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Rohingya crisis anniversary: four years of genocide in Myanmar, four years of protection failures in India

Jessica Field26 August 2021


Yesterday – 25 August 2021 – marked four years since the start of a brutal military assault against the Rohingya population in Myanmar, which forced three quarters of a million Rohingyas to flee over the country’s borders. The deliberate, systematic, and extreme violence used by the Myanmar military to kill, sexually assault, and displace Rohingyas from their homelands and out of the country has rightly been documented as genocidal – i.e. violence ‘committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group’. Though this date isn’t the start of the persecution faced by Rohingyas in Myanmar (which has been ongoing for several decades), it was certainly one of the largest and most systematic of the assaults against the community in recent years.

August 2017 also marks an anniversary date for the deliberate scaling back of humanitarian protections in many neighbouring countries.

Over a million Rohingya refugees are living in increasingly challenging conditions in countries across Southeast and South Asia – denied rights, denied mobility, marginalised and – in several high-profile cases – refouled back to Myanmar, or prevented from making a safe landing to seek refuge. I have spent the last five years researching the humanitarian context for Rohingya refugees in India, and those years have been marked by a drastic breakdown of protection and basic humanitarian assistance.

Prior to 2017, Rohingya refugees in India – who number in the low tens of thousands – were able to register with the UNHCR India, receive refugee cards and visas, and were able to try to make lives for themselves while awaiting the opportunity for safe return to Myanmar. Then, in early August 2017, just a few weeks before the Myanmar military launched its latest large-scale assault on the community in Rakhine state, the Indian government declared Rohingya refugees within its own territory to be “illegal migrants”. This marked the start of a rapid deterioration of protection.

Image: The charred remains of schoolbooks. An entire Rohingya refugee settlement in Delhi burnt to the ground in June 2021. Photo credit: ROHRIngya June 2021.

 

India’s failure to protect and attempts to deport

In a recent Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion (ISI) briefing I co-wrote with Rohingya activist Maung Thein Shwe and ISI’s Natalie Brinham, we documented that, since the beginning of August 2017, Rohingyas in India have faced:

  • refusals to renew or issue immigration documentation
  • exclusion from national ID cards that are essential for accessing basic services like health, education, and banking
  • discrimination in schools and healthcare facilities
  • denial from Covid-19 relief packages and vaccine drives
  • arbitrary dismissal from work and the withholding of pay
  • sustained hate campaigns from vocal sections of the media
  • discriminatory and inflammatory anti-Rohingya language by prominent politicians
  • precarious living conditions, including fires that have destroyed entire settlements
  • and a significant spike in documentation “verification” exercises and arbitrary detentions.

Also in August 2017, the Indian Government issued an order to authorities to identify Rohingya refugees in the country, and ready for their rounding up and deportation to Myanmar. Then, in late 2018 and early 2019, the Indian government deported a total of 12 Rohingyas back to the country, all of whom were denied access to UNHCR. In March this year, authorities in Jammu rounded up at least 150 Rohingyas for “verification” and to initiate deportation procedures. Then, in April, the government made a failed attempt to deport an unaccompanied 14-year-old Rohingya girl across the border.

Forced deportation of refugees to a country where they are experiencing an ongoing threat of genocide is an egregious breach of human and humanitarian rights that flouts not just customary international law, but protections enshrined within the India’s own constitution. Moreover, Myanmar has got more, not less, dangerous over recent months. The country experienced a violent coup d’état on 1 February 2021, and is now headed by the very military that have committed repeated atrocities against Rohingyas in Rakhine state over decades.

Parallel legal proceedings

Cases have been filed against Myanmar for the crime of genocide – The Gambia v. Myanmar – in the International Court of Justice (ICJ); for atrocity crimes in Argentina (under “universal jurisdiction”); and the International Criminal Court has authorised full investigations into crimes committed against the Rohingya that fall within the Court’s jurisdiction (i.e. genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and aggression).

Cases have also been filed in the Supreme Court of India to block the Indian government’s attempted refoulement of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar. However, progress has been slow, with many worrying statements littering its progression. During a recent hearing, the then-Chief Justice of India stated that “possibly that is the fear that if they go back to Myanmar they will be slaughtered. But we cannot control all that”. This statement wilfully ignores the role that India’s deportations play in enabling atrocities.

