Recently, the Global Alliance of Disaster Research Institutes (GADRI) published a letter called “COVID-19: Lessons from Disaster Research”, which highlights the lessons that risk and disaster management brings to the current global pandemic context generated by COVID-19. The missive states that decades of research and tools for Disaster Risk Management (DRM) must be used to address today’s pandemic.
For instance, the centers declare that there was background available to anticipate the occurrence of a pandemic, like the one we are experiencing, and its diverse consequences. Currents responses and decision-making have been benefited from previous work on DRM and from the essential knowledge that research on disasters has provided to address crises, before, during and after they occur.
“This global pandemic has been widely anticipated and foretold. Experts over many years forecast a pandemic with a scale of illness, swiftness of spread, scarcity of critical medical resources, and profound impact on society such as we are now experiencing” assure the 38 researchers associated with institutions studying disaster risk around the world, who sign the letter.
The last disaster
Nevertheless, this knowledge has not been translated into adequate preparedness for the pandemic, and this is part of a larger phenomenon that experts identify as “planning for the last disaster”. Namely, we often invest resources in preparing ourselves for “the last disaster” with a sense of urgency that fades over time. Such a phenomenon is recurrent among people and entities making decisions in the public-politic sphere based on the short-term political and economic benefits, and who generally do not suffer directly from the consequences of their decisions.
“Stockpiling of resources and redundancy is seen as wasteful and is eliminated rather than being recognized as preparedness for inevitable extreme weather, geophysical, epidemic and other hazards.” the publication indicates.
According to Rodrigo Cienfuegos, director of the Research Center for Integrated Disaster Risk Management (CIGIDEN by its initials in Spanish), academic at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile (UC) and one of the GADRI letter signers, it is only when we assume the risk that we can act effectively to generate solutions with the necessary cross-sectional support to implement them. “It is precisely due to this” he adds, “that communication in crisis, transparency, and open data exchange, the right to information, become fundamental in times of disaster”. The expert emphasizes that “respecting these principles can save lives”.
Regrettably, in many countries –including Chile– the installed scientific capabilities have not been properly exploited, says CIGIDEN’s director, since the open data and information flow has been hindered, which along with contradictory or incomplete messages from the authorities, has contributed to undermining public trust. “Scientists can help restore that trust by sharing information and evidence, mediating or facilitating communication between the different agents. In a crisis, the importance of including absent agents on these dialogues becomes clearer: they are the communities suffering more severely from the consequences of the politicians’ and experts’ decisions”, Cienfuegos explains.
The relevance of scientific studies proposed by GADRI’s letter also lies in the possibility of saving human lives: “Failure to prepare most impacts those who are marginalized and disenfranchised – the poor, the sick, minorities, immigrants, refugees, the uninsured and the children”. In countries with weak or nonexistent social safety, affected families will heavily rely on financial support and emergency aid packages from their government. Without previously designed coping and recovery mechanisms, countries are forced to draw on emergency spending for no having invested in the community resilience required to avoid the disaster.