Colliding crises can’t be handled with one-track solutions

Scott Janzwood

Image: Noah Berger/The Associated Press

Apparently, Mother Nature never learned the adage that you shouldn’t kick someone when they’re down.

While the United States continues to bungle its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, disasters are now wreaking havoc on both of its coasts. Ferocious wildfires have spread throughout central California, while Hurricane Laura has struck the Gulf region. Evacuating and temporarily sheltering thousands of people during a crisis is a monumental task at the best of times. Now, authorities must attempt to uproot entire communities without setting off future surges of COVID-19 cases.

Mercifully, here in Canada, the wildfire season has been relatively mild so far. But with hot and dry weather expected to continue in much of British Columbia and Alberta, and a resurgence of COVID-19 cases in both provinces as children go back to school, experts warn we’re not out of the woods yet. What government authorities do in the weeks and days leading up to a disaster evacuation can make the difference between containing or significantly accelerating the outbreak.

Conventional disaster evacuation strategies read like a recipe card for how to rapidly spread a virus. Evacuations are typically rushed, expensive and chaotic, which helps explain why most strategies involve packing large numbers of people into buses and high-density emergency shelters such as school gymnasiums, convention centres, and even hockey and curling rinks.

Disease transmission during disaster evacuations is nothing new. During the 2018 California wildfires, a norovirus outbreak at an emergency shelter infected more than 100 people. And earlier this year, crowded emergency shelters – many of which were already quarantining COVID-19 patients – contributed to a spike in COVID-19 cases in India after a massive cyclone. Even if physical distancing is possible, it may not be a priority for someone who has just lost their home or is concerned about their immediate personal safety.

Many families want to avoid packed emergency shelters and “merge” with the household of a relative or friend living outside of the affected area. Yet new spikes of COVID-19 cases linked to interprovincial travel should show such mergers could lead to the disease’s resurgence in parts of the country that only recently managed to get things under control.

Taken separately, a pandemic and a disaster both present daunting challenges. But when they occur at the same time, they transform into something far more formidable – what scientists call a compound risk. This occurs when simultaneous crises interact in surprising ways, often amplifying the harm each crisis would inflict individually. When a pandemic and a disaster happen at the same time, you don’t just add up the potential harms they could inflict – you may need to multiply them.

For example, the pandemic began amplifying the danger posed by wildfires in the spring by disrupting governments’ usual preparations, such as removal of excess brush and vegetation and the training of emergency personnel. Now, evacuations and emergency shelters have the potential to propel an explosive growth in COVID-19 cases by enabling the spread from the evacuee community to the host community or vice versa.

The key to minimizing the harm from compound risks is to decrease their connectivity. For COVID-19 and disaster evacuations, that means minimizing the risk of COVID-19 transmission when transporting and sheltering evacuees. Long bus rides – particularly with windows closed to prevent smoke inhalation – don’t inspire much confidence. Instead, provincial and local governments can marshal rental cars, taxis and ride-hailing services to separate households and decrease their reliance on buses. Special care should be taken to safeguard vulnerable populations, and surgical masks should be made widely and freely available.

We also need to rethink conventional approaches to emergency shelters. Instead of crowding people into shelters, evacuees should be sheltered in hotels – ideally in locations with access to outdoor space, grocery stores and restaurants, and other essential services needed to survive in an unfamiliar community that could be locked down.

Host communities are typically selected based on their proximity to the evacuated region; however, authorities should also consider the local COVID-19 case count and hospital capacity. Importantly, evacuation strategies should prioritize access to mental-health services, which could serve to increase compliance with physical-distancing guidelines and decrease the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

Many risks might be avoided by evacuating in one’s car and merging with another household. If governments encourage people in at-risk communities to make these preparations in advance, both households could plan to self-isolate before the time of merger to minimize the risk of spreading the virus to one another.

Even if Canada manages to escape this wildfire season relatively unscathed, spring floods are only six months away. And while the pandemic will eventually end, the cascading effects of climate change across nearly every component of our lives mean that compound risks are here to stay. Our political leaders at every level of government are now managers of vast portfolios of overlapping and interacting risks, so strategies that address risks one at a time are no longer viable. The bar for public office just got higher.

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