COVID-19 has taken many societies by surprise as it quickly spread from Wuhan, China to all parts of the globe. Some nations seem to have grappled with the challenge rapidly, due in part to prior experiences with SARS (“Containing coronavirus: lessons from Asia” – The Financial Times) while others have found themselves scrambling to support its healthcare system and economy. It has led to unprecedent steps around the world that includes almost complete shutdown of some economies with the exception of essentials (“Coronavirus: Italy bans any movement inside country as toll nears 5,500” – The Guardian), massive fiscal stimulus packages (“Senate Approves Roughly $2 Trillion in Coronavirus Relief” – The Wall Street Journal) and monetary stimulus.
COVID-19 is expected to remain a challenge for the foreseeable future and experts are unsure how long the pandemic will last (“How long will this go on?” – The Globe and Mail with Vivek Goel, professor at the University of Toronto). Under these extreme conditions, how prepared is society for the common occurrence of natural disasters? Succeeding in answering this question will likely mean that this year’s natural disasters will be another blip in history, failing to account and prepare for it may be a historical tragedy.
Natural disasters range in form, from earthquakes, storms, floods, droughts to volcanic eruptions. Different countries and regions in the world have a differing patterns when it comes to natural disasters.
It is worth noting that some natural disasters have a partially predictable occurrence rate, therefore, it is possible to target one’s preparation accordingly. Below are a few examples:
Nations should take steps to implement if they have yet to do so, and re-test their early warning technology to facilitate the dissemination of key information and logistics. As stated in United Nations Development Programme report: “Early Warning Systems (EWS) are complex processes aimed at reducing the impact of natural hazards by providing timely and relevant information in a systematic way. If effectively implemented, EWS can contribute to increasing the resilience of […] countries to natural disasters and climate related risks, and offer simultaneous support for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in reducing the loss of life and livelihood.”
At the organizational level, the early warning guidelines may need to be revisited to ensure that natural disasters and pandemics alike, such as the COVID-19, are both taken into account. There is a fine line between having a pathogen spreading due to necessity or due to a lack of preparedness (Building a Lasting Emergency Response Task-Force in Light of COVID-19 – GPetrium).
In times of crisis, the repurposing of infrastructure can be essential to provide the basic means of safety and comfort to society. A review of how infrastructure such as stadiums, schools and others can be used in light of the natural disaster and COVID-19 is paramount. Local governments should consider entering agreements with relevant facility owners to ensure the availability, access and needs are covered. Considerations over supply chain requisites should also be at the top of strategist’s minds.
It is very often the case that when a disaster occurs, clusters of tens to hundreds of people will gather into one area. The stress of the situation coupled with infrastructure capability and varying levels of cleanliness can lead to an increase in exposure to pathogens. Considerations over social distancing, isolation mechanisms, familial care, cleanliness and others should be a high priority and enacted promptly at the onset of the crisis.
If there is one thing that has come out of the global “experiment” that COVID-19 has been so far, it is that degrees of preparedness and response at all levels of society differs substantially (“How cities around the world are handling COVID-19 – and why we need to measure their preparedness” – World Economic Forum). Add to that a potential high damage natural disaster and many regions are likely to crumble on their own weight. To limit such exposure, governments need to asses prior natural disaster cases by looking at how essential services institutions have responded to them and build scenario analysis that account for the already growing pressure of COVID-19 into institutions such as hospitals and first responders. Some countries will quickly realize that in such cases, the national guard would need to be activated. At the same time, determining when and how these reinforcements should be used can be detrimental to the effectiveness of the response.
Considerations over expanding essential services personnel, upgrading existing infrastructure to weather the ‘theoretical’ storm and enhancing technology use is just a fraction of what can be uncovered throughout the case analysis. There have been plenty of natural disaster cases and pathogen related diseases that can be analyzed to determine weak points that should be strengthen to ensure a smoother process.
Before a double whammy occurs, government and institutions should step up their efforts to support front-line workers deemed essential to the functioning of society. This includes revisiting pay rates, benefits (including support for their family) and safety. Ensuring that the right incentives align, which includes the wellbeing of the front-line and their loved ones before the next pandemic and/ or natural disaster occurs can help smooth the challenges, diminish scarcity and drive society to a quicker recovery.
At the time where a natural disaster occurs, the speed of a response could mean life or death. To diminish such risk and better position everyone for success, reassessing location, tracking and communication devices is key. This means that institutions and individuals, other than the government, could help alleviate the stress on key infrastructure by providing materials and services, but this not only require such institutions to be properly organized, but also requires that the government assist such institutions on becoming aware of how they can help should the need arise. As such organizations and individuals should look at their current capabilities, determine whether equipment remains in working condition, procure newer technology that allows for better processing and mission success (E.g. Drones, Big Data, New Service Providers, Cloud, tracking, etc.), creation and maintenance of cluster groups (includes logistics, familial, etc.).
Today, a portion of jobs can be accommodated by telecommuting. Yet, many organizations are reluctant to provide this option due to concerns over productivity, disconnect, cybersecurity and many more. However, in times of crisis, having the ability to transition your workforce online without major disruptions while maintaining productivity can be a major competitive advantage. It is also to the benefit of the employee to be able to telecommute, therefore, they should up their effort to demonstrate to their managers and employers that telecommuting is a viable alternative. Organizations and individuals that are able to change their way of thinking, processes and the use of technology in an agile way will find their productivity remaining just as good as inside the office and in some cases, even higher.
From a telecommuting standpoint, some institutions can benefit from having co-partnerships with other entities from another city/ state/ province agreeing to support essential activities that may be impacted when multiple disaster occurs. Preparations in advance can help ensure that data privacy, cybersecurity and other key elements are taken into account.
Front-line workers may also be at a higher risk of mental fatigue at a time where COVID-19 and a secondary natural disaster is at play. To support these key employees, institutions should look to provide an emergency tele-health service where front-line responders get the emotional support they need, whether through a therapist, psychologist, registered nurse or other. The tele-health solution also diminishes the pressure on the crisis affected area by providing a service that can be accomplished almost anywhere in the country.
Above all else, individuals at home, at work and in society need to take responsibility over their actions and take steps to prevent overburdening the essential services institutions. When the time comes where a gathering is needed due to an emergency, individuals who are believed to be infected should raise the issue to the relevant authorities and appropriate actions, within means, should be made to safeguard the overall safety of the cluster. Implementing the relevant guidelines that your respective government has listed today in light of COVID-19 is essential at the moment not only to flatten the curve, but in the natural disaster circumstances, to ensure that a tragedy does not occur.