Covid-19: Cascading risks from health, disasters pose major challenge


The scenario of cascading risks of health and disaster nexus playing out among millions of families throughout South Asia leaves us with the question — in the middle of such a pandemic, how do we ensure that the development gains of the previous decade are not wiped out?

In an interaction with BusinessLine, Sanjay Srivastava, Chief, Disaster Risk Reduction, at UN-ESCAP, Bangkok, cites the case of Asif Ali (name changed), a mechanic living in a rural township bordering India and Bangladesh, along with his wife and three children.


Breeding ground for vectors

Asif lost his job when the Covid-19 lockdown forced the closure of a small repair shop. Furthermore, the months leading into the monsoon season led to severe flooding, leaving him with a damaged home and lost livestock that had provided an additional livelihood. As the waters receded, it became a perfect breeding ground for vectors.

Unfortunately, he and his wife contracted dengue fever, with Asif in dire need of blood platelets for survival and left at the mercies of an overwhelmed health system. While the wife solicited platelet donations, the children were left to fend for themselves. With dwindling savings, food insecurity and the threat of malnutrition, the future looked bleak.

Arbitrary demarcations at best

“To address this question, we need to understand three key fundamentals of managing interdependent and cascading risks,” says Srivastava. The harsh spotlight of the pandemic has clearly demonstrated that demarcations between natural, biological and other hazards are at best arbitrary. They may have different risk transmission pathways, but they share the same geographical space and time.”

Disasters are addressed in several global frameworks that are also committed to reducing pandemics and health risks. But progress has been slow. Within the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), SDG 3 is devoted to good health and well-being, with an emphasis on ‘early warning, risk reduction and management of national and global health risks’.

Regional cooperation imperative

While the frameworks are available, regional cooperation is imperative to help incorporate public health risk reduction, which, in turn, is at the heart of development and disaster policies. Shared multi-hazard risk-informed planning becomes urgent in securing a resilient future for the South Asian sub-region, notes Srivastava.

However, the risk of cascading disasters also offers the region an opportunity to implement cross-sectoral convergence and truly build back a better tomorrow. Now is the time to substantiate the often-talked-about ‘multi-sectoral’ approach and implement risk-informed decision-making in all sectors, he added. While this may be a challenge, this is also an opportunity to seize the moment to build back better a future that is resilient and includes all.

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