Section 1: Vanuatu’s Challenge
A compound disaster
Severe Tropical Cyclone (TC) Harold tore across the northern islands of Vanuatu with torrential rain and sustained winds up to 270km per hour. It took lives, destroyed houses, food gardens, businesses and infrastructure, leaving enduring scars on families, communities and the nation.
We have faced the force of cyclones past. They strike, destroy and move on: leaving people to rally, clean up and restore their lives. This time, the path to recovery will be much harder to navigate. COVID-19 is not just a complicating factor, nor a separate threat to be dealt with. It means we face a compound disaster that is unique in the way it is still unravelling, with no clear trajectory or end in sight.
The compound nature of TC Harold and COVID-19 intensifies the scale and broadens the scope of the human, social, economic and environmental impacts. Swift lockdown of international borders provided a precious window to prepare on the health side, but restrictions crippled the economy and hindered the humanitarian response. Competing pressures also exist from managing other events, including the Tanna volcano ash fall and acid rain, Teouma flooding, drought and the ongoing Ambae volcano recovery. Ever looming is the prospect of future disasters.
The enormity of events and the challenge ahead has the potential to considerably change the social contract between people and government. Around the world we have seen the fallout from the pandemic deepen community divisions. Geopolitical tensions are escalating, changing trade relations and threatening peace. Some countries are cautiously reopening under the fear of a second wave of infection. Others have seemingly thrown caution to the wind. Elsewhere the pandemic’s first wave has yet to break, and many places least able to cope are yet to be fully tested.
More than any other, this compound disaster has blurred the lines between response, recovery and disaster risk reduction (preparedness and prevention). The immediate danger of TC Harold has ended, yet social pressures and trauma remain, and in some cases are escalating. The concurrent disruptions across sectors exacerbate existing and emerging social risks. Additionally, we are confronted by a number of potential scenarios in relation to COVID-19. These may substantially and rapidly shift focus and the direction of resources as different situations unfold. A critical factor will be whether or not the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 gets into the community. Conversely, risk mitigation, including keeping the borders closed, has already had a detrimental impact on the economy, society and communities. If the coronavirus does enter Vanuatu, the health focus would need to immediately swing from prevention and preparedness to treatment and containment. An internal lockdown would heavily impact private and domestic sector participation in recovery processes, add further stress to the economy and deepen the impact on community coping mechanisms.
Amidst the concern and uncertainty, experience assures us that working together we can and will recover, rebuild and emerge stronger and more resilient.