Reflections on Resilience: COVID-19: An Opportunity to learn effective Disaster Governance, by Nibedita S. Ray-Bennett


Copy of DRR booklet cover


Nibedita S. Ray-Bennett, Avoidable Deaths Network and University of Leicester

You are the founder of the Avoidable Deaths Network. Would you say this pandemic was an avoidable disaster? How?

The WHO announced the novel coronavirus (alias COVID-19) a pandemic on 11 March 2020. It became a disaster due to the number of deaths, coupled with national and international lockdowns, and the economic fallout thereof. A pandemic is the “worldwide spread of a new disease”, according to the WHO. Before COVID-19, the world has experienced other pandemics in the 20th and 21st Centuries, including the influenza (H1N1) of 2009, the Hong Kong Flu of 1968 and the Spanish Flu of 1918-19.  Although pandemics are a rarity (as such, their probability is low risk with high impact), their occurrences are entirely unavoidable in the 21st Century. This is due to the movement of people resulting from globalisation (also known as people flows by Richard Freeman), which accelerates human-to-human transmission of viruses or pathogens, coupled with weak health systems and complex interface of humans with nature – among other things. The major impact of the pandemic is human fatalities. The pandemics of the 20th and 21st Centuries have jointly killed more than 30 million people. According to Worldometer, more than 133,359 lives have already been lost due to COVID-19. I believe that the excess deaths from pandemics are avoidable through timely and effective health care, public health interventions, and joined up disaster risk governance.

What are some lessons from your regular work that would be relevant to this situation?

Pandemic and epidemic disasters thrive where institutional cracks and vulnerabilities exist. They thrive in environments that are non-democratic and do not support early warnings. The Chinese Doctor, Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist at the Wuhan Central Hospital tried to warn fellow medics about the novel coronavirus. Instead, he was reprimanded by security police and forced to sign a letter that accused him of ‘making false comments’. Doctor Li contracted COVID-19 and died on 30 January 2020. Reporting culture, safety culture, and transparency (among other things) are cornerstones to save lives and promote disaster preparedness. National and international organisations must invest in promoting cultures that believe in saving lives at any cost, heeding to the voices and early warnings from health workforces, and most importantly investing in developing the capacities of health systems.

Currently, national governments (including India and Bangladesh where I work) allocate less than 3% of their budgets for the health sector. The COVID-19 pandemic must act us a wake-up call for India and other low-and middle-income (including high-income) countries to invest in risk communication, health and health systems – among other things. As evident in the COVID-19 outbreak in Italy, China and the UK, the health workforce bears the burden of mortality and morbidity disproportionality. It is paramount that the lives of health workforces are saved at any cost so that the health services can continue to function with minimal disruption. Each country should work on emergency capacity for production of personal protective equipment (PPE) to avoid international competition.

I work within the United Nations’ disaster risk reduction (DRR) framework, which is currently advocated through the ‘Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030’. The DRR framework will be invaluable for the management and mitigation of pandemics. The operational components of DRR are: disaster risk management and disaster risk governance. Currently, COVID-19 is managed through health care provisions, public health interventions, national lockdowns, contact tracing, individual and mass testing, social distancing, isolation, and quarantines – among other measures. Both disaster risk management and disaster risk governance are currently lacking. Studying the pandemic also through the lens of disaster risk management will enable policymakers and practitioners to conduct pro-active and reflective management, rather than reactionary management. Disaster risk management of pandemics and/or epidemics will also promote the mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery cycle throughout the year, rather than reacting during an outbreak.

Disaster risk governance for epidemics or pandemics will promote coordination, communication, cooperation and collaboration between local, national, regional and international actors and organisations. Disaster risk governance will also highlight that the impact of pandemics is differentially experienced; one in which, pre-existing vulnerabilities, such as underlying health conditions, organisational vulnerabilities, and socio-economic differences (e.g. caste, class, gender, age, race, religion and locations) can potentially exacerbate the impact of pandemics. Therefore, the differential impact of the viruses can underpin disaster risk governance to mobilise finite resources to save lives, promote inter-agency collaboration in governing hazard management in everyday life, and in doing so, share the burden of deaths and disease at a minimal cost.

What could have been planned differently given the knowledge we already have about communities, their needs and capacities? In other words, if the government had consulted you, what would you have asked them to think about?

If the Government of India had consulted me, I would have advised pre-planning for the national lockdown, which would have included: identifying multiple scenarios and outcomes (intended, unintended and desirable) underpinned by the DRR’s ‘all-of-society approach’. I would have advised them to plan and then assess the plan in terms of its effect on each segment of society with preferably multiple stakeholders. This also means planning early for consultation to avoid reactionary management. The central government was able to assess the impact of the lockdown on the formal sector, but failed to assess the full impact on the informal sector. As such, the global community has watched the harrowing journey of the migrant workers walking home, hungry and dehydrated. There were many deaths amongst migrant workers en route to their villages. These are indirect deaths, and were avoidable.