Advocates working on behalf of the Rohingya community in India have also filed petitions to try and force the Indian authorities to provide the basics amenities that any human (let alone a refugee fleeing persecution) should be entitled to expect: e.g. access to running water, access to health and education services, basic public health facilities, and safe accommodation. Just as with The Gambia vs. Myanmar genocide case in the ICJ, these cases in the Indian Supreme Court are ongoing, and Rohingya safety and wellbeing in India continue to hang in the balance.

It is no coincidence that genocide in Myanmar and persecution and humanitarian failures in India are running in tandem. Amal de Chickera – co-founder and co-director of the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion – remarked in a recent webinar that “this is a moment of impending crisis… the marginalisation of Rohingya is part of a deeper, longer term erosion of the democratic rule of law in India and elsewhere in the world”.

Rohingya refugees are being deliberately marginalised through hate speech and discrimination, and then that marginalisation is used to frame this refugee group as a security threat and justify repressive actions – eroding the rule of law in the process. Relatedly, humanitarian assistance and the provision of safe refuge are presented as “gifts” to be enjoyed by select communities on the basis of (often discriminatory) conditions, rather than as basic rights rooted in a shared humanity.

Recognising all aspects of violence

The 25 August 2017 commemoration date must serve as a marker for all aspects of the violence faced by Rohingyas. It must continue to draw international attention to the persecution and suffering of Rohingyas by the Myanmar state as well as the Rohingya community’s need for justice, for citizenship in Myanmar, and for safe living conditions in their own country. This anniversary must also draw international attention to the huge humanitarian and protection failures of refugee host countries like India, where state-supported marginalisation, intolerance and anti-Rohingya hate speech are creating punishing living conditions and risk further facilitating genocide.


This blog is an adapted version of Jessica Field’s presentation at the 4th Rohingya Genocide Anniversary Commemoration event, hosted by Restless Beings on 25th August 2021 in London. 

For further reading, see briefs published by the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion:

Tutorials

David Alexander16 August 2021

Professor David Alexander looks back on his experiences of tutorials in the 1970s.

 

The tutorial has a long history in education. In one sense it probably dates back to the days of Plato in the 400s and 300s BC and the schola, a semi-circular seat where, at the centre, the master would hold audience surrounded by the best of his pupils.

Weekly tutorials and consultations were a constant feature of my university education in the 1970s. As a new undergraduate, my first tutor was a Senior Lecturer who was nicknamed “Auntie Evelyn”. Tutorials involved a great deal of squirming, looking out the window and suppressing yawns. As soon as Margaret Thatcher’s university ‘reforms’ came into effect, she was pensioned off and disappeared into the mists of the Scottish Highlands, never to be seen again. My second-year tutor was the redoubtable Dr John B. Thornes variously of the LSE and King’s College London. For our first meeting he told us to report to the basement laboratory (we were three students of rather diverse backgrounds). We walked down the steps and found him bending over the mudflow experiment. His tie had become trapped in the mud churner and it was dragging him into the mud bucket by his neck. He extracted himself, squeezed the mud out of his tie, glared at us and shouted by way of greeting, “Take down this essay question: discuss the meaning of the following terms: shear strength, Bagnold’s dispersive stress, and modulus of elasticity.” As a tough, intellectual Yorkshireman, Dr Thornes could make his views known in no uncertain manner, but he loved to be contradicted as it led to the kind of sincere debate in which he revelled. In the second tutorial, he taught us to change THORNES to THOSNER using entropy modelling. Student’s tended to be terrified by his tutorials, although I gradually came to have great affection for him and profound respect for his insights.

Years later as a postdoctoral fellow I ended up doing tutorials myself at Fitzwilliam College Cambridge for two, three or four students at a time. This gave some leeway for experimentation. In some cases it was a matter of working out how to get them to say something – anything. In other instances, it was more a matter of how to shut them up. Often, one had to work hard to encourage them to think, or at least to articulate their ideas. It had to be done in a friendly, non-threatening way. One of my tricks was to give them a stone, a heavy, rounded piece of gneiss which I had picked up from a stream bed. I would ask them to describe it. It is remarkable what could be deduced from this smooth, grey bit of rock.

I found that the optimum size of face-to-face tutorials was three students. It was common to have one who was more articulate than the other two, but there were enough opportunities to divert the conversation to the others. I hope they learned something useful from me, but I certainly learned from them.

