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Covid and climate change: when crises collide

Red Cross volunteers are seen packing relief packages on a boat in Cau Nhi village, Hai Lang district, Quang Tri province on Tuesday, October 20, 2020. Heavy floods caused fifteen families living in Cau Nhi village to be isolated by water for nearly two weeks. Without electricity and clean water, residents could only rely on relief packages to survive. Photographed by Yen Duong/International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC).

In an age of multiple complex global emergencies, humanitarian agencies are forced to bite off more than they can chew. Cyclones, flash flooding, droughts and heatwaves are worsening year-on-year due to climate change. Over the course of the pandemic they continue to attend to the needs of those afflicted by such extreme weather events.

Covid-19 took the world by storm, a literal storm. Intertwined with the threats of extreme climate events, conflict and Covid-19, the work of humanitarians is being dealt three blows.

These crises impact humanity differently in respective regions. Speaking to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), across the Americas, Middle East and North African (MENA), and the French Red Cross, the indiscriminate nature of humanitarian crises at the intersection of health, environment and violence becomes evermore present.

The Triple C’s in Yemen. For Dr Hosam Faysal, heading up the disaster and crisis prevention unit of IFRC’s MENA region, the three C’s are all too familiar.

“The deepest humanitarian concerns include all three factors, it was already terrible in terms of conflict and climate even before Covid but now the pandemic magnifies these challenges,” Faysal explained.

At the crossfire of extreme weather events, fighting and the coronavirus pandemic, “the combination is very dangerous, because each factor increases the probability induced by the other, with floods posing a further risk of exposing the populations to waterborne diseases,” he added.

The situation in Yemen, deemed the world’s worst humanitarian crisis is riddled with food insecurity and conflict. At least one child dies every 10 minutes from malnutrition or diarrhoea and more than 80 per cent of its nearly 30 million population require humanitarian assistance, including food, shelter as well as water, sanitation and hygiene, which are critical in preventing the spread of viruses.

As the country faces famine-like conditions, torrential rains and flash flooding have torn through homes and infrastructure in recent weeks, affecting almost 7,000 families, most of them already internally displaced and living in inadequate shelters.

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Extreme weather events, combined with  Covid-related care, are putting further strain on already fragile and overcrowded health care systems which “are on the brink of collapse”, said Faysal.

The pandemic has also slowed down the international humanitarian supply chain and the distribution of essential emergency supplies. For IFRC, ensuring the health and safety of national volunteers, staff and communities is of utmost importance, but without the personal protective equipment (PPE) for example, the tasks of the organisation becomes all the more difficult.

“You cannot ask a volunteer on the ground  to distribute food without ensuring the protection. IFRC volunteers giving food in these contexts also have a duty to protect the communities and will not be able to for example call big gatherings for food distribution as this could increase the chances of transmission.”

Dual threat of hurricanes and Covid in Central America. Across the Atlantic, the Americas face a “dual threat” – Covid and hurricanes – warned the Pan American Health Organization’s (PAHO) director Dr Carissa F. Etienne.

So far, 13 to 20 named storms, including up to 10 hurricanes have been forecasted for the season, which officially began on 1 June. Paired with warmer ocean temperatures and higher sea levels, hurricane season is becoming longer, seeing more frequent destructive storms and intensifying along the coasts.

These weather disasters are cyclical and as such countries and Red Cross teams in the region are being asked to prepare and share “early warning messages and urge people to have food, water and other basic necessities at hand, as during the pandemic it might take longer for help to arrive” explained Roger Alonso, IFRC's head of the disaster, crises, and climate unit in the Americas.

Still, while nations prepare for the upcoming inevitable emergencies, they are still recovering from previous disasters.

Last November, back-to-back hurricanes battered millions and thrashed infrastructure, particularly across Central American countries, a region also afflicted by violence. Hurricanes Eta and Iota – both category 4 storms – hit within two weeks of each other, affecting 9.9 million people and damaging fundamental health infrastructure in Colombia, Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua.

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In Honduras, 3 million people have been directly affected and of them, more than 57,000 have been evacuated and 11,000 are in 170 shelters

“Central American countries are suffering the impact of three crises: hurricanes Eta and Iota, Covid-19, and the pre-existing humanitarian crisis,” said Alonso. “In Honduras alone, before the pandemic and the hurricanes, about 1.3 million people already needed help in the areas of food security, health, protection, and water and sanitation.”

In the region, displaced people are most at risk because while they face the dual threat they also have to deal with losing their homes and livelihoods.

Families are placed in evacuation centres, which need to maintain hygiene and social distancing measures. However, this is often not possible as these centres are overcrowded, placing already affected people at a higher risk of infection.