Currently, many migrant workers are stranded on their way home – uncared and forgotten in their makeshift shelters with minimum or no provision of basic amenities. The Avoidable Deaths Network is in the process of documenting avoidable indirect deaths of migrant workers and other people from the impact of the national lockdown in India. These indirect deaths were and are avoidable through effective disaster governance. This is an opportunity for the central and state governments to learn and rectify their mistakes now and for future disasters.

Now moving forward, it is commendable that the national and state governments in India have made some food items available to the rural households for free through the public distribution system. Being born and brought up in a rural village of North Bengal, the well-being of rural households is always close to my heart. I would like to advise that both central and state governments conceive social protection and social safety net schemes for the rural populace as soon as possible. These schemes must continue for at least two years so that households can recover from the shock and stress of the pandemic disaster. Without recovery interventions, it will be impossible to address the Sustainable Development Goals, especially Goal 1 (no poverty), Goal 2 (zero hunger), Goal 3 (good health and well-being).

It is never too late, as the adage goes. I would recommend that the central government, in collaboration with state governments, leverages the pre-existing state, district and village level disaster management committees for the governance of COVID-19. In one of the UNDRR’s webinars on ‘Disaster Expert Shares Lessons from China on How to Contain the Spread of COVID-19’, the WHO’s representative in China, Dr. Gauden Galea recognised that the: “overall lesson[s] from the experience to date includes improving the awareness and ability of the public and communication in disaster prevention and mitigation and risk communication”. The existing disaster management committee in the Indian states can play a pivotal role in raising awareness on COVID-19, communicate public health messages in vernacular languages, and implement public health interventions to contain the virus for the ‘last mile’. According to the Global Disaster Preparedness Center, Community Early Warning Systems (CEWS) are often referred to as the “last mile” in an end-to-end early warning system (ESW). “Reaching the last mile” means reaching out to the most vulnerable to disasters so that they can protect themselves and their livelihoods, receive information, understand it and be able to act on the information. Reaching the last mile will be a cornerstone for the COVID-19 response and recovery in India. I believe that the Indian states which have robust disaster management and EWSs will be in a better position to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. The state of Odisha is one to keep an eye on for their response and recovery implementation plans. I have been studying the disaster management practise of Odisha since 1999. The Government of Odisha has successfully reduced disaster deaths from 10,000 in 1999 to 41 in 2019. My Avoidable Deaths Network-India Hub is located in Odisha and we are closely observing the plans and interventions of the state government for reducing the number of deaths from COVID-19.

Last, but not the least, innovation is urgently wanting in order to promote physical or social distancing in high resource and space-constrained urban slums of Delhi, Mumbai and other major cities in India. Quarantine and social distancing have been found to be effective in the UK, Italy and China in containing the spread of the virus. Urgent attention is wanting on this from the central and state governments to invest in evidence-based research, public-private partnerships, and low-budget innovations that are scalable.

What do you think will be the long-term gender impact of this crisis on communities?

We have evidence from SARS, the influenza, Ebola and HIV viruses that men and women are affected differently by these viruses. According to the Novel Coronavirus Pneumonia Emergency Response Epidemiology Team in Hubei province, the fatality rate for males was 2.8% and for females it was 1.7%. 2,232 men, as of 7 April 2020, have died of COVID-19 in New York City compared to 1,309 women, according to the City’s Health Department. According to the BBC, in Italy, 72% of those who died were men. This evidence suggests that more men died (or are still dying) than women in the pandemic. This indicates that it is important that the country-level data has gender breakdowns because it can tell us who is most at risk. Gender-disaggregated data is vital for disaster risk governance because such data has implications for policy and practice. In this context, gender-disaggregated data will have implications for flu vaccinations for men and women, and likewise medical needs for men because they are most at risk for biological reasons. As such, this information needs to be communicated to the public to avoid deaths and the disease amongst the male population. Furthermore, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare must record not only gender-disaggregated data, but also fatality data of rural and urban population and by age – currently, these variables are lacking in the COVID-19 India Death Data.

Reflections on Resilience: “How Do You Lock Down a Farm Full of Cumin Seeds?” by Mihir Bhatt




Mihir Bhatt, All India Disaster Mitigation Institute

How are the communities you work with coping with the lockdown? What are the communities you work with? What are their main concerns now? Are you/ All India Disaster Mitigation Institute (AIDMI) able to be in contact with them and what are you hearing?