All in all, the tutorial has survived all manner of vicissitudes. In the 16th century a monk who taught at Salamanca University in Spain was arrested while in the midst of a discussion with his students. The Inquisition flung him into prison and there he remained for eight years. No doubt he was tortured and fed on gruel. Once released, he returned to the classroom, gathered his few remaining students together and started again with the words “As I was saying when I was so rudely interrupted…”

 

Science Fiction and Disaster Risk Reduction

Joshua Anthony29 July 2021

Author: Nigel Furlong


I have been a fan of science fiction literature, TV shows and movies for as long as I can remember. I have worked in emergency management and planning for over 20 years and over the years I have found science fiction has been a useful tool in my critical thinking. It’s also supported my skill set. Who knew playing wargames and role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons and Twilight 2000 would enable me to deliver tabletop and seminar exercises later in my career!

Before I go into this blog, I do wish to caveat that some of the works, authors and screenwriters are products of their time and by today’s standards may at best be considered twee and at worst misogynistic and racist. I do not endorse any political and social statements. They are used as examples no more, no less.

In the early 1990’s I attended a church service marking Remembrance Day at a small church in Greasby, Wirral. This was at the time that the country of Yugoslavia was imploding into civil war and the local army regiment, The Cheshire Regiment were deploying with the United Nations to Bosnia. The vicar gave his sermon which was very much about the war in Yugoslavia, and he said as part of his sermon (I am paraphrasing): “history is a hilltop in which we can look back but also look at the present and future”. It struck me then that science fiction can do the same. Some authors extrapolate trends, others create societies and ecologies and then add plots and story twists etc. This phenomenoncan be seen in the works of the author Robert Heinlein. He is accredited amongst other authors in inspiring a generation to become scientists and engineers who went onto work on the US space programme and various spinoff industries such as computing. Heinlein’s short stories and juvenile novels were heavy on engineering and science solutions. Some of his early works in the early 1940’s were classified and only released years after the end of World War 2 as they discussed atomic physics and the development of nuclear facilities and weapons. He saw the use of irradiated materials such as powder being used as a weapon – the dirty bomb.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a lot of discussion over the movie’s “Outbreak”, “Contagion” and “I am Legend”, but the works of John Christopher are potentially more interesting as “Empty World” seemed a bit too close for home at one point in the early days of the pandemic. Christopher wrote a number of disaster novels, “A Wrinkle in the Skin”, “The Death of Grass”. The TV show “Survivors” both the 1970s and reboot 2008 Series took viewers through a pandemic and its aftermath. I find it fascinating to consider analysing the various pandemic disease disaster and post-apocalyptic novels and how they attempted to mitigate and control the pandemic and compare against real world actions!

Isaac Asimov is credited with creating the 3 rules of robotics, yet his Foundation Series of novels are a superb discussion of business continuity. William Gibson’s 1980s cyberpunk novels such as “Neuromancer” gave us the language used today in cyber security and some of the concepts as well.

Jerry Pournelle is another author who blended science and engineering onto novels. However, his novels include “Oath to Fealty” which is a great read and although set in Los Angeles has parallels with the Shard building in London. His series of novels and short stories about Falkenberg’s Legion focused on colonial era type military operations in far off solar systems by a mercenary force of soldiers. They have become required reading in the US military as they placed the protagonists in situations similar to Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan type situations and operations. The books were written in the 1980s and 90’s.

Science Fiction covers many disaster scenarios: asteroid impacts, space weather, environmental/ecological collapse, Global Warming, global war, nuclear war and aftermath, social collapse, post disaster survival, Terrorist use of Weapons of Mass Destruction/CBRN. A particular theme to acknowledge is the “Zombie Apocalypse”. So popular is this theme, the Centre for Disease Control in the US produced a “Zombie Preparedness” plan to engage new audiences with the concepts of “All Hazards emergency preparedness”. This has been emulated multiple times including by Bristol City Council who produced a contingency plan for handling zombie outbreaks in Bristol.

History may be a hilltop, but science fiction allows us to identify potential events and play out the outcomes to gain insight into what could be probable, plausible, possible or a wild card!


Nigel Furlong is a Business Resilience Manager and Senior Security Advisor with the UK Atomic Energy Authority

The double affliction: conflict and natural hazard – the importance of tackling disaster risk amidst insecurity.

Mark Weegmann28 June 2021

This blog is also posted on The Anticipation Hub.


