An unprecedented health and economic ramification of COVID-19 has overshadowed public concern about the climate crisis. While many governments have declared a “climate emergency,” the Bangladesh parliament has announced a “planetary emergency” in November 2019. Natural disasters, including flooding and super cyclone Amphan, during the COVID-19 pandemic illustrates that we are encountering double exposures. These exposures bring far-reaching consequences for the people.
Floods hit several north-western districts and it can spread over other parts of the country, as water levels of the rivers like the Teesta, the Brahmaputra and the Dharla marked rise, inundating fresh areas. The government has commissioned 10 high officials to oversee the flood conditions of 10 districts as well as to provide all emergency services. Farmers in these districts are already counting substantial loss of jute, Aus paddy, chilli, and sesame crops as well as Aman seedbeds.
On the third week of May, the southern part of Bangladesh and several states of India, including West Bengal and Odisha, have been devastated by cyclone Amphan – the strongest storm in over a decade in Bangladesh. Reports show it has washed away 415km of roads, 200 bridges, tens of thousands of homes and vast tracts of farmland and fisheries in the country. Moreover, Amphan has damaged more than 150km of embankments.
Tropical Cyclone Amphan has killed at least 22 people in Bangladesh and 82 people in India. As per a statement of the United Nations spokesperson, around 10 million people in Bangladesh are impacted by this cyclone. According to an estimation, the storm has caused damage worth over $13 billion in West Bengal. Amid COVID-19 pandemic, Bangladesh and India are not only struggling with this cyclone, but other countries are also facing similar kinds of natural disasters.
In April, a category 5 tropical cyclone (i.e., the highest measurement on the cyclone intensity scale) hit and caused havoc on the South Pacific Islands, which are still struggling to cope with the impacts of COVID-19. Humanitarian response has slowed down by COVID-19-related restrictions. These exposures exacerbated existing vulnerabilities due to limited humanitarian access, disrupted supply chains and food insecurity.
In recent months, in Zimbabwe, drought has left millions without access to clean water and at risk of acute food insecurity. Report shows receiving water from bowsers was a huge challenge for many residents. People spend most of their time in long, winding queues, impatiently waiting to fill up the containers. Consequently, it is hard for many people to practice the regular handwashing to contain COVID-19.
Somalia has been in peril of the triple threats of locusts, coronavirus and flooding. Food supply has been severely threatened by the outbreak of locust. The government has declared a national emergency in February.
Somalia also has been fighting several serious threats like widespread corruption and terrorism. Recent heavy rainfall continues to threaten crops and food supplies. In the midst of adverse environmental situation, coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated their economic fallout. People are struggling with how to follow proper handwashing techniques and hygiene as well as maintain social distancing during flooding in many informal settlements.
Record-breaking temperatures and months of severe drought have fuelled a series of massive bushfires across Australia. New South Wales and Victoria have been worst affected. Studies indicate bushfires, drought and COVID-19 pushed up grocery costs. Economists advocate COVID-19 crisis may push Australia into deflation.
Like Australia, extreme heat events and wildfires have occurred in several states in the United States of America, for instance, Florida, the south-western and western USA. Scientists forecast that these events may lead to particularly high excess mortality and morbidity, and are likely to disrupt power supplies, hospitals, and emergency services.
The Gulf Coast of the USA is facing a severe hurricane season. The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) underscores Americans should prepare for the upcoming hurricane season. They confirm that the agency maintains its readiness to prepare for and respond to hurricanes amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Several states, namely, part of Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi are currently experiencing minor to moderate flooding.
In these catastrophic circumstances in Bangladesh and beyond, immediate policy actions are indispensable to limit loss of lives. Compound climate risks during COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented test of the governments’ ability to manage compound risks. Proactive measures must be employed to reduce climate-attributable loss of life as well as to protect lives and livelihood from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some specific measures must be deployed to avoid double exposures: COVID-19 and flooding. Firstly, the government will have to ensure that citizens are food secured. They must expand and improve emergency food assistance and social protection programmes to meet the needs of the most vulnerable people.
It is significant to boost country-wide agricultural production by implementing the Prime Minister’s directive: every inch of land must be brought under cultivation. In tandem, initiatives are needed to mobilise the agricultural market. To be sure, the critical situations can not be managed and overcome by government’s interventions alone. That is why, market systems have to be fully reopened, despite having lots of risks. Employing necessary health safety measures are mandatory.
Second, developing a dedicated social protection scheme is critical. The government does not have a complete database of poor people. Because of that around 50 percent allocation goes to such people, who do not fall within the poverty line. In India, all social protection schemes are connected to the “Adhaar Card”—a 12-digit unique identification number issued by the Unique Identification Authority of India. One of the key purposes of issuing this card is to provide some public subsidies and unemployment benefit schemes. We can move forward to the same direction. It can be managed with the existing National Identification Card (NID).
Third, discrimination is everywhere, and in every part of our everyday life. Natural disasters perpetuate discrimination. Discrimination is more obvious in the COVID-19 pandemic. Effective measures are crucial to eradicate it. For instance, to ensure enough food and nutrition for the poor and extreme poor, the government should launch initiatives to formulate ‘Laws on Right to Food.’
And fourth, considering the overall situation of changing climate and other disturbances as well as assuring and keeping the country food secure, the Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE) should undertake mid- and long-term planning for ‘climate-smart agriculture.’ The DAE should seriously work for disseminating practices that enhance food production and reduce greenhouse emissions. Simultaneously, the Ministry of Agriculture must learn from the corona pandemic and rethink how to equip agricultural sector to combat the Planetary Emergency.
It is exceedingly difficult for the government to tackle these challenges alone. A combined and coordinated effort is not only crucial for addressing the most urgent priority for minimising the loss of lives, but also overcoming the major socio-economic crises arising from flooding (and cyclone) and COVID-19, which are still unfolding. Mobilising private sectors and NGOs are important in this regard.
In conclusion, employing the “all-of-government and all-of-society approach” is vital for tackling the double exposures; where enabling government, private sector and communities are a prerequisite to the success of the former.
The writer is an Associate Professor, Dept. of Agricultural Extension and Information System, Sher-e-Bangla Agricultural University