Covid-19 and Cyclone Amphan have shown us what a multidimensional and intricate series of disasters look like in today’s time and age
Jamila Begum, a thirty-five-year-old woman lives right on the bank of a river along the coastal belts of Bangladesh with her family. Her home opens towards the great Sundarbans — an extremely beautiful yet highly climate-vulnerable area for any community to live in.
Every year, Jamila faces climate-induced natural disasters in the form of cyclones, river erosion, flood, tidal surges, and sea-level rise, bringing countless overbearing socio-economic challenges (such as loss of lives, land, livelihoods, jobs, shelters, as well as increased risk of poverty, forced migration, food shortages and so on) and emotional stress. But in May 2020, this natural disaster came with a partner — Covid-19.
Amphan was different from any previous cyclones. Because this hit during the growing presence of an ongoing pandemic. After the blow of the storm, not only did the family lose their livelihoods and parts of their shelter, but the cyclone made access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) extremely difficult. With the surges in Covid-19 cases throughout the country, lack of access to WASH became an immediate threat for the entire community. Moreover, many families like Jamila’s were forced to migrate under one cyclone shelter making social distancing impossible and further increasing the risk of the pandemic. Jamila felt helpless as she continued to hold her children in the corner of the shelter house.
Cyclone Amphan has destroyed a total of 440 kilometres of road and 76 kilometres of embankment in the coastal area, affecting many families like Jamila’s. More than 55,600 homes were completely destroyed, and at least 162,000 homes were partially damaged. Amphan displaced over 100,000 people---with more than half still sheltering with friends and relatives at the end of May. In terms of WASH sector, approximately 50,000 people needed water, sanitation, and hygiene. There were about 40 thousand toilets and nearly 18 tube-wells recorded as damaged or fully destroyed.
The natural disaster also had certain direct and indirect impacts on general public health, livelihoods, infrastructure, the economy and sociocultural institutions of the country, especially in coastal regions. Access to food and drinking water were severely affected during the period, and a definite increase in the risk of transmission of waterborne infectious diseases, such as diarrhoea, hepatitis, malaria, dengue, pneumonia, and other contagions like eye infections, skin diseases, or in Jamila’s case the coronavirus. Which ultimately became extremely deadly for these vulnerable communities who are less equipped to tackle such challenges. These, combined with the lack of proper WASH facilities turned out fatal for these coastal communities.
“The squatting pan is all mud-splattered and wet when it rains here. I always feel I will slip, and my leg will be stuck in that pan. I have a neighbour who is pregnant and now staying with her mother. I saw how difficult it was for her to use this kind of toilet. I fear that pregnant women are more vulnerable to slip in the toilet,” sadi Jamila.
Furthermore, surface water, the main source of drinking water in coastal divisions of Bangladesh such as Khulna & Barisal, becomes contaminated by saline intrusion and poor sanitation systems. Open latrines and poor sanitation are pre-existing problems in rural and coastal areas. Cyclones make this worse.
"Clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene are vital for living a dignified, healthy life. I learned I need to wash my hands after using the toilet or else I will get sick. I want a decent toilet and hygiene facilities for a better life but do not have the means, especially after Amphan,” said Jamila. Lack of safe drinking water may be the most important cause of the spread of waterborne diseases after a cyclone.
As per her interview, besides the rapid spread of Covid-19 the community faced other indirect impacts such as damaged infrastructure, forced migration, reduced food production and the release of contaminants into the water. Childhood malnutrition is in itself an already serious issue in Bangladesh, and the loss of crops and reduced access to fish amalgamated the issue for Jamila’s neighbourhood children. Situations like these are truly the most horrifying for the vulnerable communities who end up losing the most despite having the least.
Apart from these, other indirect health-related impacts were recorded such as an increase in suicide and crime rates within the community, and adverse pregnancy outcomes. These were observed to increase in the post-disaster period of Amphan, possibly as a result of post-traumatic stress and depression. The literacy rates were low and poor knowledge of environmental health issues created additional problems following a cyclone for Jamila’s community.
Despite such challenges arising out of this natural disaster, in the past 50 years, Bangladesh has learned to adapt to these frequent cyclones and has succeeded in significantly reducing cyclone-related damages. This has been achieved by reforming early warning systems, developing proper shelters and evacuation plans, constructing coastal embankments, maintaining, and improving coastal forest cover and raising awareness at the community level.
Many neighbouring countries now take Bangladesh as an example and learn from the country’s experiences to tackle and overcome the aftereffects of such disasters. However, what still remains a concern, especially concerning the aftermath of Amphan is the dynamic socio-economic repercussions alongside Covid-19 in an underprivileged, poverty-stricken community.
Covid-19 and cyclone Amphan have shown us what a multidimensional and intricate series of disasters look like in today’s time and age. Past research and findings have shown that the vulnerable communities living on the margins of Bangladesh are subject to some of the worst impacts, even though they contribute least to the problem. In particular, it finds that the poor, rural communities who depend on agricultural products may be hit the hardest as most of their livelihoods and source of income are destroyed in the process.
Keeping Covid-19 in mind, sound, fact-based national policies need to be formulated to help these groups recover faster. International humanitarian assistance is key in ensuring that those displaced and economically down do not fall further into poverty. For the upcoming cyclone season, the communities and authorities need to learn from the experiences of cyclone Amphan and develop a more comprehensive plan to tackle the next power couple’s blow.
Arusa Iqbal Rahim is working at WaterAid Bangladesh as a Communications Officer. Her research interest lies in development economics with a special concentration in women’s rights. She advocates profoundly for equal opportunities for both men and women. Through her role in WaterAid Bangladesh, she wants to ensure increased WASH amenities for the marginalized, especially women and children. Can be reached at [email protected]