In January 2015, Storm Huda brought heavy snow, torrential downpours, and strong wind across the Levant. For Gaza and the West Bank in occupied Palestinian territories this resulted in the death of three children and one adult, almost 2,000 households newly evacuated or displaced, and extensive damage to fields, greenhouses, and livestock affecting 9,000 farmers (IFCR, 2015). It triggered a state of emergency and an international response effort. Whilst localised damage was reported in Israel, having similar exposure, the scale and impact were not comparable.

Storm water fills the streets of Shati’ Refugee Camp (Beach Camp) in Gaza, where 82,000 refugees are living. (© ICRC / il-e-01841, 2010)

Disasters and conflict

An unhappy confluence exists between states experiencing fragility, conflict, and violence suffering heightened disaster risks from natural hazards. Disaster deaths are 40% higher in these settings (Marktanner, et al., 2015) and they disproportionately rank ‘highly at risk’ to disasters and crises (EC, 2021). This is not surprising given our understanding of the social conditions that contribute to transforming hazard into disaster. Evidence demonstrates how conflict exasperates vulnerabilities, undermines resilience and coping capacities, increases exposure through displacement, and can even heighten hazard risk through environmental degradation (Harris, et al., 2013). The result of this compounding conflict and disaster risk is a concentration and exasperation of human suffering.

By the time Storm Huda reached Palestinian territories, there were still 100,000 people displaced and 18,000 homes destroyed or severely damaged from the outbreak of fighting in Gaza Strip the previous summer (ICRC, 2015). Damage to the energy, water, and sanitation infrastructure meant that much of the area had only partial running water and electricity for parts of the day. When a second winter cold wave hit in February, this had deadly consequences. The use of unsafe heating to stay warm, like open fires or electric heaters, caused a 16-month-old child in Northern Gaza, a 22-year-old mother and her 2-month-old baby in Nablus, and three children of the same family, aged 3, 4 and 15, to die from fires breaking out in residential homes and temporary shelters (UNICEF, 2015).

When an estimated 1.5 billion people today live in fragile and conflict-affected states (EC, n.d.), and 80% of total international humanitarian needs are focused in these areas (World Bank, 2021), disaster research and disaster risk reduction (DRR) efforts must account for this confluence if our efforts towards the sustainable development goals (notable SDG 11) are to be realised. DRR is, however, notably absent in these contexts ($1.30 spent on DRR for every $100 spent on response (Peters & Budimir, 2016)). There is a moral imperative to reduce suffering, operational advantage to decrease costly humanitarian interventions, and practical benefit lessening the humanitarian burden, to develop effective approaches and tools to change this.

Acting early: reducing disaster impacts

Anticipatory Action approaches – defined as “a set of actions taken to prevent or mitigate potential disaster impacts before a shock or before acute impacts are felt. The actions are carried out in anticipation of a hazard impact and based on a prediction of how the event will unfold” (IFRC, 2020. p. 351) – can provide one such tool. It can be useful because it is implemented through humanitarian actors who are already operational within these contexts, target vulnerabilities which are shown to have been exasperated by conflict, and the short lead times of the intervention enable a highly targeted response that alleviate specific needs that have a high probability of occurring (Wagner & Jaime, 2020). Yet, despite some initial pilots, Anticipatory Action is not fully functional in conflict situations yet. Evidence in non-conflict settings demonstrate Anticipatory Action’s ability to reduce operational costs, improve project design, and reduce negative disaster outcomes for affected communities (Weingärtner & Wilkinson, 2019).

Given the low baseline for DRR – including Anticipatory Action – in conflict-affected contexts, there is need to invest in understanding the unique and contextual interactions between disaster and conflict risks, how these inter-relate, and what the consequences are. A key component for implementing Anticipatory Action interventions is to understand not only what the weather will be, but what the weather will do to at-risk communities (Harrowsmith, et al., 2020). This is understanding how hazard, exposure, and vulnerability affect people living in conflict, and in what way the conflict compounds these disaster risks. With this, building blocks for appropriate interventions can be built.

For example, in the West Bank, houses close to the separation wall have experienced frequent flooding during heavy rain due to the wall impeding the proper flow and drainage of the rain. Drainage pipes running under the wall often get blocked but clearing them is often challenging due to access constraints. With advanced forecasts of rainfall, pre-positioning water pumps in these localities could prevent rainwater accumulating and flooding the surrounding homes.

