COVID-19 Pandemic and Disaster Management
India, like the rest of the world, is in the midst of the pandemic. Every nation embroiled in the clutches of the COVID-19 pandemic has adopted different legal instruments at their disposal to cope up with such an unprecedented crisis.
To combat the spread of the virus, India has invoked the Disaster Management Act of 2005 as the overarching legal tool along with the Epidemic Act of 1897.
Accordingly, India has declared the pandemic as a ‘notified disaster’. India is one of the most populous countries in the world with a relatively fragile health infrastructure.
Most importantly, at present India is witnessing rapidly rising coronavirus cases.
Under the circumstances, it seems imperative to assess how the Indian state’s perception of the pandemic as a ‘disaster’ is shaping its response to the present crisis.
Disasters in India in 2020
Cyclone Amphan: Super cyclone Amphan created havoc in West Bengal and Odisha in May. Amphan was a tropical cyclone that caused widespread damage in eastern India and Bangladesh.
Locust attack: Millions of desert locusts swarmed six states - Rajasthan, Gujarat, Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh – in May-June. It was said to be one of the worst pest attacks in over 2 decades. The locusts which entered India were about 10-12 days old and were flying huge distances in search of food.
Cyclone Nisarga: Cyclone Nisarga made landfall on the Maharashtra coast near Alibaug, a popular getaway about 100 km from Mumbai, in June.
Mumbai Floods: Mumbai witnessed incessant rainfall in August bringing back the memories of the 2005 floods in the city.
Assam Floods: Like previous years, this year too Assam has witnessed a devastating flood.
Is COVID-19 a disaster?
COVID-19 is the first pan India biological disaster being handled by the legal and constitutional institutions of the country.
The lockdown imposed was under the Disaster Management Act, 2005 (DM Act).
The legislative intent of the DM Act was to, “provide for the effective management of disasters”.
Though the Constitution of India is silent on the subject of ‘disaster’, the legal basis of the DM Act, is Entry 23, Concurrent List of the Constitution “Social security and social insurance”.
Entry 29, Concurrent List “Prevention of the extension from one State to another of infectious or contagious diseases or pests affecting men, animals or plants,” can also be used for specific lawmaking.
National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA)
The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) under the DM Act is the nodal central body for coordinating disaster management, with the Prime Minister as its Chairperson.
The NDMA lays down policies, plans, and guidelines for the management of the disaster.
Similarly, State, District, and Local level Disaster Management Authorities were established, manned by high functionaries. All these agencies are envisaged to work in coordination.
How COVID-19 has changed the perspective for disaster management?
Not geographically contained: The crisis is not limited by a geographic area or a cluster or physically defined areas in which the disaster occurred — as in an earthquake, flood, or cyclone.
Microscopic effects: Effects of the disaster are so microscopic and invisible that one can easily underestimate its virulence or potency, as it happened in the early days of the pandemic.
Earlier epidemics like SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and those due to bird flu and Ebola had a relatively lower geographical influence, but the speed of transmission and virulence of COVID-19 has posed an entirely new challenge.
In countries like India, high population densities, coupled with the impossibility of physical distancing in small housing units, lack of running water and toilets, shortage of hygiene materials, and personal protective equipment have exacerbated the infection rates.
Disaster Management adapted by India
Proof of Concept with Social Experiment
Preparation and Collaboration
How India’s labelling of the pandemic as a ‘disaster’ has shaped its actions?
Treating a health crisis as a ‘disaster’ has some deep-rooted definitional as well as instrumental ramifications shaping India’s response to the pandemic.
Externalisation of the disease: It has led to the ‘externalization’ of the disease. A disaster is usually perceived to be caused due to a force that is alien to our lives and usually intrudes into our internal space to create havoc.
Repression as Regulation: Another outcome of labelling this health pandemic as a disaster has been the normalization of the controlling measures by the state in order to curb the spread of the virus.
State capacity and health care:
The outbreak of the infectious pandemic has triggered unprecedented life and livelihood crisis for the people of the country.
The crisis has warranted a more efficient and robust health infrastructure that has the capacity to provide healthcare to such a large number of COVID19 patients.
India’s public health infrastructure has already been in a dysfunctional state before the pandemic.
The emerging health crisis of such a huge scale has crippled the system further with limited testing capacity, shortage of hospital beds, and inadequate treatment.
