How Tackling COVID-19 and Reducing Disaster Risk Go Hand in Hand

Geneva – Since the turn of the century, extreme weather events such as floods, storms and droughts have risen by 80 per cent – affecting more than four billion people worldwide according to a new report by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters and the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. 

This year, a new disaster has come to the fore. In the past ten months, the COVID-19 pandemic has compromised the health of millions, disrupted major economies, caused unprecedented restrictions on mobility and left nearly three million migrants stranded on their journeys.  

The spread of the disease has also aggravated the impact of climate-related hazards by heightening the health and security risks facing those displaced by disaster.  

The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, adopted five years ago by UN member states, has set out a global blueprint for reducing multi-hazard risk and strengthening disaster resilience. The Framework includes the management of biological hazards, pulling from the best practices learned during Ebola, SARS, MERS, and H1N1 outbreaks. However, to date too little has been done to mitigate biological hazards in disaster risk reduction strategies pursued by governments.  

The international community now faces the double challenge of mitigating the spread and impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, while also considering its compounding effects on climate-related and other disasters. 

The unknowns are many, but after years of working to prevent devastation by past disasters – here are a few lessons learned that must be considered as we chart the way forward:  

One: Disasters are multi-layered and have long-term effects, even after the initial threat is addressed 

Not only do biological hazards from COVID-19 thrive, but socioeconomic and food crises become more prevalent as a result, highlighting the systemic nature of contemporary crises, in which those already vulnerable are impacted the most.  

Many countries are highly dependent on remittances. For example, the Philippines and Tonga where remittances make up almost 10 per cent and 40 per cent of their GDPs, respectively. Remittances have historically been a critical resource that people use to respond and recover during and after disaster.  

As many migrants are losing jobs due to COVID-19, a decrease in remittances is inevitable. This will negatively affect their families and communities back home. In addition, migrants, who are consistently left out of social safety nets and struggle to access public services in their host countries abroad, are at a higher risk of enduring health complications. 

In order to recover from socioeconomic hardships, countries must include migrants in their national preparedness and recovery plans to ensure that all people can be resilient to multi-dimensional shocks, including pandemics, in the years to come.  

Two: Keeping people displaced by disasters safe from the spread of diseases like COVID-19 is an essential part of reducing risk 

When a disaster strikes, people are often forced to flee their homes to safer ground. Responders are challenged to assist people to evacuate, often moving people in large crowds to densely populated shelters where they can seek refuge.  

In this environment, the spread of diseases like COVID-19 can be an additional risk for both displaced people and responders, since maintaining physical distance becomes very challenging.  

Furthermore, mobility and travel restrictions have made it more difficult to import essential goods and emergency items, to deploy staff to remote locations and to move populations in need to safer areas.  

Three: As growing number of people around the world are on the move, those already displaced by crises must not be left behind 

Millions of people already displaced by crises have been awaiting sustainable solutions for a better future for decades. More than 75 million people are currently displaced within and across borders due to conflict while disasters displace around 25 million on average each year.  

COVID-19 is now exacerbating the pre-existing vulnerability of these groups and provoking many to flee in search of healthcare and economic security.  

The displaced often live in overcrowded, unsanitary locations – such as camps or camp-like settings – where jobs and services are few and where they are exposed to new risks and hazards, such as recurring floods. These dire circumstances have now worsened due to the health risks and socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic. 

They have unique needs that must be catered for in the immediate aftermath of emergencies as well as in the response to the long-term impacts of the pandemic. It is our responsibility to ensure they are not left behind as we chart the way forward.  

Four: Countries most affected by climate change will face unique challenges in responding to and recovering from COVID-19 

People living in countries affected by climate and weather-related disasters will face specific challenges in the face of COVID-19. Climate risks will continue to materialize in parallel with the economic and public health fallout of COVID-19, with a larger number of people left more vulnerable due to challenges securing livelihoods combined with new mobility restrictions.  

In many of these contexts, the capacity for governments to respond to climate hazards have been reduced, as more funds are diverted to public health services.  

Furthermore, the personal choices people affected by disasters must make are seemingly impossible:  

How do those who are displaced and living in crowded camps and host communities keep themselves safe from this new disease? How do those with reduced access to water maintain regular handwashing? How do people make decisions between physically distancing to keep themselves safe from COVID-19 or sheltering in large groups to seek refuge from floods and storms? 

These are all questions that humanitarian actors and government responders are now challenged to address and adapt to accordingly. This must be considered as the international community convenes to allocate resources to countries in need of added support, not only for COVID-19 but also climate and disaster mitigation efforts that support long-term, risk-informed development.  

Five: The road ahead is long but recovery for a more resilient future is possible 

Every country carries the primary responsibility to prevent and reduce disaster risk by engaging with diverse stakeholders, planning for potential disasters far in advance and strengthening institutions tasked with responding to and preventing the devastating impacts of disaster.  

Prior to this pandemic, however, few countries had made concrete commitments to include biological risks – such as risk management for pandemics – in their plans for disaster risk reduction.  

As we look ahead, we can be certain that the prevalence of disasters – caused by pandemics, climate change and other risks – will continue to disrupt the world’s population. In the coming years, our response will be made more difficult as COVID-19 prevails.  

The threats we face are clear. More can and must be done to prepare for these threats and ensure we are ready to meet the needs of a growing number of people who will inevitably be affected, including those on the move.  

This moment presents an opportunity for countries to build more resilient systems that are climate-sensitive, inclusive, and are better placed to prevent crises in the future. 

In order to mitigate risk and reduce as much suffering as possible, IOM recommends that:  

  • Governments embolden their national and local strategies for disaster risk reduction to account for challenges posed by biological hazards like COVID-19 and to include migrants and displaced persons in their long-term disaster risk reduction and recovery plans. 
  • In advance of cyclone season, new standards that allow for physical distancing and ensure provision of personal protective equipment in shelters should be put in place in consultation with community members. Special provisions should also be made for elderly populations and those with disabilities. 
  • Hospitals and medical facilities become better prepared to continue dealing with COVID-19 and future health risks and at the same time take steps so that effects of floods and cyclones on health services will be minimized. 
  • Local actors on the ground, who are often the first to respond, become empowered to act quickly with more autonomy and adequate resources. 

COVID-19 will not be our world’s last pandemic and the effects of climate change will be increasingly felt. In the face of these ongoing crises, we now have an opportunity to redefine how we act in the decades to come to build a safer and more resilient world.  

This article was written by Angela Wells, IOM’s Public Information Officer for the Department of Operations and Emergencies 

IOM Reduces Disaster Risk As COVID-19 Takes Hold