The current COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented event that tests the ability of health systems and governments to manage health risks. For instance, the capacity of medical services such as intensive care units had to be increased significantly in many countries to be able to cope with the sudden and rising influx of patients. This type of response is not unique for COVID-19, but can also be observed after the occurrence of other disasters, such as earthquakes. What is different is that COVID-19 affects all countries almost simultaneously, regardless of their wealth or the quality of their health system. Confinement policies in very poor settings sometimes have negative consequences when the poor need their daily earnings to live. International aid and national policies should consider these aspects as we move forward in containing the epidemic.
On top of the disruption caused by the pandemic, there is a growing concern that COVID-19 will intersect with other health crises such as extreme climate events or other natural or technological disasters. Two types of situations can be distinguished. First, when the disaster agents are different but related, we speak of a compound disaster.
An example of a large-scale compound disaster was the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami that occurred in Japan in 2011, and which led to a nuclear disaster in Fukushima. The Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) is partner in a project on understanding and modelling compound climate and weather events, named DAMOCLES.
Second, disasters can also coincide completely independent of each other, which is a risk we are currently facing with the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. In the few months since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, various disaster types have occurred, including storms, floods and earthquakes. However, we have not seen a major event coinciding with COVID-19 yet this year, which required a large emergency and medical response. Such a disaster could further exacerbate the impacts of COVID-19 on health, economy and societal inequalities and jeopardize the public health response and societal recovery. The deadliest disaster so far was the flood that hit Kenya in March, resulting in 285 lives lost.