Using lessons from disaster management, Odisha takes on COVID-19

Health workers conducting rapid antibody test in a special camp in Bhubaneswar. Credit-BMC

  • Odisha’s two-pronged approach in disaster management has come in handy to tackle the spread of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19). This involves ‘physical infrastructure’ created to assist people during disasters and ‘intellectual infrastructure’ referring to the government’s institutional setups evolved to tackle disasters in a swift and efficient way.
  • As COVID-19 impacts unfold in India, the state is gearing up to tackle a fresh set of challenges including water scarcity during the summer season and the return of its migrant population.
  • Experts have emphasised on tweaking standard operating procedures for cyclone and flood shelters to combat dual challenges of climate-related disasters and COVID-19.

Nearly a year ago, on May 3, 2019, the east Indian state of Odisha was hit by the “rarest of the rare” summer cyclone Fani, which claimed 64 lives and caused damages worth over Rs. 200 billion (Rs. 24,176 crore).

The World Meteorological Organisation said Fani was among 2019’s “high impact” events. Home to 46 million people, Odisha, along the Bay of Bengal, is often referred to as the disaster capital of the country, for the cocktail of floods, cyclones, and droughts that regularly ravages it.

The state’s long-term, lauded expertise in handling disasters and the infrastructure created to mitigate it, fronted by the Odisha State Disaster Management Authority, has stood it in good stead as it copes with the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. Odisha reported its maiden COVID 19 case on March 15 when a student who returned from Italy tested positive for the disease. Till April 21, 2020, in Odisha, 79 people have tested positive for COVID-19 of which one person has died.

The state’s COVID-19 positivity rate (proportion of positive cases among the total number of tests conducted) is lowest in the country at 1.08 percent in persons with symptoms and risk categories as compared to the national average of 5 percent, said officials as on April 15.

At the cusp of the cyclone season and heatwave, Odisha is also handling the dual challenges of disaster preparedness and the pandemic impacts and responses simultaneously, including the nationwide lockdown to enable social distancing to curb the spread of the disease. But the pandemic has also thrown up a fresh set of challenges for the disaster management and health authorities, particularly as migrant workers desperately seek avenues to return home.

Sanjay Singh, secretary, Odisha information and public relations department said the state had a two-dimensional advantage.

One was related to the ‘physical infrastructure’ created to assist people during disasters and the other was the ‘intellectual infrastructure’ which was the government’s institutional setups evolved to tackle disasters in a swift and efficient way.

“From our past experience, we knew the utility of government buildings like cyclone shelter, schools, panchayat offices, and how to manage a disaster besides knowing the hurdles that come in between. We used many of these centres either as quarantine centres or relief centres to host stranded migrant workers and the destitute to serve them food and provide shelter during the lockdown,” Singh told Mongabay India.

Following the disaster relief operations pattern, the state swung into action soon after realising the threat of the global pandemic and used the intellectual infrastructure it had evolved from the learnings of their past disaster management.

“In many states, you can see the health department which has been entrusted with the task of managing the health affairs are also engaged in media briefings. We have designated spokespersons to brief the media while the health department was given the task of focusing on their health management works,” a bureaucrat from the state government said.

A view of the Rajmahal Square in Bhubneswar during the lockdown. Photo by Manish Kumar.

Like relief operations undertaken during management of cyclone Fani, in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic too, different committees to look specifically into particular sectors were formed under the leadership of qualified officials to resolve hurdles.

Adopting the earlier pattern of administration for disaster management, the state government formed an empowered Group of Ministers and also constituted special committees comprising senior bureaucrats on the evolving COVID-19 scenario in the state.

The Group of Ministers has now proposed setting up a health disaster training institute to create more trained health professionals to handle the pandemic and other health hazards.

The government formed special committees have been formed to ensure smooth movement of goods vehicles into the state to keep up the supply chain in the market of essential commodities.

At the district level, district administrations too roped in the services of the grassroots workers who often take in relief operations and disaster preparedness. For example-the Ganjam district administration tapped into its vast network of Self Help Groups (SHG) to act as service providers in COVID-19 management. Ganjam is one of the hotspots of outward migration from where most of the organised migrations are to textile factories of Gujarat especially Surat.

People waiting at Puri railway station to leave the city. 1.2 million people were moved to cyclone shelters in 24 hours before the cyclone Fani made landfall in Puri. Photo by Manish Kumar.

Amid the pandemic, the state also has its attention to preparedness for heatwave. Pradeep Jena, the special relief commissioner and managing director of the Odisha State Disaster Management Authority, has urged district administrations to put in place standard operating procedures (SOPs) for the heat action plan 2020 stressing that “otherwise this natural hazard may unnecessarily compound our challenge in containing COVID-19.”

The authority has also alerted district collectors, panchayati raj and the housing department to take steps to prevent possible outbreaks of waterborne diseases in the pre-monsoon and summer period, as per past experience.

Observing the problems faced by countries like Italy, where the disease spread early, Odisha planned for exclusive COVID-19 healthcare setups early on.

“We have learned from the mistakes of other countries. In Italy, they treated COVID-19 and non-COVID patients in the same health setups. We have set up special COVID hospitals to exclusively tackle the cases of the disease in separate health setups,” state health secretary Nikunja Dhal said. As per the latest statistics accessed by this correspondent, Odisha till April 22 had 31 operational hospitals specifically for testing and treating COVID-19 cases, spread in 19 districts with 5176 beds. The government also claims that all the health workers have been equipped with adequate PPE sets, sanitisers, and other safety gear.

