Fair Observer: When COVID-19 and Hurricanes Collide

This op-ed was originally published in the Fair Observer.

It is critical that migrant workers have access to economic opportunities to be able to help their communities recover from the deadly combination of COVID-19 and natural disasters.

It is hard to think of impending natural hazard-related disasters in the middle of a global pandemic. But it is absolutely essential that policymakers do so. This year, due in part to climate change, scientists predict one of the most active Atlantic hurricane seasons on record.

In fact, nine tropical storms have already formed out of the western Atlantic in 2020, something that has never happened this early in the hurricane season before, with Hurricane Isaias striking just this week. This is especially worrying as COVID-19 cases drastically increase and the pandemic continues to affect the capacity of states to respond to non-coronavirus emergencies.

Of course, this challenge isn’t only in the Americas. Other parts of the world have already grappled with the intersection of COVID-19 and large-scale disasters with varying results. From Cyclone Harold in the Pacific to Cyclone Amphan in India to severe flooding and locust swarms in East Africa, some key trends have emerged. By studying and learning from them, policymakers in the Western Hemisphere may be able to prepare more effectively for the worst.

Straining Supply Chains, Underfunding and Marginalized Workers

The COVID-19 pandemic is putting supply chains under strain, even for basic household goods. Where supply chains are particularly stressed, the prices of essential goods have skyrocketed, making it harder for humanitarian workers to provide much-needed aid for long-standing global relief needs.

Adding large-scale natural hazard-related disasters like cyclones and hurricanes to the mix only exacerbates these already fragile systems. Strict lockdown and decontamination procedures, for instance, held up much-needed rapid delivery of emergency supplies in Vanuatu during Cyclone Harold and also delayed relief by up to two weeks in some hard-to-reach islands. In addition, COVID-related cancellations of intra-island transport, including planes and ships, coupled with Cyclone Harold’s destruction of main roads to further delay aid delivery.

Natural hazard-related disasters, likewise, impact the delivery of COVID-related supplies. In East Africa, where record-setting floods displaced more than 1.1 million people in May, important infrastructure, including a number of key bridges and roads, were destroyed or damaged. This created a nightmare for humanitarian agencies attempting to deliver relief supplies, including those meant for COVID-19.

In the face of these challenges, aid organizations have carried on, but their budgets and impact on the ground are in jeopardy. To date, by and large, commitments for funding humanitarian emergencies, COVID-related or not, have fallen short by at least a third as compared to this time last year. For example, funding appeals for flooding and locust relief in East Africa have a combined gap of $325 million, and the amounts raised represent less than 20% of the articulated need. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ (UN OCHA) appeals in Ethiopia are underfunded by more than 84%.

In addition, Refugees International’s own reporting shows that this year’s Cyclone Harold, when compared to 2015’s Cyclone Pam, has received far less attention and humanitarian funding, even though it displaced more than 27% of Vanuatu’s population. According to the UN OCHA’s Financial Tracking Service, in 2015, Vanuatu received more than $37.2 million in humanitarian assistance for Pam; this year, only $4.8 million has been donated for Harold.

Yet, another layer of vulnerability for those displaced by disasters has emerged as governments around the world have moved to expel migrant workers to limit the spread of COVID-19. For example, in the Sundarbans in southern India, hundreds of thousands of migrant workers returned home from urban centers in March before Cyclone Amphan hit. Now they’ve been left stranded without job prospects as their community struggles to recover. This is especially worrying, as remittances from migrants are often a dependable lifeline during disasters.

Migrant workers who have not returned home but who may have lost jobs during shelter-in-place orders by authorities have similar challenges. In fact, the World Bank predicts that remittances sent back home may shrink by more than 20% this year. This means that places such as Vanuatu, where seasonal workers normally send home more than $19 million annually, will have fewer funds from family members to rebuild and recover after the fall out of this year’s Cyclone Harold. The ability to send money back home is further hindered by the fact that migrant workers are also often not eligible for COVID-19 social protection schemes.

What Does This Mean for Policymakers?

While the COVID-19 pandemic and large-scale disasters are being handled differently all across the world, there are undeniable trends that speak to a larger challenge that policymakers must face. First, our humanitarian supply chains are woefully underprepared for any sort of major disruption. Second, national governments and international organizations that often lead the charge to help those most in need are falling short. Third, policies to address the crisis of COVID-19 may actually exacerbate others.

Donor countries, such as the United States, must move urgently to invest in disaster relief and recovery — COVID-19-related and otherwise. The United Nations estimates the cost of protecting the most vulnerable from the worst effects of the pandemic is about $90 billion. While this amount seems high, it represents less than 1% of the amount of world stimulus packages that rich countries have begun to implement. Thus, a significant contribution from the US of $20 billion in emergency funding would not only be reasonable but also consistent with America’s expressed commitment to humanitarian leadership.

Substantial and rapid injections of aid also make long-term economic sense in fragile settings dealing with other disasters. For example, the World Bank estimates that the locust challenge alone could cost the greater Horn of Africa region, including Yemen, as much as $8.5 billion by the end of this year. A rapid response could cut that loss by more than $6 billion.

National governments should not summarily expel migrant workers or make it impossible for them to remain, as such actions or omissions are more a result of fear and prejudice than sound public health policy judgments. Indeed, it is critical that migrant workers have access to economic opportunities — in both urban centers and abroad — to be able to adequately help their communities recover from the deadly combination of COVID-19 and disaster. In order to ensure migrant workers are best able to do so, policymakers must include them in recovery planning and economic assistance measures regardless of status.

Finally, there is the need to decentralize humanitarian operations, as some aid organizations working on the ground have already signaled they will do. Building up the capacity of local people — especially in the communities that are often affected by big storms — is essential. Doing so decreases the high costs of getting to harder-to-reach communities and maximizes humanitarian aid while reducing response times.

As we begin to witness the impacts of the Atlantic hurricane season, taking to heart these lessons will be a matter of life or death for millions.