COVID-19 Is the 21st Century Disaster That We Cannot Mitigate With Yesteryear's Methods

Disasters like these need newer ways of mitigation. There is a need to learn lessons and make structural reforms in the way we respond to disasters in future.

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The current pandemic of COVID-19, caused by the novel coronavirus, is unlike any other humanitarian crisis that we have experienced in the past century. It is caused by a highly contagious virus which has infected close to 2 million people across the world and caused over 100,000 deaths so far. Lack of a scientifically proven cure or vaccination at present has also meant that the most popular strategy world over to deal with it has been to curb its spread, mostly by enforcing lockdowns. Hence, in addition to being a public health concern, it has far reaching social and economic impacts which has brought the world as we knew to a halt.


Closer home in India, we have seen the mass exodus of migrant workers from cities out of desperation due to lack of jobs and income. Some of them travelled hundreds of kilometres by foot owing to the lack of public transport to reach their homes. Those who stayed back in cities, most often also the urban poor, share congested 100 sq. ft. living spaces with 4-5 family members. They have to make do with an hour's water supply and at times queue up every morning to collect water in tumblers from a community tank. To advise them to practice "social distancing' or wash their hands with soap multiple times in a day is a misplaced expectation. Come summer, which is already around the corner in most parts of the country, heat stress is going to be an added concern. We must also be prepared for other natural hazards, that may hit. We have already experienced two earthquakes in the past week in Delhi and surrounding regions. Adding to their misery is the loss of jobs for daily wage earners, inability to revive business for micro entrepreneurs, and lack of a social safety net for most of them to fall back on.

Our disaster management response structure in India (even globally) is not equipped with the methods and tools to deal with disasters of 21st century. We are still relying on age old response mechanism to deal with new age crisis and that is the reason why we are failing. Disasters like COVID-19 need newer ways of mitigation. There is a need to learn lessons and make structural reforms in the way we respond to disasters in future. There is an evident shift in the way disasters have changed their pattern of occurrence leading to excessive variabilities, where relying on the past trends is no more beneficial. Conventional disaster response mechanisms were based on underlying assumptions informed by trends. Black swan events such as pandemic provide a different level of challenge – where causes and impacts could be spread across the globe spanning large geographies, and with time spans as short as few weeks. Further, target population could be hard to define especially if they are moving. In India, the impact on millions of migrant workers and their sudden exodus from cities caught the authorities completely unprepared. There were lessons from the mass movement of population seeking refuge that took place in the middle east and Europe just a year ago. Were the lessons learnt then, that could have applied here. Finally, are we able to design our response mechanisms that can address the cross cutting nature of disasters. A health crisis causing social and economic disruptions. Worse still a complex scenario where an earthquake or flood hits a city that is in lock down.

New complex emergency scenarios are now demanding newer techniques, preparedness, and risk reduction solutions. The last global discussion on addressing disasters took place in Sendai Japan leading to the formulation of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, that among other things called for a "whole-of-society" approach implying governments having to cede space and acknowledge civil society's role as well as businesses. In the current, non-government players are still having only a consultative role, or at best, as donors to Government.

In addition, the new response structure needs to recognize that the crisis affects everyone differently and hence now more than ever is the need to advocate for bottom-up approaches. Community-based response is the most suitable measure to fight this widespread pandemic. It is well documented that it is people's social networks which have helped them the most to endure other disasters and become resilient. Non-government players can be active community collaborators at local level leveraging their comparative advantage in terms of resources, information, awareness as well as their organisational characteristics of flexibility, agility and better targeting.

Disaster management systems will need to go through a pivot exercise to redefine its approaches. To start with, it needs to cast a more inclusive safety net to reach the millions of migrant workers especially the workers in the informal sector that do not have access to social security benefits , the small businesses that may become almost impossible to revive and smaller "invisible' groups of artisans, sex-workers, cobblers, truck drivers. It needs to further promote bottom-up research that helps in better mitigation, for example, define social-distancing and handwashing in complex contexts. And finally, it needs to improve preparedness, repurposing value chains if needed, so that people are able to gain the necessary strength and resilience in an age of uncertainty.