We spoke to Professor Jason Thistlethwaite, an expert in strategies to reduce the economic impacts of extreme weather and climate change, to hear his thoughts about managing disasters alongside the pandemic. 

How does COVID-19 add to the difficulty of managing a natural disaster like a hurricane?

COVID-19 limits our ability to evacuate by grouping people in spaces we traditionally use for shelters such as community centres, convention centres, schools and sports facilities. Similarly, many families often seek shelter with relatives in other jurisdictions which could increase the spread of COVID-19. 

COVID-19 also disproportionately affects those who are socio-economically vulnerable or marginalized. Hurricanes increase that burden since unemployment is higher in these communities. Many are unable to financially support their own recovery, can’t take time off work to help clean or re-build, and may subsequently forfeit mortgage payments. 

Lastly, local governments have lost billions in revenue due to COVID-19 and are unlikely to have the financial and human resources to help prepare and recover from a hurricane. 

Are there steps that can be taken in advance of a storm/event to ensure that we don’t increase the risk of transmitting COVID-19 in the aftermath?

Professional disaster response organizations, such as the military or Red Cross, as well as health clinics and hospitals, that have resources to protect communities from hurricanes as well as protect themselves from COVID via PPE, should be mobilized and ready for deployment. We should not be relying on volunteers who have less ability to protect themselves from COVID. 

Hotels are mostly empty right now and should be identified beforehand as potential evacuation sites with PPE made available on site. Separate rooms for families can help limit the spread of COVID transmission compared to the large open spaces in community centres, schools or sports facilities. Ideally, COVID testing would be made available at any key evacuation sites. 

If evacuation is not possible for some, emergency responders should deliver and distribute food and essential items to communities predicted to be in the path of the hurricane to avoid long lines and crowding at stores. 

What can governments do to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 during a natural disaster?

Governments should ensure PPE distribution plans are prepared and freely available for evacuees and emergency responders. It is going to be hard to avoid groupings of people in an evacuation or rescue centres, so make sure PPE is made available at locations where most people have access.    

Ensure a clear command structure is established between emergency responders and public health authorities. 

The University of Waterloo has a number of experts available for comment on various aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic, click here to see the up-to-date list.

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