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Event

Cyclone Amphan

When a cyclone and a pandemic combine

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.

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.

Key Facts

Category 5

storm (260km/h max wind speed), storm surge up to 5 metres high

India/ Bangladesh

Border region (the Sundarbans)

Key Impacts

$13 billion

cost of damages

4.9 million

people displaced

100+

deaths

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.

Wider Picture

Wider context

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.

Future context

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.