COVID-19 Complicates Climate Disaster Relief Efforts

Simultaneous natural and public health crises present worst-case scenarios.

Natural disasters generally present dire situations for human habitation, other species and the surrounding ecosystem. However, when multiple disasters strike at once the ability to deliver adequate emergency relief services is severely hampered. Due to climate change, scientists are increasingly sounding the alarm that such disasters are becoming more frequent and worsening within a warming planet. According to a study by the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, extreme events in 2018 such as drought in the American West and the Iberian peninsula, heat waves in Northeast Asian, record rainfall in Japan, destructive flooding along the U.S. East Coast, and devastating wildfires in Australia and California were made more likely due to climate change.

As the planet continues to warm, scientists expect these trends to continue as well as escalate. With the billions of dollars spent on disaster relief in recent years still at the forefront of social consciousness, the COVID-19 pandemic now presents another serious complicating factor. Governments and companies all over the world have been straining their resources since March to keep societies functioning with widespread economic shutdowns and health care systems strained from the widespread illness and death brought on by the disease. With no vaccine against COVID-19 available, looming hurricanes, wildfires, heat waves and floods present greater risks to stopping the contagion while effectively delivering emergency services.

“COVID is the equivalent of Hurricane Katrina hitting 50 states instead of two,” former Federal Emergency Management Agency official Barry Scanlon told Politico. “You have all of the country’s public and private resources taxed beyond comprehension.”

The harsh reality of this perfect storm has already begun to materialize. Earlier this month, floods and tornadoes struck rural Arkansas as communities were in the midst of dealing with COVID-19. Local leaders scrambled to develop a plan to deal with the cumulative crisis. In addition to shelter-in-place orders, much of COVID-19 prevention relies on the widespread use of personal protective equipment such as masks, face shields, medical gowns and gloves. However, there has been a persistent shortage of these items. Prevention also requires people to stay in one place and adhere to a daily hygiene routine, both of which may not be possible during extreme weather events that involve power outages and evacuations.

When natural disasters strike, frontline relief workers are deployed to save lives and manage the fallout, often putting themselves in harm’s way. The pandemic increases the level of risk for these essential workers and makes it more difficult for them to fulfill their functions. If cases of COVID-19 break out among a team of first responders, they would have to be quarantined before they could resume their duties. Depending on the level of the disaster event, it’s likely that it would be difficult to follow social distancing protocols, which could lead to COVID-19 outbreaks that municipalities already stretched thin would struggle to address.

This compounded level of risk was not unforeseen. In June 2008 the U.S. Forest Service and Department of Agriculture issued an updated Pandemic Response and Preparedness Plan

For the Federal Wildland Fire Agencies designed to guide the emergency response activities of public service fire employees during a pandemic.

“An influenza pandemic has a greater potential to cause rapid increases in death and illness,” the plan document states. The plan came in the wake of the 2002-2004 SARS outbreak and before the 2009 H1N1 pandemic.

Alongside continued COVID-19 efforts, the state of California is bolstering its prevention and response strategies. “It’s a tired cliche, but you have to walk and chew gum at the same time. We’re focused on [COVID-19], we’re focused on coronavirus mitigation and trying to do our best to suppress the spread,” said California Governor Gavin Newsom. “At the same time, we’ve got to mitigate and suppress these fires as we move into wildfire season. This is a top priority of this state, this legislature and this administration, and I want folks to know we are not going to step back, despite the economic headwinds, from our responsibility to meet this moment as we try to meet so many other moments in the midst of this crisis.”