Tackling multiple disasters in an insecure world
May 25, 2020
As North Americans, subject to numerous stay home regulations designed to limit the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, struggled to work out how to have an enjoyable long weekend in the middle of May, few noticed the news from the Indian Ocean. There, Tropical Cyclone Amphan was rapidly intensifying as it moved up the Bay of Bengal with very worrying predictions that the huge city of Kolkata might be directly in its path. This news comes just after the Indian lockdown arrangements were being extended for a further two weeks to try to deal with the pandemic, and as numerous freshly unemployed migrants, many of them on foot, are struggling to get to their home villages in hope of finding sustenance there. The prospect of practicing social distancing for the few people who might make it to storm shelter is difficult enough. For the millions who live in Kolkata, or who are on the roads, this might prove completely impossible.
Ironically, while forecasts of a severe hurricane season in the North Atlantic, due to unusually warm sea water, have been worrying disaster planners in the United States, the first seasonal tropical storms are forming in the Pacific and in the Indian Oceans. The Philippines is already a victim. These storms are hitting societies already stressed by both the COVID-19 virus and the disruptions to food supplies that have resulted from closing down substantial parts of economies to limit the virus spread. Thus, we are presented with not a double disaster but, rather, a triple one. Hungry people trying to avoid getting ill are now about to suffer through rain, winds and in some cases flooding disruptions too. If Amphan turns East, it might hit some of the Rohinga refugee camps where the virus has already started to spread. All of this exacerbates the difficulties of keeping people alive. The old term “complex humanitarian disaster” is all too appropriate a designation for present circumstances of widespread human insecurity.
Some of the more immediate responses to the pandemic, such as attempts to limit social contact and curtail the spread of the virus by restricting movement, especially across national borders, have made sense in some places. New Zealand’s success in limiting disease spread being a noteworthy example. However, in many other places, these measures came too late to be effective. In India and elsewhere, where informal economies and settlements support millions of poorer people, the disruptions to the flows of food supplies in particular are making them vulnerable to hunger, and hence to further health problems. Without access to credit, the ability to order food online, or all the other emergency innovations possible in modern urban societies, those living in informal economies are especially vulnerable both to the disease and to the disruptions caused by trying to contain the pandemic’s spread. These groups are therefore insecure in multiple senses.
In part, economic vulnerabilities in America are driving the politics of reopening the economy; numerous people living from week to week, a paycheck or two away from being unable to pay rent or mortgages, and to provide food and fuel for everyday life, want to get back to work. But the larger vulnerabilities of numerous businesses to even temporary disruptions are also feeding into the desires to reopen even if doing so is, quite literally, a risky business. All of this points to the now unavoidable conclusion that the modes of human society that modern life has built are very brittle. They are subject to numerous vulnerabilities despite all the wealth and technological capabilities that they offer. The high death rates in long-term care facilities in many parts of the world are in part due to the precarious health of many elderly residents, but also because of the structure of employment in these facilities where poorly paid immigrant labour, working in unsafe conditions as has been the case in Montreal, has in places turned out to be a hapless vector for the virus.
These are the new circumstances of vulnerability that the modern world has made and, given the promise of economic growth as the panacea for all human problems, clearly the kind of growth the economies of both the Global North and the Global South have delivered in the last few decades, have come at the cost of numerous new vulnerabilities. When everything more or less works these fragilities can be overlooked. Now facing not just one disaster, but disease and hunger as an unintended consequence of responding to the threat of illness, and most recently vulnerabilities to intense storms, the need to do some fundamental rethinking of what security means, and the role of governments in providing it for citizens in their charge, has become pressingly urgent. Old ideas of military capabilities are clearly useless.
The crisis of the 1930s Great Depression, and then the disruptions of the Second World War forced governments in many places to think long and hard about at least a basic welfare state, and the provision of public health, and vaccine programs in particular, to try to tackle persistent disease problems. Contrary to fears among fiscal conservatives, these policies in the decades following the war in Europe in particular led to economic restructuring that spread prosperity and hence allowed the war debts to be paid down. Now we face another global crisis and dramatic economic innovations are clearly called for once again. The scramble to give newly unemployed people some basic income to purchase essentials emphasizes the importance of economic safety nets; not least because they might allow sick people to stay home when they should and, in the process, reduce disease spread. Having such a basic needs economic infrastructure in place would also greatly facilitate dealing with disasters when they hit.
Such programs may not be possible in the informal settlements in Kolkata, or in many parts of Bangladesh likely to suffer from Amphan. There are at least some effective evacuation planning and storm shelters in place which hopefully will help in coming days; but clearly there too thinking about how to anticipate the consequences of economic and disease disruptions, which the existing economic system has been unable to accommodate, needs urgent attention. Advance planning for international cooperation to deal with disasters needs to challenge the all too popular invocation of national sovereignty in the face of calamity. Basic needs must be met, a matter of thinking in terms of what Kate Raworth calls “Doughnut Economics” building a social foundation for humanity, but without further damaging the global ecosphere. The concatenation of current disasters makes such reform ever more urgent in our insecure world.
*Balsillie School of International Affairs