preparedness (e.g., identify facilities that could meet the needs of both challenges).
  • Expand the concept of disaster resilience: Development partners, like the Asian Development Bank, are in a position to provide immediate national budget support for disaster response and recovery through contingent disaster financing. By broadening the definition of ‘disaster resilience’ to include health emergencies, governments would be able to access such financing insurance schemes.
  • Use climate change financing to innovate: Climate change and disaster financing for risk management can help countries leverage their funds for research and/or innovative solutions on dual emergencies to help respond to the future spread of infectious diseases. For instance, the design of emergency shelters could be modified to provide a multipurpose function—a temporary living space that meets social distancing guidelines and includes enhanced health screening and triage.
  • Include dual emergencies into preparedness and operational plans: Utilities and municipalities ensure the continuity of basic services to communities during and after disasters. They have a role to play in preventing adverse impacts on people’s health and on the environment. In the Pacific, some wastewater utilities have emergency response plans; additional measures might be included to improve regular surveillance of wastewater influent. Researchers in the Netherlands, United States and Sweden have found that regular monitoring of wastewater could help detect new COVID-19 infections early.
  • Define ‘livable’ cities to focus on quality of life: At the heart of ‘livability’ lies the emphasis on quality of life and community well-being, supported by strong governance systems. A focus on the dual benefits of engineering systems and structures in city design—resilience and livability, is more likely to result in public spaces that connect and enable a smooth flow of people or buildings designed with greater air circulation. A sense of community, especially in times of disasters, is especially important. Digital infrastructure has supported a safety net through social media and chat groups.

The opportunity is ripe to consider the intertwined nature of this dual challenge in Asia and the Pacific. Tropical Cyclone Harold and the current pandemic demonstrate that disasters are triggered by multidimensional risks and hazards. Potential for dual or multiple emergencies shows that a country’s approach to urban resilience must be multipronged and complex.