How we can protect ourselves in the years to come
Amid the unprecedented Covid-19 crisis, the world’s most climate-vulnerable country Bangladesh is bearing the brunt of natural disasters, and currently is being battered by the worst flood in recent years.
Heavy monsoon floods have submerged one-third of Bangladesh. The flooding severely affected over 5.4 million people, and around one million houses were inundated in Bangladesh. Monsoon rainfalls have also affected 14 million people in disaster-vulnerable parts of India.
Recently, the southern coastal regions of these climate-vulnerable countries were also devastated by a strong tropical cyclone named Amphan. The storm which intensified into a super cyclonic storm of Category 5, fortunately, weakened to Category 3 before its landfall on May 20.
The cyclone affected over 10 million people and destroyed over 500,000 homes and livelihoods of thousands of families. It was a mammoth task to evacuate nearly 3 million vulnerable people. Unfortunately, this task was significantly hindered, as the countries were enforcing an unprecedented nationwide lockdown to contain the transmission of Covid-19 when the storm made landfall.
As an emergency measure, the cyclone shelters, community buildings, and schools were used to shelter nearly 2.4 million people in Bangladesh, and about half a million in India. These shelters are generally overcrowded, where people have to share washrooms and places for sleeping, and therefore it is practically impossible to maintain social distancing guidelines, which is the cornerstone of Covid-19 control.
Covid-19 is caused by a highly contagious virus, referred to as Severe Respiratory Syndrome Virus-2 (SARS-CoV-2), which transmits through close physical contact and respiratory droplets. These natural disasters might have contributed to the surge of Covid-19 cases in these countries.
Before cyclone Amphan, India reported over 100,000 cases while Bangladesh documented 25,000 cases. However, as of August 12, 2.4 million cases in India and 266,498 cases in Bangladesh were reported. Interestingly, in the flood-intense period, Covid-19 cases have increased approximately to 38% in Bangladesh. Our recent study shows the proportion of cases declined in the epicentre (Dhaka city), while there was a nearly four to 10-fold increase at the district-level throughout Bangladesh.
Taking care of nature
The frequency, magnitude, and changing geography of extreme weather events (such as floods, storms, cyclones, tsunami) have increased in the last four decades, which are attributed to environmental degradation and climate change. In this context, natural calamity-prone countries with limited resources like Bangladesh are anticipated to suffer the worst consequences.
Millions of people take shelter in crowded makeshift centres during monsoon floods and storm surges in Asia and the Pacific. In Bangladesh and India, the management of crises due to cyclones and floods has been done efficiently with minimal loss of life in recent years.
However, the emergence of SARS-CoV2 as a deadly pandemic strain is beginning to jeopardize the apparent success in managing natural disasters by increasing the risk of contracting Covid-19, primarily due to overcrowding.
In addition, human-made crises such as displaced people due to war or ethnic conflicts also contribute to increase the risk of coronavirus transmission. For example, more than one million Rohingya refugees who fled from nearby Myanmar and are now living in crowded refugee camps in Southern Bangladesh like refugees elsewhere in the world, would be more vulnerable during the Covid-19 pandemic, and further contribute to the amplification and spread of the virus.
While epidemics or even local outbreaks of contagious diseases often occur after a cyclone and put significant burden on countries like Bangladesh, such natural calamities during the Covid-19 pandemic would have potentially more devastating consequences.
A new challenge
Covid-19 is a new health challenge witnessed by mankind, and can potentially remain so until effective vaccines become available.
In the foreseeable future, many climate-attributable risks are predicted all over the world. Bangladesh, in particular, will remain highly vulnerable to floods, cyclones, and climate-induced vector-borne disease outbreaks in the current monsoon season, among other threats.
This country has been encountering severe mosquito-borne outbreaks (chikungunya and dengue) for the last three years. Overall, the double-burden of climate vulnerability and infectious diseases could jeopardize the progress being made to increase climate resilience in the affected regions.
To protect the vulnerable populations, developing a future-proof system needs to be emphasized in order to mitigate hazards from compound risk scenarios in the climate-changed world. From this standpoint, vulnerable populations should be given the priority of vaccination against Covid-19 when a vaccine becomes available.
Conducting health and environmental impact assessments of future compound risk scenarios is also warranted. Finally, ensuring community participation to co-create better pandemic responses (such as by addressing stigmatization, misinformation, and health-seeking behaviour), and concerted global efforts are crucial for building future resilience.
Mohammad Sorowar Hossain is Executive Director of Biomedical Research Foundation, Dhaka, Bangladesh, and Associate Professor, School of Environment and Life Sciences, Independent University, Bangladesh. Email: [email protected] The author acknowledges the contribution of Dr Enayetur Raheem, Dr Mahbubul H Siddiqee, and Shameema Ferdous affiliated with Biomedical Research Foundation, and Professor Shah Faruque, Independent University, Bangladesh.