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OPINION: COVID-19 tells us why getting ready for disasters matters

by Mami Mizutori | UNDRR
Wednesday, 8 July 2020 07:44 GMT

Drones fly over the Han river showing messages to support the country as measures to avoid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continue in Seoul, South Korea, July 4, 2020. Yonhap via REUTERS

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Good disaster risk governance can be measured by lives saved, fewer people affected and reduced economic losses

It’s no secret that we could and should have done more to reduce loss of life and economic damage from the COVID-19 pandemic.

When there’s an early warning for a cyclone, typhoon or hurricane, action is usually prompt and immediate. Agreed operating procedures are put into effect. Warnings are disseminated. Red Cross or Red Crescent volunteers are active in the community. Evacuations get underway. Lives are saved.

We must ask why this level of readiness was generally absent when it came to preparedness for, and response to, a pandemic which the World Health Organization, UNDRR (UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction) and many others have been warning about for many years.

Good disaster risk governance can be measured in terms of lives saved, fewer people affected and reduced economic losses.

These are all key targets in the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, the global blueprint adopted by U.N. member states five years ago to reduce disaster risk and disaster losses over the next ten years by 2030.

The Sendai Framework was the first global agreement of its kind to include biological hazards and pandemic preparedness, at the insistence of U.N. member states that had recently experienced outbreaks of SARS, Ebola, MERS and H1N1.

Countries that committed to its implementation have had five years to draw up national and local strategies for disaster risk reduction and to include the pandemic threat alongside other natural and man-made hazards. Sadly, most have not done so.

As soon as the pandemic was declared, UNDRR moved to support U.N. member states to include biological hazards in their national and local strategies for disaster risk reduction.

In the age of COVID-19, where do we go from here to improve disaster risk governance?

According to the Sendai Framework, disaster risk governance requires “clear vision, plans, competence, guidance and coordination within and across sectors as well as participation of relevant stakeholders”. 

In order to achieve this, it is important to have political commitment, institutions empowered to act professionally for the public good, strong civil society participation and accountability. Trust is key.

GETTING IT RIGHT

If you want to draw inspiration from a country with a pandemic preparedness plan that worked, then I can recommend further study of South Korea and Uganda, as examples from different ends of the development spectrum.

South Korea’s levels of mortality from COVID-19 compare favourably with many other developed countries, thanks in part to a policy of transparency, open communication and engagement with the public.

Test, trace and treat were at the heart of South Korea’s relentless effort to minimise the spread of the virus from day one, which was not the day of the first infection, the first casualty or the first cluster. Day one for South Korea began after assessing its experience of the MERS outbreak of 2015 which led to 38 deaths.

Major changes to its public health emergency response framework followed, clarifying the roles of national and local government, public health and the private sector in the event of another outbreak.

In the long run, prevention saves lives and is cost-effective. 

No country knows this better than Uganda which has been in emergency mode since 2018 and has had to respond to outbreaks of Ebola, yellow fever, measles and Crimean Congo haemorrhagic fever. 

When the COVID-19 outbreak was declared, the Ministry of Health’s National Task Force activated a plan which emphasised communication and community engagement to promote good health practices among members of the public. It has gone beyond treating the pandemic as simply a public health emergency to pursue all-of-society engagement and all-of-government response as recommended by the Sendai Framework.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a “stress test” for countries’ preparedness plans. It underlines in a vivid way why strengthening disaster risk governance is vital if we are to meet the existential threats posed by the systemic nature of disaster risk in the 21st century, including the climate emergency.

This year’ s International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction, on October 13, will focus on disaster risk governance providing an opportunity to celebrate what is working well, and to showcase solutions that will make the world a more resilient and safer place.