Extremely severe cyclone Amphan that hit West Bengal, Odisha, and Bangladesh on Wednesday foregrounds the compounded challenge of dealing with natural disasters—increasingly exacerbated by climate amidst a pandemic. To save lives, Odisha and West Bengal have had to evacuate over 4.5 lakh people, and Bangladesh 22 lakh. In normal times, such evacuation would have been a disaster management triumph. But, in a Covid-19 world, it represents a governance challenge that neither of the two Indian states nor Bangladesh is ready for. Given the damage to power, road, housing, and other infrastructure, evacuees are likely to be stranded in cyclone shelters for days, if not weeks, and since cyclone shelters are designed to minimise loss of life by packing as many people together as possible, distancing, one of the key measures to contain Covid-19 spread, may simply not be possible. For perspective, while West Bengal’s cyclone shelters can hold up to 5 lakh people, distancing would mean only 2 lakh people are accommodated in these shelters, while an estimated 3.3 crore people are in the path of cyclone in the two Indian states. In any case, Covid-19 had ensured significant diversion of public infrastructure for creation of containment facilities. Odisha, for instance, had converted 105 of its 403 cyclone shelters into quarantine centres much before there were warnings of the cyclone developing—27 of these were in Ganjam, a district that saw a large number of migrants returning over the last few days, with many testing positive. Thankfully, Ganjam was not impacted by Amphan, but the districts in West Bengal and Odisha that were, are also some of those that see the largest emigration in the two states, and are likely to have also seen an influx of returnees over the past few days. Beyond that, there will be extensive crop damage in the coastal districts of both states, pushing millions into vulnerability in terms of lost income and diminished food security.
Covid-19 has, for the moment, pushed climate change to the margins of global attention. But, as a group of scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other premier global higher education institutes write in Nature, pandemic preparedness and climate change action—along with related disaster preparedness—can no longer be mutually exclusive. Studies and data analyses show that storms, flooding, and droughts will likely cause the displacement of millions over the next 12-18 months, with low-income nations in the Global South bearing the worst brunt. The Gulf Coast of the US is bracing for a severe hurricane season even as Louisiana, which was battered by Katrina, has become the country’s Covid-19 mortality hotspot. In Zimbabwe, several millions will be without access to clean drinking water, let alone water for washing hands, and “at risk of acute food insecurity” during June-September 2020. Predicted intense heatwaves in many countries are likely to lead to a spike in heat-related morbidity and mortality, straining the already-buckling healthcare systems in many countries further. All this, while lockdowns and distancing requirements are already disrupting global and local food supply chains, worsening food security for nearly 200 million people in the world, as per the World Food Programme.
Countries will need to carefully balance disaster-preparedness with pandemic-preparedness. While this will call for risk assessment at the intersections—of a wide range of health, climate, economic, and social progress indicators—this also calls for preemptive deployment of measures rather than trying to reconcile disaster response with pandemic response. Countries will have to cast wide safety nets for nutritional security, access to water and healthcare, and even infrastructural needs—as Amphan shows—such as climate resilient housing. Else, the double whammy of climate change-related disasters and the Covid pandemic will increase socioeconomic and health vulnerabilities to a scale that becomes hard for nations to manage, let alone reverse.