The case for Commonwealth: what happens when natural disaster follows disease?

As a hurricane approaches India and Bangladesh, already battling the coronavirus, multi-national bodies must coordinate relief in a post-Covid world.  

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Today in India and Bangladesh, millions of people are hunkered down in shelters, many with masks on their faces — a chilling reminder of the Covid-19 outbreak that still grips the densely populated countries. Forced to flee their homes, families, some migrant workers who have only just arrived from the cities after walking hundreds of miles to escape the pandemic, wait with agonising uncertainty as super cyclone Amphan wreaks havoc, causing infrastructural damage and loss of life.

And in this emerging pandemic reality which has already closely acquainted us with a new type of disruption and hardship, it is hard to imagine the added predicament of the curveball from nature circling Asia with the record-breaking wind speeds of a category 5 hurricane.

The data from the Joint Typhoon Warning Center is worrying. Amphan’s storm winds and heavy rainfall is expected to affect 33.6 million people in India and 5.3 million in Bangladesh, and target some of the most vulnerable and least developed regions.

In a pre-Covid-19 world, evacuation and preparedness for a disaster of this magnitude would have been fraught with challenges. In today’s reality, those challenges are exacerbated and multiplied. Both India, which has more than 100,000 coronavirus cases and Bangladesh, which has more than 26,000, have been successful in managing the pandemic, but are still battling the outbreak with social distancing and other restrictions. This means that shelters in some places are only able to accommodate less than half the usual capacity.

So, as the Commonwealth rallies around the governments and people of India and Bangladesh, we are once again forced to face the persisting reality of climate change and natural disasters. Actually, we are now presented with a new question, how do we analyse and understand the interplay between pandemics, economies and the environment, and respond to the deadly concoction of disease and disaster? 

Indeed, coronavirus crept up on us in the midst of growing skepticism about the effectiveness of multilateral cooperation, reminding us that it’s a small world after all, and eliminating any doubts about the need to collaborate across borders. And Amphan, in the midst of the pandemic, is now demanding that this spirit of interconnectedness must also inspire our problem-solving approaches.

This is a lesson that the Commonwealth has had to learn very early on, mainly because of the vast diversity of challenges and opportunities represented in our membership. So recently when Commonwealth Health Ministers met to decide how they could join forces against Covid-19, instinctively their discussion went beyond strategies to ensure everyone can access PPEs, ventilators and testing kits, to also address the economic and environmental aspects of the issue.

We have long understood that nothing short of a robust, multinational, multisector and multi-agency strategy can drive innovation and provide solutions to our complex and multidimensional challenges. 

Actually, it is this coordinated, out-of-the-box thinking that inspired Unitar's Operational Satellite Application Programme (Unosat) and the Commonwealth to create our bespoke CommonSensing platform. Already rolled out in the Pacific where islands are most vulnerable to devastating cyclones, the project uses satellite-based information to help countries anticipate and plan for disasters, successfully apply for funding for climate action, boost resilience to climate change, and enhance food security. 

The Secretariat is also actively engaging with Unosat to connect their experts with member governments impacted by extreme events; and will be collaborating on a series of webinars on rapid mapping and population exposure analysis to help countries plan evacuation and rebuilding strategies.

Currently, Unosat is supporting Bangladesh with a population exposure analysis as part of a suite of responses that the country can use to manage the impact and aftermath of Cyclone Amphan.

So as we explore specific steps to support countries who face the twin challenge of a natural disaster and a pandemic, CommonSensing is an excellent example of the kind of collaboration that will save lives and help us bravely enter the much anticipated "new normal". But it is just part of the holistic, complex, clever and creative strategy that we will need to tackle our emerging challenges from every angle, anticipate the intersection of multi-events and protect economies, people and livelihoods.    

It is clear that we need more of resources such as the Commonwealth Disaster Risk Finance Portal, to help countries facing hurricanes and cyclones to have, at their fingertips, a range of preparedness financing options. We need a robust debt relief and management strategy to support those who are on the verge of crisis. We need schemes to empower marginalised groups such as youth, women and migrants. And we need to ensure that governments are able to recover from recession without undermining environmental protection and climate action, through measures such as tax incentives for investors to use renewable energy, and climate smart technologies to enhance agricultural production.

We also need to be brave enough to embrace innovative solutions such as the Commonwealth Common Earth initiative, which leverages the resources of governments and the genius of environmentalists, climate change experts and indigenous groups to create tailored, country-led, regenerative and holistic solutions to climate change. 

In the Commonwealth, we will continue to use our convening power, partnerships, innovation and advocacy to support and stand in solidarity with India and Bangladesh, our nations in other regions that are bracing themselves for hurricane and cyclone seasons, and those who face the often forgotten challenge of drought. But we can’t do it alone. We need a global effort that is big enough to take on this goliath challenge of intersecting and multiple threats to our planet and people.

Patricia Scotland is secretary general of the Commonwealth.

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