Super Cyclone Amphan is a lesson on the compounding effects that hazards, particularly novel (e.g. a global pandemic) or extreme (e.g. a super cyclone), can have when they co-occur, a scenario that is increasingly likely as the number of disasters per year continues to rise.
When a cyclone and a pandemic combine
The Sundarbans is a delta region characterized by one of the largest mangrove forests in the world that supports rich biodiversity, acts as a shelter belt from extreme weather and provides the livelihoods of millions of people, almost 50 per cent of whom are living under the poverty line. As an area that is struck by ever-intensifying storms and floods, and a combination of rising sea levels with damming of upstream rivers causing an increasingly eroded and saline coastline, the region’s natural coastal defenses had already been weakened before Amphan hit.
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the subsequent lockdowns left many people without income options, including migrant workers who were forced to return to their home areas − including coastal rural areas like the Sundarbans − and housed in cyclone shelters while under quarantine. It was against this backdrop that Cyclone Amphan hit the area, a super cyclone that would have been devastating even without the ongoing pandemic. But the current situation was even more difficult for the population because the shelters were already crowded, and the local people largely avoided evacuating to them because they were concerned over social distancing, hygiene and privacy. While the pandemic made it more difficult to prepare for the cyclone, the cyclone in turn also worsened the conditions for pandemic response in its aftermath. It damaged close to 6,000 primary health centres and sub-centres, thereby exacerbating the strain on the existing health systems in the region.
Globally, there was a record-tying 103 named cyclones in 2020 alone, accounting for over 1,300 deaths and over $73 billion in damages. Of these cyclones, Amphan is notable for the severe impacts on vulnerable communities due to the compounding effect of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The likelihood of severe storms is set to increase, as are levels of population and development in vulnerable coastal zones, while ecosystem services and protection from coastal ecosystems are literally being eroded. Without integrated coastal zone management, loss and damage of coastal settlements due to storms is likely to increase in the future to a point where recovery is no longer feasible. In addition, however, as novel events and pandemics are predicted to increase in the future, multi-hazard events where different types of events co-occur (in this case a cyclone and a pandemic) must also be given more consideration in risk planning.
The cyclone had an impact on the pandemic spread. It destroyed homes where people had previously been able to distance themselves from others and it forced people into riskier behaviours because their livelihoods were destroyed. As a consequence, more people were put in the path of infection risk.
Pursuit of economic or developmental interests with a lack of consideration for impacts on the environment
A lack of perception, awareness or preparation in governance relating to risk management and response
Gases released into the atmosphere by human activities contribute to increasing global warming and climate change
Intentional mass removal of trees, often for resource extraction or changing land use.
Human activities altering the natural function or flow of freshwater bodies including rivers, lakes, wetlands and groundwater reservoirs.
Increasing temperatures in the ocean or atmosphere, for example from climate change.
Infrastructure vulnerable to extreme events, often due to lack of investment, maintenance, inadequate planning or poor construction.
Reduction of people’s ability to support themselves or their family, both temporarily or permanently, is an impact that is interconnected with many others, including health and food security.
Just like people, nature also feels the impacts of various hazards resulting in threats to health and physical damage to individuals, populations, communities or entire ecosystems.
Through their impacts on natural and agricultural systems, supply chains and economies, disasters can put access to the foods we depend on for survival at risk.
Water security can be impacted by disasters when sufficient availability or access to water for health and livelihoods is disrupted. Water sources can also get contaminated and make vectors for other risks.
Disasters can force people to move from their homes due to the loss of shelter, livelihoods or the risk of further incidents occurring. People may be temporarily displaced or urged to migrate to other areas.
Disasters cause fatalities both when they occur and in the aftermath with cascading effects on physical and mental health.
Public and private structures and systems can be impacted by disasters, from homes and properties to physical assets critical for providing health services, transport, food, water, communications and more.
Even those surviving disasters when they occur can be at risk of short- and long-term health impacts cascading from pollution or damage of critical infrastructure and livelihood disruption.