Natural disasters and vulnerable groups: Insights for an inclusive and sustainable recovery from COVID-19

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Un hombre camina por una escuela destruida en el barrio de Santhiaba (Saint Louis, Senegal) Un hombre camina por una escuela destruida en el barrio de Santhiaba (Saint Louis, Senegal)

Since the 1970s, social scientists have been stressing that there’s nothing natural about natural disasters. The foundational work of many scholars and practitioners, such as Phil O’Keefe and Anders Wijkman, explain how natural phenomena or hazards can trigger disasters when they coincide with social marginalization, poverty, and fragility. 
As we’re now seeing with the coronavirus (COVID-19), disasters expose existing social inequalities across the world.  Indigenous people are among the most adversely impacted. In Brazil, for example, they’re dying at twice the national average amid a lack of access to basic services and health facilities. And they face many other disadvantages. In recent weeks, the World Bank has led virtual consultations with indigenous leaders, who raised concerns about a lack of aid targeted to their needs; a lack of access to clean water, sanitation, and personal protective equipment; and arbitrary arrests and harassment connected to quarantines and curfews. 

Natural hazards and climate events don’t stop during a health crisis.  Hurricane season has begun for Caribbean countries. India was just hit by two severe cyclones. Kenya is facing drought and locusts in some areas, and flooding and landslides in others. As countries around the world are in different stages of responding to the COVID-19 emergency, how should aid agencies and policy makers approach recovery while also addressing climate change? Here are a few lessons from experience in disaster risk management: 

Multi-task when it comes to risk: Many countries and communities are seeking to integrate green elements into their COVID-19 recovery. As part of this, they should be supported to build capacity for integrated, multi-hazard risk management informed by the latest climate science, so that communities are preparing for the next potential disaster rather than reacting to the one they just experienced. COVID-19 can be an important entry point to engage communities in preparing for changes in other disease vectors that climate change may bring, in addition to many other potential impacts. 

Partner with communities in meaningful ways. In response to COVID-19, there are countless stories of grassroots women, indigenous communities, and other local partners leading the way to address COVID-related food insecurity, distribute personal protective equipment, and provide financial support to fellow community members. We know from decades of supporting community-driven development programs that communities have a wealth of knowledge based on their experience. They have time-tested risk management strategies that can inform innovative approaches. In addressing climate change, community leaders can be engaged not only in designing local strategies, but also in developing national climate policies that reflect the interests of all members of society. 

Let’s take Kenya, where the World Bank is working with the national and county governments to direct climate finance and decision making to people at the local level, so they can help design solutions that meet their specific needs. County governments will be supported to work in partnership with communities as they assess climate risks and identify socially inclusive solutions that are tailored to local priorities.

Pay special attention to empowering the most marginalized groups. For example, gender-based violence often increases in the aftermath of a disaster. According to the UN, many countries are already reporting a rise in cases of domestic and sexual violence, as well as violence against children. Relief and recovery interventions need to address these issues and take care to reduce rather than reinforce existing inequalities and risks of violence. 

Women’s empowerment is an important element to building broader resilience. Women face higher levels of vulnerability in the face of natural hazards and climate change – and they are also quite often the designers and builders of resilience.  That’s why it is important to foster women as leaders in community recovery. This means creating formal spaces where women’s groups can organize to participate in recovery efforts, as well as formally allocating resources and roles to groups of affected women.  

This crisis is a time to focus on underlying root causes of vulnerability, particularly social inequality and exclusion. Preventing future pandemics will require changes in the way we design buildings to allow for physical distancing, as well as better ventilation and air filtration. Helping communities recover and strengthen their resilience to pandemics, natural hazards, and climate change will require addressing pre-existing social, political, and economic factors that make poor and marginalized people more vulnerable in the first place. It’s crucial to invest in actions that help ensure these groups are effectively reached, protected, and empowered. 

Social vulnerability, equality, and conflict sensitivity need to be systematically integrated into the policies, systems, and procedures of governments and organizations at every level. This is an essential step to creating better communities and societies.  


Louise Cord

Global Director for Social Sustainability and Inclusion, World Bank

Margaret Arnold

Global Lead, Social Dimensions of Climate Change

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