Niger Red Cross implementing early action protocol to successfully reinforce part of the embankment holding back the flooded River Niger (CRN / Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, 2020)

Scaling up Anticipatory Action to conflict-contexts

Understanding these risks exacerbated by conflict is therefore crucial for Anticipatory Action. This research aims to build on the evidence base around the impacts that the double vulnerability has on populations affected by armed conflict (Peters, et al., 2019) by conducting a comprehensive historical review of disaster impacts in conflict affected settings. This is focused on the Palestine and Darfur regions & the three protocol areas of Sudan as case studies. It builds on the ICRC and The Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre’s research agenda of Climate and Conflict 2020, and particularly key research questions about Anticipatory Action in situations of conflict (IFRC, 2020).

It seeks to establish a database of the impacts that disasters caused by hydro-meteorological hazards have had in Palestine and Sudan since 2010, understanding 1) who were affected, 2) how they were affected, and 3) in what way the conflict context relates to the disaster impact. This impact analysis is conducted through collating ‘grey literature’ (needs assessments, situational reports, operational updates of humanitarian organisations) supplemented by academic research.

Generating a picture of historical disaster impacts is critical for exploring which Anticipatory Action interventions can reduce the impacts of future disasters. The output will be used to present a scenario of the types of disaster profiles – and their impacts – that these case studies are likely to experience in the future. For this, a review of potential actions will demonstrate how and why certain activities might be relevant. Interviews with practitioners holding expert academic, sectoral, or contextual experience will provide field-based insights. Combined, the challenges of Anticipatory Action in conflict-affected contexts will be explored, along with their opportunities to provide a practical analysis aimed ultimately at improving DRR in states affected by conflict and instability.

This research will feed into wider work being done aimed at reducing disaster risks by using Anticipatory Action in conflict-affected areas. In Palestine, this could mean that the cold waves and heavy rainfall that struck six out of the past ten years, do not consistently result in mass displacement, shelter destruction, injury, and fatality. With three days advanced warning of extreme low-temperatures, the Palestinian Red Crescent Society could distribute winterisation items – like blankets and safe heaters – along with information & educations campaigns as to how to safely heat household to those living in tents and unprotected shelters. As a result, further loss of life could be prevented. Given the recent flare up in violence – damaging an additional 17,000 shelters (2,000 extensively) (OCHA, 2021) – reducing disaster risks remains an imperative.

Palestinian Red Crescent Soceity distributing NFIs to Beouins close to Ramallah (PRCS / IFRC, 2015)


This study is conducted as a Master’s Thesis for the MSc Risk and Disaster Science course at the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction, University College London (supervised by Prof Ilan Kelman). It is done in collaboration with the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre (supervised by Catalina Jaime, Climate and Conflict Manager), as a contribution to their work on scaling up Anticipatory Action in conflict-affected contexts. For more information, you can contact Mark Weegmann, graduate student an UCL and Junior Research at the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre.

This work is supported by the Danish Red Cross with funds from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Denmark.

Ahead of the G7 and COP26 “Global Britain” reneges on humanitarian commitments, costing lives

Jessica Field11 June 2021

Ahead of the G7 and COP26 “Global Britain” reneges on humanitarian commitments, costing lives


Authored by: Jessica Field


The IRDR annual Humanitarian Summit is almost upon us. After the developments of the last few months, there’ll certainly be a lot to discuss next Wednesday.

Today, leaders of the world’s seven largest ‘advanced economies’ will descend on Cornwall for a G7 meeting to discuss pressing issues, not least COVID-19 recovery and strengthening of the world’s health systems. While ‘Global Britain’ is celebrating its leading role as host for this important event (and the upcoming COP26 in Glasgow), its recent actions instead show a retraction from global leadership and responsibility – particularly around humanitarian action.

In September 2020 (which seems like a lifetime ago in these stretched-out pandemic months), the UK’s Department for International Development was merged with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to create the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office – a vehicle for apparently more aligned development and diplomacy. Commentators were worried about what this would mean for the UK’s world-leading role in overseas development assistance. And they were right to be.

Sign for the new Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office. Photo: FCDO/2020, Creative Commons Licence. Available on FCDO Flickr.

 

Just two month later, in November 2020, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced that the UK government was going to renege on its global commitment – and legal obligation – to spend 0.7% of gross national income on overseas development assistance (ODA). The new 0.5% amount means a £4.5 billion ‘black hole’ in the humanitarian and development budget compared with 2019 figures. The effects of this have been immediate and catastrophic for many essential programmes across the world, and will have damaging ripple effects for many years to come.

