Cyclone Amphan amid Covid-19: A crisis within a crisis
Last week, Bangladesh experienced a crisis within a crisis. Cyclone Amphan with a wind speed of 150 km per hour brought havoc to the country and left behind a trail of destructions at least in ten coastal districts in Khulna and Barishal divisions. The reported death toll was only 26 with over 2 million people affected; more than 2.5 lakh houses were either fully or partially affected. Infrastructure such as roads, bridges, power poles and coastal embankments were severely damaged and in some instances completely washed away.
The cyclone destroyed standing crops, vegetables, uprooted millions of trees, and damaged thousands of fish farms. A complete assessment of the impact is perhaps weeks away; however, initial assessment reported an estimated loss of Taka 11 billion in terms of crops, infrastructure and coastal embankment protection works.
Fortunately, the death toll from this super cyclone Amphan was much lower than Sidr in November 2007 and Aila in May 2009 due to early warnings, and timely evacuation of people from the coastal villages, reflecting recent improvementsin responses and risk reduction strategies in disaster management in Bangladesh. The government, in the midst of dealing with the covid pandemic, evacuated 2.5 million people from the coastal areas to some 8,000 cyclone shelters. Those evacuated will remain in the shelters for weeks or even months, depending on situations on the ground, including rebuilding and reconstruction of houses. Therefore, a strong recovery plan must be underway immediately to assist the cyclone victims to return and regain their livelihoods.
The cyclone struck the country when the government was facing with the overwhelming tasks to quell Covid crisis and its fallout - both economic and social. The super cycle posed a huge threat to the safety and survival of the coastal residents; as a result, local administration was too preoccupied to care for the virus. The primary concern was to evacuate and transport the people hurriedly to the cyclone shelters.
The fear of virus transmission was not in the minds and thoughts of the people either. Those under threat and in crisis in the far flung islands were packed into boats and vessels to the main land and ultimately to the cyclone shelters. Arguably, the cyclone itself posed a huge challenge to enforcement of social distancing and other hygiene practices.
Therefore, the evacuation triggered by the cyclone proved a daunting task in virus containment strategies and steps. Despite specific guidelines for social distancing, it was not possible to maintain social distancing. Further, packing such a huge number of people in enclosed cycle shelters apparently endangered further spread of the virus. The medical teams dispatched to the cyclone shelters followed the virus containment steps - for instance, each cyclone shelter was filled only 50% of the capacity to avoid crowding. However, this was still considered crowded. One-third of the occupancy for each shelter could perhaps ensure some social distances among the evacuees in the shelters.
Further, where needed, the local administration was asked to open additional temporary shelters in schools and colleges. The medical team worked 24 hours with proper gears and equipments. The guidelines provided provisions for masks, sanitizers and proper hand washing facilities in each shelter. However, in such a context, a huge and real riskis the use of public washrooms, particularly in a tight, intimate and potentially germ-infected space. The local administration confronted a double-edge sword of the cyclone and the spread of the coronavirus in the crowded shelters . The potential spread of virus within the context of the cyclone will be evident soon; the impacts are likely to be higher with longer stays in the cyclone shelters.
This scenario and the danger of spreading the virus is equally true for the overcrowded Rohingya refugee camps in Cox's Bazar. Aid agencies are scrambling to avert a health crisis after 13 Rohingyas tested positive for the coronavirus. The densely populated camps with 1.2 million refugee population - about 40,000 people per sq. km - are at high risk in this pandemic globally, according to the UN refugee agency.
Bangladesh, which has reported 34,000 cases with close to 500 deaths in the country, is confronted by a potential human disaster if there is a significant outbreak in Cox's Bazar refugee camps. Due to overcrowding in the camps, it is nearly impossible to maintain physical or social distance necessary for preventing the spread of the virus. The affected persons are being treated at isolation centre in the camp while their contacts were traced and placed in quarantine. A cluster of 4,000 refugees was asked not to leave their block to contain the spread of the virus.
As if this tragedy was not enough, cyclone Amphan battered the refugee camps with extensive damages from high winds, heavy rainfall, and flooding with landslides around various blocks in the Rohingya camps. Inside the camps, the refugees held their breath in fear and despair until it dwindled. Fortunately, no casualties were reported. However, the worst may not be over yet with the impending monsoon season. In the past three years, the monsoon always brought large scale damages in the form of flooding and landslides destroying the shelters. The concern right now is more about coronavirus with every new infection in the overcrowded camps with no room for physical/social distancing, and lack of adequate toilets and hand-pumps for hygiene. Given this scenario, the Covid pandemic may soon turn deadlier.
The Rohingya refugees are facing one disaster after another - from Myanmar's state-sponsored genocide to the Covid pandemic and now cyclone Amphan. As a people, they have suffered a lot over the past many years and still face very uncertain future with recent tragedies in the sea and loss of many lives. The world seems to have lost interest in the Rohingya plight and their right to return to their homes in Myanmar with dignity and honour. Instead, they are facing another dire battle for survival in the camps.
Mohammad Zaman is an international development/disaster management specialist and advisory professor, National Research Center for Resettlement, Hohai University, Nanjing, China