Is Coronavirus making us sitting ducks?

By Martin Dolan
Cascading disasters and coronavirus
Are we sitting ducks? One disaster might lead to another. Are we prepared for the unknown?

Cascading disasters. Get used to hearing this phrase a lot in the coming months and years. This is not a new term. David Alexander, professor at UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction and his colleagues have been banging this drum for a very long time. Simply put, a cascading disaster is when one incident has a knock-on effect on another system resulting in further, unpredictable and escalating impacts. A perfect example of this was the Fukushima incident in Japan where a Tsunami caused damage to the nuclear reactor leading to a compounding effect of nuclear radiation, panic, pollution of natural resources. The resulting stresses and strains on the already struggling emergency and health services led to a serious disaster many times worse. So how can the Coronavirus threat lead to further disasters?

What we are experiencing right now in the face of the global Coronavirus pandemic is potentially just the beginning. The stress and strain that this emergency is putting on our systems is already having severe economic repercussions and is causing strain on our critical infrastructure such as hospitals, communications networks, transport and food supplies. It is only a matter of time before something gives and it will give in a catastrophic way. This domino effect is known as cascading disasters.

Just one risk of many

The World Economic Forum each year releases a Global Risk Report on the greatest risks facing the world. Their report for 2020 listed infectious diseases such as Coronavirus as number 10 in terms of impact but was not even mentioned in terms of likelihood. There were still 9 other risks with greater potential impact, most of them related to the ecosystem of the planet.

Cascading disasters and coronavirus
The list of the biggest risks facing humanity in 2020. Source: World Economic Forum 2020

Throw in to this mix the reality that nature does not sleep and we can only imagine how devastating a tsunami, flood, forest fire or earthquake could be while many are in lockdown, emergency services are strained and the elderly and vulnerable are already in an exposed and dangerous situation. For a real-world example of what it might look like, cast your minds eye back to the earthquake in Haiti in 2010 that killed up to 200,000.

Supply Chains

The earthquake in Haiti was a magnitude 7 quake but resulted in a catastrophe far out-weighing that in other countries that experienced similar magnitude quakes. So, what went wrong? Well, the fact that Haiti had a government that was already struggling under the pressures of historic poverty and the fragile physical, financial and organisational nature of a lot of their critical infrastructure meant that these were damaged significantly and the response was hampered before it even began.

When the international community responded with aid, the response was hampered by disorganisation and strained under the complexity of the humanitarian supply chain. The current situation pales in comparison to the centuries of hardship that Haiti was victim of but serves as a grim illustration of the risks posed by Coronavirus today.

Supply chains are essential to humanitarian operations and emergency responses. Emergency planning for them has two aspects. The first is an element of business continuity. It seeks alternative ways to ensure supplies of goods or services, in order to keep productivity from falling as a result of interruption of normal business. It thus depends on redundancy, which is potentially an expensive quality, as it may require the duplication of assets. This requires planners to determine which assets are critical, and where the destruction or failure of assets may have a critical effect on the whole production cycle. The second aspect of supply chain planning involves ensuring efficiency in humanitarian supply, such that the forces on the ground are not left bereft of the equipment, goods, and manpower that are needed to tackle the emergency effectively.

Interconnectedness and Coronavirus

In a globalised world, not only are our supply chains interconnected and interdependent, so are the risks we ace. The World Economic Forum annual report illustrates this nicely in the diagram below. It shows how each risk and disaster can cause or be caused by other hazards. Food crises can result from infectious diseases, leading to water crises which in turn lead to involuntary migration and so on. Our world is in a precarious balance and the situation around Coronavirus todays is laying it bare. Are we walking blind into a cascading disaster?

Cascading disasters and coronavirus
It’s a complex web of interconnected risks. Source: World Economic Forum 2020

Aid

In normal circumstances when a nation or region experiences a disaster it can call on international allies to provide assistance in the form of financial and operational support.  With governments all over the world struggling to adapt to the new situation there is unlikely to be any available. All internationally deployed UK teams fighting the spread of disease in Africa have been called home to help support the response in the UK for example. Italy has historically suffered greatly from natural hazards including everything from volcanoes to earthquakes, floods, fires and landslides. It doesn’t bare thinking about what might happen if some such event were to happen during this current Coronavirus threat. Would the international community be in a position to help?

This has long been the worry of many developing countries that have depended on international aid for decades if not centuries. What would they do if that aid is suddenly pulled? Now it is no longer the worry of just the developing nations but also for many of the wealthiest that have never been in this position before. A recent opinion article in the UK asked the question, how will the middle class who have to turn to the welfare system in these times cope? They will see how cruel the welfare system is and how hard it is to navigate. Well the same can be said for the wealthiest nations who will have to rely on the scant international aid system. The tables have turned in a way and it is not an enviable position for any of us.

Let’s not take our eye off the ball

It’s hard to say how this will pan out. One thing is sure, it will shape national and global political and economic systems for years to come. One can only hope it is seen as a wake-up call to some of the other potentially more catastrophic risks that we are facing. Will it unite the international community to take climate change more seriously? Will it help developing countries to appreciate the value of the international aid system that has been derided by many for years? Will it shift people’s perspectives about the value of work done by those on the frontline of the response? Will the widespread adoption of big government and socialist economic policies be entrenched and carry forward?

Or are we just at the beginning of a set of cascading disasters? Are we on a whole new direction that is still yet to be seen? One thing is for sure, we cannot take our eye off the ball in terms of threats that may be obscured by Coronavirus. If anything, this is the time to be extra vigilant.