Devex’s Will Worley has been tracking the cuts in a handy timeline. Seeing them listed one after the other, week after week, exposes the huge scale of the UK’s retraction from its obligations. Some of the more devastating include a 60% reduction in funding to Yemen, which is seeing one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises as a result of conflict, mass displacement and famine-like conditions. After announcing this cut in March, the UK government admitted “we haven’t done an impact assessment”, putting millions of lives at risk as well as completely undermining its credibility as a donor.

That same month, the UK slashed its Global Challenges Research Fund almost in half, leaving a £120 million gap. This meant dozens of research projects and programmes (which were years in the making and based on long-standing partnerships) were decimated or closed, virtually overnight, rendering people jobless and halting research previously deemed essential for tackling the climate crisis, displacement, human rights violations and other global challenges. Again, with no impact assessment. Even basic communications about the cuts were incoherent, lacked basic guidance and were branded “a shambles” by those affected.

A Rohingya woman pictured at a World Food Programme food distribution supported by UK aid in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, October 2017. Photo: DFID/Anna Dubuis, Creative Commons license, DFID Flickr, 2017.

 

In May, the UK announced it would cut its contributions to the Rohingya crisis response by 42%, reducing its £47.5 million pledge from 2020 to £26.7 million this year. Aid organisations working with Rohingyas – in what is the world’s largest refugee crisis – have described the consequences as “catastrophic”, and expect Rohingya children to be particularly affected.

The list goes on.

But there has been a fight back – from within the ranks of the Tory Party, as well as humanitarian and climate crisis advocates.

This reduction in 0.7% spending was not debated or approved in Parliament, and Boris Johnson has faced a rebellion about it among his own MPs. In recent weeks, a group of Conservative MPs have been vocal about the damage the government was doing to vital programmes overseas, as well as the UK’s reputation as a world leader in ODA. On Tuesday, Tory rebels tried to secure a vote on the aid cuts – convinced that if a vote was allowed, the government would be defeated. These efforts failed on this occasion, and the Prime Minister reasserted that there was no plan for reversal, nor to give MPs a vote on the matter.

These rebel Conservative MPs have plans to force the government’s hand in other ways, and it remains to be seen whether they’ll make much headway. Nonetheless, as this national debate collides with the G7 summit today and preparations for COP26 – censure might come from other ‘world leaders’ and global organisations, too.

Whatever happens, these issues will make for lively debate at next Wednesday’s IRDR Humanitarian Summit. One of our timely panels is on the different risks and challenges facing the humanitarian sector and humanitarian studies – political and financial, as well as from conflict and COVID-19. Join us and contribute to discussions. Sign up here: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/risk-disaster-reduction/events/2021/jun/irdr-humanitarian-summit-2021-interrogating-changing-risks


Jessica Field is a Lecturer in Humanitarian Studies at the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction.

 

Mutual Aid: Community Power During a Pandemic

Joshua Anthony24 May 2021


In times of crisis, it is common to see the union of communities overcome the unique challenges that each disaster brings. Following the 2015 earthquake in Kathmandu, neighbours and relatives were rescued from building debris by locals immediately on the scene, while others set up temporary shelters for those in need. Independent tech-wizards during the 2010 wildfires in Russian built an online ‘help-map’ which pin-pointed danger zones and platformed aid-requests and -offers during the event. Most notably reported by the media, the Occupy Sandy group, which emerged in response to 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, could boast an impressive twenty thousand meals a day delivered to those in need.

Now, as the world collectively lives out a disaster, through the course of which its citizens have been told to socially distance and clinically vulnerable individuals advised to stay indoors at all costs—even for shopping and pharmacy visits—it is now that the power of and need for community action has become increasingly evident.

Figure 1. “In this together.” Marked under CC0 1.0. (Creative commons licence)

23rd March, 2020, British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, announced the start of England’s first nationwide lockdown. By the next day, NHS England had launched their “rallying the troops” campaign, urging the English people to help their neighbours and families who were shielding with medication pick-ups, hospital visits and over-the-phone support. Such a call-out from the national healthcare service suggests it is ordinary people who are acknowledged to hold the power to tackle these wide and unique circumstances. Short of a Braveheart-esque ignition of national pride, one can commend the efforts of NHS to recognise and utilise the dormant community resources—but Community had already gotten there.

