The importance of disaster risk communication in the time of COVID-19
By Dr Karen MacClune, Dr Rachel Norton and Kanmani Venkateswaran
Over the past several months we have seen the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the globe. However, this spread has not been uniform. Countries that are behind in the disease transmission timeline and have yet to see a surge in cases have the opportunity to learn from the experiences of communities that have been impacted early. Risk communication lessons can be used to support preparation, both for the surge of the disease and critically, the multi-hazard scenarios we’ll face as the pandemic increasingly overlaps with flood, hurricane, tornado, and wildfire seasons.
How can we use our flood expertise to fight COVID-19?
Due to the novel nature of COVID-19, to gaps and delays in information-sharing between and within countries, and to the rapidly-changing response landscape, risk communication has been playing catch-up. In response, we can draw on Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) lessons learned from developing and implementing effective early warning systems. The lessons presented here — based on the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance’s learning from implementing Early Warning Systems (EWS) in several countries, and from post-event reviews of significant disasters — provide insight into how to shape effective risk communication, both for the pandemic alone and as it intersects with expected future hazards.
Key elements of risk communication for local governments, humanitarian organizations, and first responders to take into consideration include:
1) Identify and think about what hazards your community/country, are susceptible to.
- In Asia, for example, July through September is ‘monsoon season,’ which brings heavy rains and flooding. Hurricane season in the United States runs from June to November while the south-west Indian Ocean cyclone season runs from November to April, with accompanying severe wind damage, heavy flooding, and storm surge.
- As hazards are reviewed, focus not just on the most likely or most severe potential hazards, but on the full spectrum of hazards that could impact your community.
2) Think through what could happen if these hazards overlap with the current pandemic.
- What would happen, for example, if COVID-19 peaked in Asia during the middle of monsoon season? Current flood response practices, such as seeking higher ground or retreating to flood shelters, are effective for saving lives from floods, but will result in physical crowding and could increase the spread of COVID-19. Congregating in confined spaces is the exact opposite of behaviors we are encouraged to adopt to slow the spread of the disease. In 2018, floods and storms displaced a combined 14.7 million people, with many seeking safe haven in shelters. Knowing that flood season is only months away, practitioners should think through now how to minimize the risk of spreading the virus while also keeping people safe from floods. Key to this will be ensuring that other means to limit the spread of infection are available where physical distancing isn’t feasible, and that public health messages align with World Health Organization (WHO) guidance.
- As health systems, emergency response capabilities, local governments, and humanitarian organizations become overwhelmed by the pandemic, medical supplies and human and financial resources will become increasingly scarce or strained. This will weaken communities’ and countries’ ability to mobilize additional resources needed to address natural hazard impacts. Advance thinking about how to adapt response in resource-scarce conditions can help actors and decision-makers to prepare for these difficult scenarios.
3) Identify what communities need to know to keep themselves safe in multi-hazard scenarios.
- Work now to generate clear guidelines on what people and communities should do in a hazard situation during the pandemic (and with associated quarantine/social distancing lockdowns). A critical aspect of this is planning and identifying, ahead of time, the messages that will go out in a given situation. For example, what should high-risk people do during a flood? Where should displaced persons go if they cannot seek out safe shelter? How should recommended COVID-19 hygiene and sanitation practices be followed if water and sanitation is disrupted or unavailable in a disaster event? If someone is already sick, and isolated at home, what should they do if they have to evacuate their home? How should health care systems prepare for floods or hurricanes, knowing that they may be overwhelmed with sick patients at the time?
4) Identify how messages will be crafted and communicated.
- Draw on reputable subject matter experts to help develop and disseminate simple, understandable messaging. This should help to ensure that messages are listened to and heeded. This includes WHO guidance like Risk Communication and Community Engagement (RCCE) Action Plan Guidance COVID-19 Preparedness and Response.
- Ensure messages are locally contextualized – i.e. by including what the local impacts could be, detailing what the warnings mean for each locality, and outlining how communities and/or individuals can respond.
- Design messages with input from communities. A critical aspect of this is ensuring the concerns and needs of the most marginalized and vulnerable are incorporated into and addressed in messaging.
- Messages should be disseminated through credible, accessible, and well utilized channels. Concurrently, key actors should expect and be ready to manage the spread of misinformation, using the same existing warning communication channels rather than setting up new or additional channels.
Utilize our, and share your, experience to save lives and livelihoods
The coronavirus is an overwhelming global crisis. It is increasingly coupled with, and causing an economic crisis. And yet, we know there will also, inevitably, be natural hazard disaster events in the coming months. The impacts of these will be vastly magnified in a world already in crisis. Planning how to craft and disseminate warnings in the midst of the current disaster-pandemic situation is a critical step that communities and local government need to take now to reduce risk, minimize impacts, and optimize outcomes. Fortunately, the world is not facing these threats with empty hands. Communities and local governments can draw from the DRR world and apply the tenets of effective early warning and early action to this challenge.
Do you have further learning to share? Please comment below or get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org. The COVID-19 situation is rapidly evolving and escalating.
Learning and sharing from this experience can help to save lives and livelihoods now, while also building future resilience.