A vision of the future?
Updated: Apr 5
A category 5 tropical cyclone sweeping across America. A 14m high tsunami crashing into the shores of Japan. A 7.0 magnitude earthquake on the Enriquillo-Plantain Garden fault zone. These three scenarios, and many more, are all firmly printed in the mind of any individuals who have studied or worked in the field of disaster management. Rightly so, because they have all resulted in devastating impacts.
In themselves, these hazards occur naturally. The resulting disaster is borne of the hazard’s interaction with our exposure and our vulnerability. If there is no exposure to the hazard, or no vulnerability, then the disaster does not occur. The disaster is not natural, and COVID-19 was not a natural disaster.
Since the dawn of human existence diseases have impacted mankind. From the Justinian Plague of AD 542, spreading from Constantinople to Persia and Europe, killing an estimated 33 to 40% of the world’s population, to the 1918 influenza pandemic with an estimated 50-100 million lives lost, to the more recent outbreaks of Ebola in African countries such as Uganda and the DRC with an average case fatality rate of 50%, to the present day SARS-CoV-2 pandemic with a current global death toll above 400,000.
The threat of emerging infectious pathogens has always been there, detailed through the pages of both history books and modern day risk registers.
As far as we know, there are seven strains of human coronavirus. There are six species, one of which has two different strains (SARS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2). Most of the human coronaviruses, including the three most infectious and lethal, find their origins in bats. Many other viruses also originate from bats, such as Ebola, Nipah, Hendra, and rabies. Bats, as well as rodents, are considered high-risk viral reservoirs. Scientific estimates suggest there may currently be over 5000 unidentified coronavirus strains in bats globally.
Human life is having a significant impact on natural wildlife habitats. An impact that causes animals to migrate, to interact with humans, and to interact with one another more frequently. By destroying and encroaching on natural wildlife habitats we are increasing our exposure to new and emerging pathogens.
Is this a vision of the future?
We must become better prepared for pandemic events.
We need to protect, preserve and respect natural wildlife habitats.
We need more funding for programmes to identify and study potential zoonotic diseases before transmissions to human occur.
We need to address racial health disparities that lead to discrimination through increased vulnerability to disease for certain ethnic groups.
We need to focus emergency planning efforts on all potential pandemics and not be tunnel visioned into influenza-only approaches.
We need to put equal focus for pandemics on all elements of the disaster management cycle, including mitigation and preparedness. We should not rely on plans and processes.
We need more robust pandemic PPE stockpiles.
We need to continue to harness the potential of the voluntary sector both in emergencies and normal business.
We need to continue to harness the synergy and coordination between heath and social care that has developed at local levels during the response.
We need to seize the opportunity of disaster transformation to exit COVID-19 in a more prepared state to how we went in. Both individual organisations and society.
We need to empower emergency planning professionals across all sectors. We need to hear their expert voice at all levels of government and decision making.
We need increased visibility of decision making nationally.
We need increased coordination between national and local levels of response.
We need disaster science to feature in all scientific advisory bodies that are responding to emergencies.
We need to increase public discourse on disasters.
We need to promote better understanding of hazards, exposure, and vulnerability.
We need to promote better engagement in disaster risk reduction activity.
We need to support people to face the disruption that arises from disaster.
We need to understand better the communities we serve.
These points, which by no way is an exhaustive list, have been at the forefront of my recent thoughts. Thoughts which through the trials of the past four months of pandemic response have not always been clear. What is clear though, is we all have a responsibility to do better.