A ‘natural disaster’ on top of a pandemic – preparedness in the face of cascading uncertainties

Published on 25 June 2020

Image of Shilpi Srivastava
Shilpi Srivastava

Research Fellow

Image of Lyla Mehta
Lyla Mehta

Professorial Fellow

A cyclone is the last thing you need during the coronavirus pandemic! In May 2020, supercyclone Amphan – one of the severest cyclones originating in the Bay of Bengal for over a century – ripped through coastal Bangladesh and the eastern coast of India causing widespread damage and disruption. The Chief Minister of West Bengal announced that the catastrophe was “worse than coronavirus”.

In the remote islands of the Sundarbans, which often bear the brunt of the cyclones’ devastation, most cyclone shelters were converted into quarantine centres before Amphan struck. This meant that hundreds of people were huddled in a few shelters compromising physical distancing norms. Amphan also coincided with the return of informal (migrant) workers from different parts of India in response to the nationwide lockdown. They returned to devastated homes, and farms and ponds flooded with saline water. Amphan on top of the pandemic represents how one uncertainty can cascade into another.

Amphan is not, however, an isolated event. Although tropical cyclones are a ‘regular’ feature, in the Bay of Bengal climate change has significantly increased their rapid intensification. For example, Amphan was correctly forecasted by the meteorological department, but its intensity and reach in the mainland surprised everybody. The advancement in early warning systems and rapid evacuation helped prevent a huge loss of lives. However, the decimation of livelihoods will take several years to ‘bounce’ back or have far worse impacts leading to maladaptive pathways such as distress migration which – as we have seen with the lockdown – can force people into further precarity.

Amphan shows how climate stressors (e.g drought, floods and cyclones) potentially disrupt COVID-19 responses, in the short term, but also have long term effects on the adaptive capacity of ecological and human systems. How will norms of safe handwashing and sanitation play out when drought and floods wreak havoc in different parts of the world? Disrupting the supply chains of essential items, public service delivery and humanitarian relief, they can potentially cascade into multiple other forms of uncertainties, for example around access to food, health, water, livelihoods, for the poor who have limited capacity and resources to confront these multiple challenges. Thus in the face of rising global uncertainties, which will pan out in manifold ways in different local contexts, we need to reimagine preparedness in radical ways that are inclusive and socially just.

Multiple uncertainties that are hard to predict

Cascading uncertainties are multiple uncertainties occurring in proximate space and time, leading to processes and outcomes that are hard to predict and plan for. They may be triggered by a singular event (e.g. a climate or health hazard) but cascade into other economic (e.g. loss of livelihoods), social (e.g. violence, stigma and marginalisation), and political spheres (e.g. rise in authoritarian trends or increased state surveillance). For example, the exodus of workers followingthe lockdown in India cascaded into a full-blown humanitarian crisis with crippling effects on the lives and livelihoods of these workers and their families. It also resulted in some of the most repressive measures such as  the spraying of bleach by over-zealous officials i to sanitise workers, the blocking of state borders and in worst cases police violence to enforce the lockdown.

Governments (e.g. India and China) have also used the lockdown to suppress dissent and arrest activists and journalists thus undermining democratic values and human rights. It is these different impacts that remain unaccounted for in decision-making and response strategies. Thus, future visions and preparedness must not be reduced to a singular lens of climate or disease but account for these multiple intersections across spheres and sectors.

Plural perspectives are key to preparedness

In both the case of climate and Covid-19, decision-makers predominantly rely on modelling expertise to project possible scenarios and outcomes as well as guide responses and decision making. However as scientist themselves have argued models have their own limits, especially when confronted with ‘novel’ viruses or ‘freak’ events, which require substantive data to develop parameters. In the case of climate change, there are many factors at play ranging from biophysical processes concerning interactions between the oceans and atmosphere to the impacts of land use changes and policies. Hence there are always a lot of unknowns.

In the case of Covid-19, the science remains contested regarding measures to suppress the virus in the here and now (e.g. physical distancing guidelines, use of masks etc) future scenarios, transmission pathways and also the development of a vaccine. However, decision-makers who are often looking for certitude, frame these uncertainties as manageable risks that can be controlled. This obsession of being ‘in control’ can result in top-down measures that produce further uncertainties rather than addressing them.

For example, in India, health experts have openly criticised the way draconian lockdown measures were shaped by modelling decisions based on the ‘worst case simulation’ that was later found to be way off the mark. At the other end of the spectrum, uncertainty can also end up being an easy trope to abdicate responsibility or justify delayed actions and inadequate response, for example in the UK, which locked down later than the rest of Europe and consequently has the continent’s highest number of deaths as of June 2020.

Models cannot account for the whole range of social and political uncertainties. Decisions that are solely guided by narrow modelling exercises or certain types of scientific expertise can miss out on a range of perspectives required to address severe challenges. The controversies around the UK’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE) which lacked openness and transparency in terms of its decision making  and black and ethnic minority experts and also excluded much needed experiences and perspectives from social scientists and  global public health specialists is a good case in point.

In sum, in the face of intersecting uncertainties, we need to include diverse actors and perspectives across disciplines as well as across global, regional and local scales. For example, our research on climate uncertainties in marginal environments shows how bottom-up initiatives-built on partnerships between local communities (farmers, fishers and pastoralist), NGOs and academics- can potentially address climate-induced livelihood uncertainties whilst engaging with issues of social justice, agency and empowerment.

Bringing people into preparedness

Cacsading uncertainties magnify the the vulnerabilities of poor and marginalised people and their impacts are differentiated across class,caste, race and ethnic lines. Top-down and narrow framings around the pandemic or disaster response limit us from questioning and addressing the structural causes of vulnerability and injustices that leave poor people to bear the brunt of these cascades.

Covid-19 responses need to take into account not just epidemiological issues concerning how to reduce the spread of infection but also how to address food and livelihood insecurities of vulnerable populations when these intersect with the impacts of seasonal uncertainties and vagaries (e.g. the critical rainy season in  Africa and Asia) in different parts of the world. The voices and experiences of marginalised groups need to be included to shape government’s preparedness response. Uncertainty is here to stay and plural, more radical and justice -oriented approaches to preparedness may help us embrace it instead of enforcing controlling visions that can hollow out human creativity and undermine democratic values and human rights in the name of ‘unknowns’.

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