As early as the 12th March—before Matt Hancock’s address to parliament on the 16th March advising people to reduce “unnecessary” social contact—locally-led, self-described “Mutual Aid” support groups had begun to form across London. They offered a wide range of assistance for everyday needs such as grocery shopping, medication pick-up, and providing information and advice, and emotional support; and more bespoke aid was provided, including: technological repairs, online ordering, facemask distribution and flower deliveries—though, this list is surely not exhaustive.

By the sheer speed and timely nature of this community action, one is left wondering whether inadequacies within the institutional emergency response frameworks are what spurs communities on to take the direct action seen here.

Previous research shows that the emergence of new crisis response groups, the “emergent group” is the result of fresh challenges for which adequate facility to resolve them is not present or immediately available within existing institutions. In many disasters, this is a common feature that occurs at the early stages of the disaster cycle [1]. Uniquely, it appears as though some mutual aid groups, which in line with the emergent group research, formed at the beginning of the pandemic in March, 2020, have either maintained support or reactivated as the situation progressed and further lockdowns were imposed. This sustained activity is indicative of an environment whereby the needs of society have been continually supplemented throughout the crises by the work of grassroots groups.

To facilitate their operations, mutual aid volunteers were making posters, leafleting, researching information, translating, coordinating other volunteers, managing community finance pools and running phone-in services. And though there was some seeming structure of administration and coordination, an important principle that underpins much of these groups’ organisation was that they were non-hierarchical, independent and self-organising. More generally:

Mutual Aid as a mode of organisation refers to a horizontally structured relationship between voluntary participants from which help or aid are available mutually and free-of-charge between parties, at each’s own discretion, in the face of adversity—most commonly a shared one— unsanctioned by an overriding authority.” [2]

Figure 2. Mutual Aid finds it roots in Peter Kropotkin’s “Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution”, exploring concepts of mutually beneficial cooperation within societies. The text is widely cited within anarchist literature. “Mutual Aid Mural” by eshutt is licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0

Groups existed at the Borough scale down through the town, ward and even residential building level, with each scale of locality maintaining independence through to the volunteers themselves (see Figure 3 for a schematic diagram). Each group was unique: some welcoming new members immediately, while others were more guarded and required postcodes and reasons for joining; some had clearer organisational structures with dedicated officers and coordinators; group admins contacted for questionnaires surveys varied in their willingness to allow researchers access to the groups, some feeling a duty of care towards their group members. Responses have helped shed some light on common themes of organisation and activity between groups [2], but it is their anarchistic and amorphous nature, which makes them so hard to track and study, that could be their key strength in fighting an emerging and changing situation such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Figure 3. Chain of Mutual Aid group formation displaying spontaneous formation at all geographical levels, Borough, Ward and Neighbourhood, with horizontal autonomy at each group level down to individual volunteers [2].

Despite a rich history of such emergent groups surfacing during disasters worldwide, no provisions in recent British pandemic-influenza response plans were made to include such groups. Though unfortunate, this is not surprising when observing the UK emergency response framework, which operates largely under a command and control structure [3], and is incongruent with the non-hierarchical and seemingly counter-establishment structure of mutual aid groups [2]. This is evident in the tensions that have arisen when councils have interfered and ‘micro-managed’ Mutual aid efforts [4].

All emergency response is local in effect, even when filtered through a centralised system: it is those on the ground that sort through the rubble, build the shelters and cook the food, not the ministers and policy makers. Mutual aid groups are no different, except that they have bypassed the centralised aspect of the emergency response chain and affected direct action. Looking at the impact they have had, it would be unwise to suggest that a rational integration of mutual aid groups and institutional emergency response would involve the placing of such groups within a hierarchical chain; rather, those in positions of power should acknowledge the legitimacy of their efforts and empower them through outreach and communication.

Fortunately, reaching out has been made possible through social media platforms such as Facebook and Whatsapp, which have given Mutual Aid groups operational power by allowing both those in need and able to help to communicate and coordinate online. Where the emergence of citizen groups typically relies on prior social networks [5], online networking has facilitated the quick establishment of community ties while also conforming to social distancing guidelines. Additionally, for interested researchers, a surprising benefit of online group presence is that group information and membership numbers were made accessible (in most circumstances), allowing for the gathering and analyses of emergent group data that could otherwise be too transient or chaotic under regular disaster conditions.