In the past few weeks, PAHO said most countries in Central America and the Caribbean saw spikes in Covid-19 cases, a worrying trajectory, especially as the stormy season just commenced.

Juggling with Covid and heatwaves in France. With summer in full swing, the prospect of life-threatening heatwaves is added to the list of worries. In France, authorities and assisting organisations know how deadly they can be. In 2020, heat waves caused nearly 2,000 deaths in the country, its heaviest toll since the deadly summer of 2003, where around 15,000 people lost their lives due to the soaring temperatures.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), heat waves are “among the most dangerous of natural hazards, but rarely receive adequate attention because their death tolls and destruction are not always immediately obvious”.

“It's another form of pandemic, even if we don't call it a pandemic,” Florent Vallée, national delegate for first aid, planning and operations at the French Red Cross, told Geneva Solutions.

Like every summer, the French Red Cross’s job is to inform the population about simple life-saving preventive measures such as staying hydrated and keeping rooms cool. But these can contradict sanitary recommendations issued to prevent the spread of the virus.

“The complexity in all this is that for heatwaves we ask people to close their windows, use fans to cool the rooms, etc. while for Covid, we ask people to open windows and not to use fans, so it's somewhat schizophrenic,” Vallée explained.

“It's really about juggling these great principles,” he added. “It's about information and having one clear and very simple message.”

For Vallée, the biggest concern are the elderly and socially vulnerable groups such as migrants and homeless people who suffer the double blow of Covid and heatwaves.

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The French Red Cross distributing water during heat-wave season in Paris in June, 2015. (French Red Cross)

The Red Cross is adapting its care centres and outreach services to withstand the high temperatures, putting in place cool rooms for people, while making sure that social distancing and mask-wearing can be respected.

The high temperatures will also have an impact on the ongoing vaccination campaign. “We have centres that we will have to close because we don't have a cool room or because it's going to be too hot and it's impossible to work in those conditions,” he said.

Asked if this could potentially slow down vaccinations, Vallée said that other centres with more suitable conditions would be made available in the meantime.

The heat will also have an effect on vaccines, which must remain within a certain temperature range to be stable. After dilution in a syringe, a vaccine can be kept at room temperature up to five hours as long as it's under 30ºC, Vallée explained.

“We're talking to the vaccine suppliers and waiting for instructions, but we will certainly have to store them in coolers to avoid the temperature rise,” he added.

Fortunately, Covid-cases in France have been steadily decreasing and around 36 per cent of the population have already received the two doses, meaning that pandemic-related operations are under less stress than before.

However, Vallée worries like every year about the worst case scenario happening: “The concern is that we could have an extreme heat wave with greater impacts than what we've seen so far, such as damage to the power and water supply.”

High temperatures also mean higher risk of forest fires, with populations having to be relocated. “We could enter a systemic crisis,” he warned.

IFRC hopes to respond better. One thing that the IFRC members agree on is the need to emphasise anticipation and preparedness. Thanks to science and technological developments that allow for a better understanding of weather events, these are slowly moving to the forefront of humanitarian interventions.

But traditional funding schemes have made it hard for the money to keep up.

“Our systems are often set up to address one particular problem,” observed Maarten Van Aalst, head of the Hague-based Climate Centre, which advises the IFRC, while in reality, crises like Covid and climate change intertwine and influence each other.

A growing number of donors are open to providing financial aid before a disaster happens, he explained, and emergency funding mechanisms such as the IFRC’s Disaster Relief Emergency Fund, which allows the channeling of funds directly to frontline responders, have been developed. While Covid has accelerated this trend, funding needs to become more flexible, van Aalst noted.

Early warning systems and other climate adaptation measures such as building resistant infrastructure or even using ecosystems to counter sea level rise, are key to reducing the risk of losing lives. Nevertheless, adaptation roughly makes 20 per cent of overall climate finance.

Read also: Why climate adaptation needs more attention than it's getting

“These weather events are cyclical and becoming more frequent and intense. In many cases, we can predict them, so we urge governments and donors to invest in early warning systems, disaster preparedness efforts and climate change adaptation initiatives that engage vulnerable communities and put them at the heart of the humanitarian response,” said Alonso.

As the pandemic continues to unfold and the effects of climate change bring forth new global challenges, the humanitarian sector and the international community at large are forced to reevaluate how to better prepare and respond to such interlinked crises, as recent discussions at the World Health Assembly about a global pandemics treaty illustrate.

“We need more structural solutions to some of these problems and part of it is how we do our work, how we partner with others and how we transition some of the support we provide in times of crisis into modalities that build resilience over a longer period of time,” said van Aalst, “and it is something we cannot do on our own”.

Images credit: IFRC