For the first time, AIDMI is not directly working with the communities. Instead, AIDMI decided to work with a relatively under represented group. And that group is the local institutions and organizations. AIDMI also decided not to do outreach or rush to respond. But to wait and address a specific need, in fact a demand. This was a departure from previous trend of responses, a much-needed departure, for AIDMI and the humanitarian sector.

As a result, AIDMI is currently working with two local authorities to help add pandemic response into city disaster management strategy. What can a city do to address global crisis that directly affects its citizens? AIDMI is helping farmers’ association come to terms with what is called lockdown. How do you lock down a farm full of cumin seeds? And how do you pack away the farm labour that has come to work and live on your farm for the past two decades? Similarly, AIDMI is addressing a set of demands from local school board with poor digital technology or capability, a district operation of UN officials to find out what are the migrant workers demanding in terms of food and shelter, an inter-agency group struggling to come to terms with very limited civil society space in decision making, and so on.

Institutions and organizations are realizing that deglobalising is the direction—what Elaben has called “hundred miles’ communities” in her book titled Anubandh. She finds localization overdue.  She finds deglobulisation urgent.

AIDMI is in touch with the COVID-19 affected communities (and who can say who is and who is not affected by the virus in a culture like ours?) via these institutions and organizations. And what is coming out is the call for a far more imaginative approach to the lockdown idea. To sum up several voices from the communities, let me say that, “Why did we lockdown? Our cities and cultures are not made to be locked down. They are in fact unlockable. We see the struggle of locking a family in. Because what is in? And what is out? We live most of our lives in between.” This is a summation of voices that are reaching AIDMI.

Distancing per se is not a very Indian way of living. We crowd. In our bedrooms, in neighbour’s veranda, at the pan ki dukaan, in our offices and factories, on bus stations and mall. Even to offer our innermost thoughts to our God, any God, we crowd. In such a cultural context, the paradox of social distancing multiplies. We end up distancing health givers from health support needing citizens, distancing majority from minorities, distancing work from workers, distancing food from farmers, and so on. This is another theme that is coming out from the voices we hear of the local community organizations and institutions.

This is not to say that social distancing as a measure to stop infection is not needed. There are many ways of distancing and we rushed to the one that was in front of us. We rushed to implement the example of lockdown that was in front of us. It is good to learn that after this lockdown, many and new versions of lockdowns and social distancing are being planned.

What are some lessons from your regular work that would be relevant to this situation?

AIDMI has no “regular” work. That is AIDMI has never repeated what it has done. Be it the nature of response or learning or extent of effort scale or type. Mostly because one or many other humanitarian agencies pick up the idea or approach or experience or the experiment of AIDMI. Upscale it. Widen the scale. Sometimes far better than AIDMI!  Meanwhile, AIDMI moves on to the next frontier of knowledge or action.

Having said that it is striking to see that what was true in 1998 in AIDMI’s work and ideas is still valid in this most unusual pandemic.

For example, keeping the victim at the centre of almost all decisions.  AIDMI may be invited to support a UN agency develop its regional knowledge strategy for COVID-19 or AIDMI may be invited by a district group of teachers to help form a list of key COVID-19 actions for the lockdown school: as soon as the citizen or the school student is put at the centre of the COVID-19 discussion, many unnecessary aspects such as ineffective operating procedures fall behind.

For example, let me add, overlooking the structures in favour of the humanitarian system was a valid way to work back in 1998 for AIDMI and is valid in 2020. Most of our structures, humanitarian or other, are designed with good intentions but in the backdrop of the strong preference for control. Top-down, round the clock, ever expanding control of the citizens. Enabling structures are not common. While the humanitarian system is still emerging, part-formal, part-informal, nimble, in government as well as civil society domains. The system offers more openings to entry or exit, rapidly spread, and is more cost-effective in terms of time and money. As a result, AIDMI addressed the demand for guidance from a “cash transfer” network by placing the cash relief actions to address the humanitarian system as it is. And as a result, ways were planned to reach cash to the poor migrant labourers who had no access to their Jan Dhan bank account in the middle of lockdown.

For example, as a planner in 1998, I found it useful to plan the humanitarian actions so that when the need came, I could change the plan. If there was no plan, there was nothing much to change! And in 2020 in dealing with the institutions and organizations that are locally embedded, whether it be a new foundation in Kashmir or a tsunami vintage local economic enterprise, AIDMI finds that being adaptive about the project plan or program plan is very useful.  Pandemic context and content both change so rapidly and in many ways that the best thing a good plan can do is to be ready to be adaptive.

