What Covid-19 can teach us about managing disasters

Coastal Bangladesh is frequently battered by tropical storms, like Cyclone Amphan which struck in May of this year. Giving people enough early warning to evacuate to shelters in advance of storms is one of the many ways that governments like Bangladesh are leading in disaster risk reduction efforts. Credit: Keystone/AP

Disaster risk governance is the focus of this year’s International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction, taking place today. Geneva Solutions spoke to Mami Mizutori, UN special representative of the secretary general for disaster risk reduction (UNDRR) about what lessons can be learned from the pandemic, which countries are rising to meet future challenges, and what gives her hope in a world of risk. 

Geneva Solutions: What is the significance of International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction?

Mami Mizutori: It's about prevention. It's about making sure that disaster risks – whether they’re climate related or biological hazards like Covid-19 – don't take our lives or our livelihoods. We’ve tried every year to raise awareness that prevention saves lives. If we don't mitigate the risks surrounding us, these disasters will only be stronger and more frequent.

The issue is that for decades, risk has never been a very popular topic. Then, Covid-19 struck and people are now understanding that there are so many risks that are surrounding us, and they're interconnected. Covid-19 started as a public health crisis, which is now a socio-economic crisis. It's getting a lot of traction.

Not only governments, but each one of us must understand what the nature of the risk that is surrounding us is, and what we need to do to mitigate existing risk and not to create new risks.

GS: What is disaster risk governance?

MM: It’s about having a plan – a disaster risk reduction strategy. The biggest risk driver of all is bad risk governance. In order to reverse that, we need to all have better risk governance and disaster risk reduction strategies, and we need to put them in place.

GS: Have any countries shown particularly good disaster risk governance?

MM: Bangladesh is hit by cyclones year after year – this year, right after Covid-19 struck, they were struck by a cyclone. In 1970, when a big cyclone hit them, one million people died. But ever since then the government, together with the Red Crescent, has supported a cyclone preparedness programme which has improved the way that weather is forecasted. [The programme also] established early warning systems, and they have educated people how to react very quickly to those early warnings. They have also created shelters and made sure they are gender sensitive and inclusive. Now, when the same kind of cyclone with the same level of intensity hits the country, fewer lives are lost.

There is also the example of Ecuador, which has done a lot for people living with disabilities - a group who are really impacted when it comes to disaster. They implemented a geolocation system for persons with disabilities to make sure that they knew where these people were and, in the case of disasters, that they could be easily located and rescued.

In terms of Covid, I would give the example of South Korea. They had experienced mortalities from SARS and MERS so they knew what a biological hazard of a virus could do, and established a much better system to test and trace than other countries. They also had a system of triage in hospitals. As a result, they have suffered far fewer mortalities and they have been able to contain the situation better than many countries.

GS: What are the key lessons to be learned from the pandemic in terms of disaster risk governance?

MM: It’s all about having a plan. Covid-19 has taught us that. The failure to have a plan is a plan for failure. The second lesson is that you have to invest in the plan. We know that some governments had a very good plan – they were aware that a biological hazard could be the next big hazard, but they didn't invest. They didn't put a budget against it, they didn’t put human resources against it, for example, making the hospital system resilient. Therefore, unfortunately, the plan just remained a piece of paper.

The third lesson I would say is that Covid-19 has shown us that the risks we face are systemic, meaning that one risk leads to another. Public health crises lead very quickly to socio-economic crises. The world that we face right now is a multi-hazard world. As we struggle now with Covid-19, the climate emergency has not gone anywhere. We need to have a plan which has a multi-hazard approach.

The fourth lesson is that we have seen that, in many cases, the cities, local authorities and communities have been at the forefront of the response and now the recovery. Of course, national governments are very important, but we need to really enhance resilience at the local level. UNDRR is going to launch a 10-year campaign at the end of this month, following on from the earlier Making Cities Resilient Campaign which aimed at raising awareness about the need for risk governance. Now's the time to really support them to implement this.

GS: How has the pandemic affected the UNDRR’s focus or priorities?

MM: We have been reminded of the importance of local level resilience. We started to prepare the new 10 year plan even before Covid, but now, the relevance is more important.

Another thing is the importance of nature-based solutions, because Covid-19 as a biological hazard has a very strong linkage with biodiversity loss. The more that urbanisation moves forward and the more that people and wildlife come together, there's a bigger probability that this biological diversity loss will expose us to more biological hazards in the future.

Here, nature-based solutions are very important, because they can serve several purposes at the same time. For example, having a mangrove forest restored can also reduce the loss of biological diversity, act as a natural dyke which will be very resilient in times of flood, and help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Also, it’s shown us the importance of critical infrastructure. We've seen how important hospitals are at this time. Not only the resilience of the physical hospital, but also how hospitals are run and financed. One of the targets of the Sendai Framework for disaster risk reduction is to reduce the loss to critical infrastructure and disruption to basic services. This has always been an important aspect of our work, but we now believe that the role of critical infrastructure is much more important than before.

GS: What changes have you seen over the years that have been most effective in reducing risk?

MM: In terms of the climate emergency, there are two things – adaptation and mitigation.

Ultimately, we need to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. If we can't do that then we will never do away with the climate emergency. Several countries or groups of countries have committed themselves to zero a carbon emission future. The European Union is one of them. The United Kingdom has also committed by 2050 and most recently, China committed to be carbon neutral by 2060. This is all very good, but the problem is that 2050 is not in the very near future. There hasn't been enough done to really mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.

A group of countries which are doing much better out of sheer concern for their own existence are the small island developing states in the Pacific, [some of which] are predicted to go underwater if the current situation remains as such. They are looking into how they can better adapt to the climate emergency and are linking these adaptations to disaster risk reduction solutions, so that they can be connected to their sustainable development.

But there are more challenges than good examples. The vast majority of the least developed countries, although they are aware that climate emergency will be the ultimate killer of their existence, don't have the funding to really put these policies forward. The Paris Agreement has put an obligation on the developed countries to extend international cooperation to these developing countries so that they can adapt and mitigate, but that promise has not really been fulfilled. So unfortunately, there are much worse examples, and not really a commitment being honoured by the collective global north.

GS: The world is facing unprecedented challenges in 2020, but what gives you hope?

MM: I'd like to give two examples. [The first is] the Geneva Cities Hub, a platform focusing on urban actors and issues. It aims to bring together stakeholders around the city but also other cities to look at these challenges collectively. Cities are becoming very, very conscious of their need to build resilience.

The other thing that makes me hopeful is how the young people are reacting…Greta Thunberg is the ultimate voice of young people, but we know that all over the world [they] are really speaking up. They are saying that they will [hold] us to account for what's happening.

Young people will not tolerate [other generations] depriving them of their futures. I'm confident they will make sure that they will elect political leaders who will prioritise prevention and risk governance and will enable them to change the way that we behave and create development. Until now, development has also created risk, but they will make sure that development will be more resilient, will be more green, and it will be more equitable.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.