With the nature of disasters changing constantly, they can surprise us by their unpredictability and speed of onset, despite our access to the most advanced and sophisticated information and early warning systems.
We have seen in recent disasters the inability to predict the incidence of mudslides or the amount of water to be held or released in dams during heavy rains — whether in Mumbai, Kerala or Chennai in recent years. The ferocity of volcanic discharges recently in the Philippines and New Zealand surprised many scientists and earthquakes continue to surprise us with their relative unpredictability.
Will the water from melting glaciers or rising ocean levels suddenly assume more catastrophic dimensions or smaller events like lightning incidents assume more alarming proportions in the coming days? The ability of disaster management authorities to reasonably predict or anticipate would be put to test in the days to come.
One of the issues that came to the forefront in the COVID-19 crisis in India was the seeming inability of governments to anticipate the impact of the suddenness of the lockdown on migrant labourers in various parts of the country. One question that we need to ask is this: Did we respond fast enough?
The speed of response would need to be gauged not only how quickly we enforced physical distancing and lockdowns, but also in the speed and reach of preventive messaging. Did we use the time during the lockdown to prepare the government machinery, mobilising and training of health personnel, procuring testing kits, ventilators and personal protective equipment?
The speed of response is often linked to the ability to procure materials in a timely and cost-effective manner in every disaster. Notable among the countries that responded quickly have been Taiwan and Hong Kong which could therefore contain the infection levels quickly.
There is also an urgent need to be “smart” in our responses. In the COVID-19 crisis, several governments took calculated risks as part of their responses — for instance, Sweden chose not to impose physical restrictions on citizens; others continued with a certain degree of economic activitywith very limited restrictions on mobility.
While the jury is still out on the efficacy of each of these strategies in their specific contexts, the key learning is that we should not lose sight of our strategic and tactical responses while implementing steps to mitigate the crisis.
The quick transition of a health crisis to a social and economic crisis of frightening dimensions in India clearly required this unique ability and the need for decisions that took into account the economic impacts of lockdowns on citizens.