Challenges on the horizon as Odisha prepares for a season of water scarcity and inward migration

While the state government portrays effective COVID-19 management so far, the coming days are likely to be tougher for the state due to several factors such as the flow of more migrants into the state post lockdown and water shortage.

Several parts of the state every year reports water scarcity forcing people in rural areas to walk several kilometres at a stretch to fetch water.

“In many parts of the state, the maximum temperature has already crossed 40 degree Celsius. Many parts of the state suffer from water scarcity while majority of the rural areas are not linked with piped water supply. Under such circumstances, washing of hands regularly, social distancing and compliance of lockdown orders are likely to be impacted,” said Ranjan Panda, Odisha-based expert on water issues and climate change.

Officials estimate 500,000( 5 lakh) people living outside Odisha are expected to come back to the state after lockdown. The state government said it will plan accordingly for their return including an online portal where those wanting to return will have to enroll. But they cannot go home directly. The gram panchayat will take them to their local quarantine centre where they will be sheltered-in-place for 14 days besides being provided medical attention.

Migration experts emphasise that migration dynamics will see a transformation in Odisha.

Loknath Mishra, project director of NGO ARUNA and a migration expert from Ganjam district underscored that the pandemic coincides with the summer months when the Odia migrant population in other states return to their native villages for wedding festivities and crop harvest.

“This is the time when close to 60 percent of migrants are at their native places due to marriage ceremonies and harvesting. However, most of the migrants are now outside the state due to the unprecedented lockdown who are desperate to come back,” said Mishra.

He also said that as soon as the lockdown curbs are off most of the migrants will come back. “Most of them from Ganjam district work in textile factories in cities like Surat in Gujarat while unorganised migrants are stranded in Maharashtra and Kerala,” he added.

Earlier in April, in Surat, the textile workers, largely from Ganjam district in Orissa, staged a massive protest demanding arrangements for their travel home.

According to a UNDP report, the large-scale economic migration from Orissa to Gujarat is triggered by both pull and push factors. The single-cropping pattern in most rural economies in Orissa, small land-holdings, poor irrigation facilities, restricted industrial infrastructure, and a history of migration outside the state for generations – especially true in districts such as Ganjam and Nayagarh – have all played their part. The principal pull factor is obviously the availability of jobs in a more industrially developed state. The textile, shipwrecking, and, to some extent, diamond cutting industries in Gujarat are hugely dependent on migrant labour. Migrant workers from Orissa are known to undertake some of the most hazardous jobs; hence there is a huge demand for them in Gujarat’s big business cities such as Surat, the report states.

“The government has taken the civil society into confidence. It has instructed all the collectors to form a panel and appoint nodal officers to look into the issues of migrants besides their redressal,” said Ghasiram Panda, Project Director, ActionAid, Bhubaneswar. Panda is now working in Subranapur district.

Stranded trucks at the parking lot in Bhubaneswar during the shutdown call. Photo by Manish Kumar.

Tweaking SOPs ahead of disaster season to combat COVID-19

The 2018 World Disaster Report “Leaving no one behind” proposed five different reasons that affected people may not receive the assistance they need: they are out of sight, out of reach, out of the loop, out of money, and out of scope.

The bedrock of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, a non-binding agreement adopted by UN member states, is to ensure that no one is left behind, including migrant communities, indigenous people, women, and the elderly.

In a webinar hosted by the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, India’s National Disaster Management Authority member Kamal Kishore spelt out the measures that need to be put in place ahead of the heatwave, cyclone and flood season in India.

Apart from working “doubly-hard to minimise the heatwave-associated health burden on hospitals”, Kishore underscored that in reviving the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for management of cyclone shelters ahead of the cyclone season, elements of social distancing will have to be brought in and the capacity of cyclone shelters will have to be augmented.

“Cyclone shelters in India are community-managed so now we have to start a whole new process of community-based disaster risk management where we bring in the elements of social distancing in how these cyclone shelters are managed,” Kishore said in the webinar.

Kishore also stressed on availability of personal protective equipment for those engaged in facilitating cyclone and flood-related evacuations and “a whole range of psychosocial support” for emergency responders because “they have never been in greater stress than they are right now” so it is important that they themselves feel supported and well looked after because the COVID-19 crisis will take months to dissipate.

He also underlined special protection of elderly people and said that hospitals and healthcare setups in flood-prone and cyclone-prone areas must be much better prepared because they have to continue to deal with COVID-19 and must begin to take steps so that the effects of cyclones and floods are minimised.

Animesh Kumar, Deputy Chief, Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) said even countries with very strong disaster management structures have seen high impacts of COVID-19.

However, it is clear that existing disaster risk governance mechanisms, including legal and policy instruments and institutional arrangements, have helped address the pandemic better, Kumar said.

“What can be said with confidence is that the current crisis does point to the need for a more systemic management of risk – we cannot look at hazard-by-hazard risk management as there is strong interconnectedness among them (including natural, biological and technological hazards), both in terms of cause and effect,” Kumar told Mongabay-India.


Banner image: Health workers conducting a rapid antibody test in a special camp in Bhubaneswar. Photo from BMC.

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