2020 – the year of disaster?

I’m writing this on March 25, 2020, and, if you’re anything like me, you’re probably wondering — how is it possibly still March? This month has felt like a year as COVID-19 has turned life completely upside down. At least in the US — in other parts of the world, society has been on pause and lockdown for a while. Still in other parts, lockdown hasn’t hit quite yet (but I would guess that it’s coming).

For me, it feels like discussions of COVID-19 have been happening for over two months now. And, if I look at my calendar, that’s because it has. For most of January, I was in the Philippines, where concerns with a novel coronavirus started much earlier than they did in the US. The Philippines’ proximity to China, as well as many Filipinos’ personal connections with China, meant that conversations about this virus, how it spreads, and it’s mortality rate were quite common in my last few days of fieldwork. In mid-to-late January, there were so many questions — what are the symptoms? Can it spread from person to person? Is it airborne? While I tried to focus on my work and the interviews I was conducting, worry about coronavirus was always in the back of my mind, especially since there was a suspected case in the city in which I was working. After I returned home, there was a brief period of time where I wasn’t constantly worrying about the virus and its effects on society — my, how that seems like a lifetime ago.

And, still this year – before COVID-19 became all that anyone could talk about – there were other disasters. Puerto Rico was rocked by a 6.4 magnitude earthquake on January 7th. The Taal Volcano erupted on January 12th. Australia was still fighting bushfires in January. A tornado ripped through Mississippi last night. And the Midwest is gearing up for a predicted season of flooding. While these natural hazard events are not particularly out of the ordinary, they seem more personal to me this year. I was on my way to the Philippines – in fact I boarded a soon-to-be cancelled flight to Manila – on January 12th, just hours after the volcano erupted. The communities I was working in during my fieldwork were affected by Typhoon Ursula, which came through on Christmas Day 2019. Disasters just seem to be all around.

Now for many communities around the world, this is nothing new. They live their lives everyday with the background threat of natural hazards. Communities that have previously experienced disasters have seen their lives be instantly altered by a disaster and have lived months (or years) in a state far from normal. A lot of disaster research focuses on these communities and how to help them build resilience to hazards, but I wonder now, what we might be able to learn from communities that have lived through disaster. I am witnessing systems, governments, and a society ill-equipped to handle a pandemic and wondering, how did we get here?

Is it a posture of invincibility? Is it a failure to prepare? Is it a blatant disregard for the voices and opinions of scientists and experts? It is all of these issues and more. While a global pandemic is surely different than a local or regional disaster caused by a natural hazard, I see many parallels in the frustrations we are experiencing today and the challenges in disaster risk reduction. How many times have you yelled at the people on your TV or your phone that are not social distancing, some of whom see to revel, in fact, in acting against the recommendations of medical experts? How many friends or family members have you had to tell time again to take this crisis seriously? If it is this hard to get people to take mitigating actions when they are staring down the barrel of this crisis, can you imagine how difficult it would have been to get them to prepare for a global pandemic when the threat was imaginative?

The same is true for natural hazards. Preparedness and mitigation (especially mitigation) are hard conversations to have. An earthquake (or hurricane or fire or flood or tornado or landslide) might never happen, so why should someone spend time and money in preparing for it? Why should they expend the effort to mitigate their risk from an event that could never occur? For those who live paycheck-to-paycheck, it’s an especially tough argument. The daily risk of not paying rent or being able to put food on the table is much greater than the maybe risk of a natural hazard. Hell, before this pandemic, even I – a person who studies disasters and disaster risk reduction – didn’t have a 3-day emergency kit (I do now).

So where do we go from here? There have been many times in the last few weeks that I have just wanted to scream – at our leaders, at the spring breakers, at almost anyone – and have felt that we’ll never make it out of this. But then I see the people going out of their way to help others. I see the local leaders making the tough decisions to protect us. I see the people cancelling weddings and graduations in order to save their friends and family. This is what it will take to end this pandemic – sacrifice and communities rallying together.

While this is heartwarming and encouraging, it doesn’t change that we were not prepared. We missed the early steps to prevent the pandemic and thousands will die because of it. Let’s not miss the steps again. Let us make the tough choices to prepare for hazard events so that they do not become disasters. Let us alter our individual and societal behaviors to protect the vulnerable and take steps to lessen the vulnerabilities within our communities.



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