As the pandemic coincides with weather disasters, people are more vulnerable to both threats - and it's harder for aid agencies to help them
By Megan Rowling
BARCELONA, Sept 23 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Weather disasters and the COVID-19 pandemic have simultaneously hit tens of millions of people worldwide this year, making them more vulnerable to both threats and hampering emergency response, the Red Cross said on Wednesday.
In a new analysis, the international humanitarian agency said about 70% of the 132 disasters linked to extreme weather in 2020 had coincided in place and time with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Globally, more than 51 million people - likely an underestimate - had been recorded as directly affected by an overlap of floods, droughts or storms and the pandemic, with nearly 3,500 people killed in the weather events, it said.
"The climate crisis has not stopped for COVID-19, and millions of people have suffered from the two crises colliding," Francesco Rocca, president of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), told journalists.
"We have had absolutely no choice but to address both crises simultaneously," he said.
While not all weather disasters have a direct link with global warming, the climate is becoming more volatile and weather more extreme as the planet heats up, he added.
The report, produced with the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, said the pandemic was complicating efforts to evacuate people, including a need for more shelters to respect distancing and prevent infection.
Aid agencies, meanwhile, face a double threat as they respond to COVID-19 outbreaks and climate disasters at the same time, beset by a reduction in frontline workers and resources.
Disrupted global supply chains have also slowed the flow of relief aid and recovery equipment, the report said, and the pandemic has increased the need for financial humanitarian assistance at a time of deep global downturn.
The places where the colliding threats have shown up most clearly are India and Bangladesh, where almost 40 million people were affected by the pandemic and monsoon floods or storms.
COVID-19 has made it harder to move people to safe places and provide food, accommodation and other aid safely and quickly, putting those affected at even greater risk, the report said.
The analysis also looked at the intersection between heatwaves and COVID-19. Nearly 432 million vulnerable people, including the elderly and infants, have struggled with the twin threat this year, including many in Europe and North America, it noted.
That situation has led to a conflict of safe practices, with people enduring heatwaves advised to wear light clothing and remove restrictive coverings, for instance, even as many governments require the wearing of face masks in public.
Access to cooling centres and air-conditioned buildings has also been limited during the pandemic.
On the West Coast of the United States, meanwhile, more than 2 million people have had to deal with major wildfires and the pandemic together, with smoke potentially hiking the likelihood of lung infections including COVID-19, the report said.
Rocca said the Red Cross welcomed a rise in the number of volunteers helping out in their communities, particularly in developed Western countries, as well as a rise in donations for the COVID-19 response.
But Richard Blewitt, the IFRC's permanent observer to the United Nations, warned of a "major gap" in funding for other humanitarian crises, such as the current flooding in Sudan.
Wealthy countries may also not deliver the $100 billion they had promised this year to help poorer countries tackle climate change, he added.
"The massive global investment in recovering from the pandemic proves governments can act decisively and drastically in the face of imminent global threats. We urgently need this same energy on climate," said IFRC president Rocca.
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(Reporting by Megan Rowling @meganrowling; editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)
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