In such a situation, accessing healthcare from highly unaffordable private hospitals is nearly impossible for the majority sections of the population.
What are the lessons learned from the pandemic?
The unpredictability of disasters: With the nature of disasters changing constantly, they can surprise us by their unpredictability and speed of onset, despite our access to the most advanced and sophisticated information and early warning systems.
In recent disasters, the inability to predict the incidence of mudslides or the amount of water to be held or released in dams during heavy rains — whether in Mumbai, Kerala, or Chennai in recent years.
The ferocity of volcanic discharges recently in the Philippines and New Zealand surprised many scientists and earthquakes continue to surprise us with their relative unpredictability.
The inability of the administration: One of the issues that came to the forefront in the COVID-19 crisis in India was the seeming inability of governments to anticipate the impact of the suddenness of the lockdown on migrant laborers in various parts of the country.
Speed of response: The speed of response would need to be gauged not only how quickly the government enforced physical distancing and lockdowns, but also in the speed and reach of preventive messaging. The speed of response is often linked to the ability to procure materials in a timely and cost-effective manner in every disaster.
Coordination: One important lesson is that of coordination between the various stakeholders. This has become even more critical as multiple disasters striking simultaneously.
What about Social Security and basic rights?
Besides the health crisis, the pandemic has inflicted one of the worst economic turmoil all over the world due to prolonged lockdown.
In India, the unorganized labor of the informal economy which constitutes 93% of its economy has been the worst hit due to joblessness and social insecurity during the crisis.
A large section of unorganized labor who works as migrants in cities couldn’t return to their families residing in their native places due to the sudden declaration of the national lockdown.
Caught in between economic hardship, health crisis, and absence of family support, many of them were compelled to walk on foot to their native home as transport facilities were halted. This also led to the loss of lives.
Many were also forced to stay back in cities in the government shelters which had inadequate
Even when they were allowed to travel home, they faced social stigma from the administration and community back in their native states as they were suspected of carrying the virus.
As the unlocking has started in India, their conditions are turning worse without adequate state assistance for basic survival.
How to resettle the priorities?
The Disaster Management Act might not be categorically designed for dealing with a health crisis.
Sub-section 3 (a) of entry 11 of the Act acknowledges the need for “preparedness and capacity building to effectively respond to any threatening disaster situation”.
Also, entry 12 mentions about “minimum standard of relief to be provided to persons affected by the Disaster”.
However, in the case of India, the situation reveals that the state, despite some concerted efforts, has been unable to adequately deliver on the dual needs of healthcare and social security for the weaker sections during the pandemic.
The emphasis on the repressive measures to deal with the ‘external enemy’, the pandemic which is seen as a ‘disaster’ might have overshadowed the necessity of state care and responsiveness to mitigate the crisis.
Such a situation raises serious questions about the state’s preparedness in battling the pandemic as a ‘disaster.’
What needs to be done?
Collaboration: There is a need for strengthening collaboration, command, control, and communication systems for efficient, prompt, and graded response and recovery.
Infusing technology: Technology cannot replace or make up for other public policy measures, but it does have an increasingly critical role to play in emergency responses. Covid-19 presents an excellent opportunity to reflect on the legal plausibility, ethical soundness, and effectiveness to use emerging technologies to inform evidence-based public health interventions.
Strong technology infrastructure: Access to a robust, resilient, and secure ICT infrastructure worldwide is critical in a pandemic, and any kind of disaster.
Community-based public health emergency preparedness: There is a need for prioritizing the COVID-19 prevention and control in informal settlements, to assess the community risk perception, and thought process to enable community-based public health emergency preparedness and risk-informed policy making in the future.
Multi-hazard preparedness: Multi-hazard preparedness with a focus on the health needs to be integrated across sectors. Risk assessments and risk preparedness should emerge as a culture for the next generations to enable better management of disasters and public health emergencies.
Responsible administration: Good governance, responsive administration, and active coordination should be non-negotiable features of a dynamic process that is driven by transparency and accountability on the part of public officials.
Advanced preparedness strategies: Documentation of best practices, creating a knowledge platform for lessons-learning will promote inclusive, participatory, and well-informed preparedness strategies.
Undoubtedly, India’s large population poses an administrative challenge in dealing with any disasters, especially with pandemics such as COVID-19. However, overall management can be strengthened through collaboration and effective measures.