These are some of what I may call ” timeless” items on AIDMI’s humanitarian action in COVID-19 pandemic. And having said so, let me rush to add that these items are evolving! Because the time within which COVID-19 pandemic is located is evolving in ever so dumbfounding a fashion.

What could have been planned differently given the knowledge we already have about communities, their needs and capacities? In other words, if the government had consulted you, what would you have asked them to think about?

Hindsight is mischievously misleading. Hindsight gives one a false sense of expertise! So let us avoid thinking what could have been done differently.  Let us look ahead. What can be done differently? What could be done differently by the authorities as we move ahead?

One, “flatten the curve” seems to have overtaken our thinking.  Yes, the curve of the spread of the virus must be flattened and authorities have made very difficult efforts to do so. And some success is on our way. But we, as humanitarian actors, must be prepared for a very slow tapering of the graph or even a sharp straight upswing from time to time. Pandemic experts can tell us more about the other possibilities as we move ahead.

Two, as we move ahead spending will slow down even more at all levels of our economy and therefore we need to make relief and recovery money available at the lowest level of our economy.  Tsunami recovery has shown that when the public expenditure is made at the lowest levels of the economy where large number of poor people make a living the recovery is faster and robust and relatively long lasting.

Three, as we move ahead we should not overlook the sight of opportunities in this terrible pandemic.  One such opportunity is to give the majority of the poor migrant labourers and small business widespread access to digital technology and further permanent access to digital economy.  Here is our chance to decentralize the digital economy.  Here is our chance to democratize the digital economy.  Here is our chance to reduce the digital divide between the rich and the poor.

Fourth, as we move ahead we must rebuild trust that has suffered severe loss and damage. To an extent, it is normal for a pandemic to do so. But the loss and damage should not last too long.  Let me explain. It is very important that trust between the virus-affected and those unaffected by the virus be made robust.  Trust between the formal sector and informal sector must be re-established.  Trust between the migrant workers and their “host” cities needs rethinking.  These are three immediate areas for trust-building.  There are long term areas of trust-building that are important which includes trust in collaborative federalism, that is trust among the states and the centre; trust between majority community and minority communities; trust in our federal financial institutions; and so on.

The above are some of the important actions that we may not take up in a full-fledged way in the rush of addressing some of the more visible and obvious aspects of pandemic management such as investing in the expansion of health infrastructure and support package for air travel and tourism sectors.

What do you think will be the long-term gender impact of this crisis on your communities? On gender relations? On coping? On recovery?
How do we prepare for recovery so that it is also gender-transformational? What are priority areas in your view? What would be your wish-list projects?

COVID-19 will leave a long-term impact on women as women, women as workers and women as victims. This pandemic also offers us an opportunity to make gender relations better, strengthen women’s coping capabilities, and make recovery transformative. This is what AIDMI finds in its efforts to support a range of local organizations working with community affected by or in danger of COVID-19.

In fact, AIDMI hopes that this pandemic brings together women across India to rethink health as our most precious wealth of Indian economy.  Women help us take the turn towards full and final recognition of health as a pre-condition for economic prosperity.  So far, three key action areas have come up in AIDMI’s work for and with local institutions and organizations responding to COVID-19 pandemic.

Direct and operational focus on women, in fact youth among the women is a very critical group of citizens to work with. Especially among the low income and poor families.  It is these young women, many educated and many not, who will be the health makers as well as wealth makers. May it be as school teachers or health workers or home-based manufacturers in neglected areas of our cities and underserved villages. How promptly these young women made masks for their families! How creatively these young women managed the lockdown induced stress at home! More investment is needed here.

Another critical group of citizens to far better engage with is women in agriculture.  These women may be farm labour, owners of family farm, on farm produce processors, or casual labour plucking fruits or tending farm irrigation. This group has suffered the silent loss and damage to their own health and nutrition.  This group has absorbed loss of income and savings so far invisible to the economy and in many cases their own families. And it is this group, as we find in AIDMI’s work with female farmers in nine districts of Gujarat, who offers the willingness and ability to revive our food supplies to cities and towns. Sustained investment is needed in this group.

A critical group that AIDMI has missed working with so far, in its efforts to support local authorities and organizations addressing COVID-19, is the group of women in science and environment.  So much of this pandemic we are able to manage so far because of the scientific and environmental measures.  But what will make these measures even more effective and long lasting is more women at many levels of scientific and environmental endeavours addressing this pandemic. Direct investment is needed in making women’s active role in science and environment a reality.

There are other groups of women, and men, who are crucial to mitigate the negative impact of COVID-19 on gender relations, recovery, and coping capabilities. We can start with the above three groups.