In the Bay of Bengal this week, an environmental disaster has the name: Amphan. The storm, which was recently reshaped by a super-cyclone into a slightly less severe, super-cyclonic storm, is one of the strongest storms ever recorded in the Gulf. It could potentially affect nearly 40 million people in India and Bangladesh, according to the Pacific Disaster Center, which monitors natural disasters in the region. In the midst of mitigating the potential disasters of this storm, officials are working to prevent another disaster: the enhanced spread of COVID-19 as people are evacuated and the first respondents work closely together.
Odisha, the eastern state of India that is likely to be hit hardest by Amphan (pronounced UM-PUN), has many experiences dealing with environmental damage. Mongabay India says their experience prepares them to deal with the medical damage caused by the pandemic. But now, they are facing a battle on two fronts: to get people out of the way of Amphan and keep them unpolluted as they do.
India has been planning for an extreme period of time under COVID-19 for some time, says Loretta Hieber Girardet, head of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction in the Asia-Pacific region. In a meeting with UNDRR a few weeks ago, Giradet said the nation was already planning on how to adapt to the disaster. "They are preparing supplies," he says, "and have adapted early warning messages to include information on physical distance and precautionary behavior."
The Odessa State Disaster Management Authority also prioritizes remote COVID-19 practices in the way shelters for displaced people are developed. According to a government document released yesterday, pregnant women and the elderly are being separated so that they can be given specialized accommodation and all those who need to be evacuated for security reasons are encouraged to wear masks or cover their mouths and noses differently. SMS messages and the use of warning sirens are also used to warn people who need to be evacuated, according to The Times of India.
The storm is expected to end on May 20, according to the Times, and hit both Odessa and the neighboring state of West Bengal, where Calcutta is located. Both states border the Gulf of Bengal, the "core of tropical cyclones," according to the BBC.
UNDRR is monitoring what is happening with Amphan, as it did with Tropical Cyclone Harold in Vanautu last month, for possible choices on how to achieve environmental disaster management and medical disaster management at the same time. India is under one of the toughest COVID-19 locks in the world, which is now in its 56th day.
"India has a very strong national disaster management service," says Girardet. "For this reason, I believe that there will be some good lessons that we will be able to share with other parts of the region."
The big question, he says, is how well both India and neighboring Bangladesh, which will also be affected by Amphan, can coordinate prominent health and disaster management organizations to effectively prevent the spread of COVID-19 during evacuation and dealing with disasters. "This is something I think we will be watching closely," he said.