Analysis of borough-level mutual aid Facebook groups reveal that membership numbers are somewhat correlated positively with the percentage of those aged 25-34 years of age, and negatively with borough crime rates and the percentage of those classified by Government statistics as BAME (black and minority ethnic) [2]. However; explanations for these results can only be speculative. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations has estimated that the predominant ages of volunteers generally tends to fall within the bracket of 65-74 years of age, while those least likely to volunteer were in the 25-34 bracket; however, the risks posed to the older populations from COVID-19 is likely to have turned this balance on its head. Similarly, research has suggested that ‘BAME’ community members could be at a greater risk to COVID-19 [6], which, alongside key factors such as involvement in key worker jobs and family caring responsibilities, could limit availability for participating in mutual aid group activity.

Other independent Borough socioeconomic factors such as the index for multiple deprivation, household earnings, and internet usage did not produce significant correlations, but the analytical power of the modelling approach is limited by sample size and the informal nature of Mutual Aid groups—especially within a crisis—that makes the navigation of data difficult [2].

Though results are inconclusive and liable to error, current research efforts show that there is opportunity to better understand the phenomena of emergent mutual aid groups, which could enhance the effectiveness of their intentions in future times of turmoil. To these eyes, there are two alternate visions tugging against each other: one, where community power is harnessed and nurtured by emergency planners and institutions; and two, where institutional responses are effective enough to preclude the necessity for citizen action.

One thing this pandemic demonstrates for certain is that the subjects of disaster are not passive recipients of aid and can and have participated in affecting vital response. Time and time again we are reminded that chaos is not an inevitability of hardship, and that, when duty calls, communities have summoned the power that lies dormant beneath their lines in order to tackle catastrophe together.

References

[1] Twigg, J., & Mosel, I. (2017). Emergent groups and spontaneous volunteers in urban disaster response. Environment and Urbanization, 29(2), 443–458. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956247817721413

[2] Anthony, J. (2020). Modelling the Emergence of Mutual Aid Groups in London (UK) during the 2020 Covid-19 Pandemic.

[3] Alexander, D. E. (2016). How to Write an Emergency Plan (1st ed.). Edinburgh and London: Dunedin Academic Press

[4] Tiratelli, L. & Kaye, S. (2020). Communities vs. Coronavirus. The Rise of Mutual Aid. New Local Government Network

[5] Quarantelli, E. L. (1984). Emergent Citizen Groups in Disaster Preparedness and Recovery Activities. Final Project Report #33, University of Delaware Disaster Research Center. http://udspace.udel.edu/handle/19716/1206

[6] Race Disparity Unit, Cabinet Office (2020).Quarterly report on progress to address COVID-19 health inequalities


Joshua Anthony is Editor of the IRDR Blog and a PhD student within the institute.

Joshua.anthony.19@ucl.ac.uk

The Value of Life and Disaster Risk Reduction

Myra Farooqi14 May 2021

Humanity proves time and again that one life is not always equal to another, ultimately devaluing us all.

 

1 – 1 = -2. Basic arithmetic would explain why this answer is incorrect, but the valuation of life is far from basic.

There have been many attempts at discovering the value of life, ranging from the economical for use in labor practices to the metaphysical to the biomedical to the religious. On an individual level, humans search for the answer as well — consciously or not.

Every day, we make choices that place value on the lives of ourselves and others, and this is at the core of every aspect of disaster risk reduction (DRR). Who we define as vulnerable, who we choose to abandon, and what we choose to protect are all questions of value, and that value has consequences as illustrated by the fact that “children from the poorest households die at twice the rate of their better-off peers” (UNICEF).

In her recent book, The Sum of Us, author and economist Heather McGhee argues that we have been taught that our value stems from the devaluation of others, and this belief “distorts our politics, drains our economy, and erodes everything…from our schools to our air to our infrastructure” (p.xxiii). McGhee specifically discusses the American experience, but this valuation process is applicable to almost every interaction in power dynamics.

For example, why do we use drone warfare? It allows us to protect our own people while fighting others. Why do we restrict access to elections? It allows us to protect our power from waning. Why do we engage in factory farming? It allows us to feed ourselves more easily.

These are simplifications of complex issues, but they do reflect our values in practice. Time after time, conflict after conflict, day after day, we (those with power) decide whose life is more important, and act accordingly. Unless we work to combat this inequality, incorporating DRR principles may never reduce our disasters of choice. At the end of the day, the unequal valuation of life will leave us all at a loss.

1 – 1 will equal -2.

 

Myra Farooqi is an MSc student at the IRDR, and can be contacted at myra.farooqi.20@ucl.ac.uk 

Stop The Disaster! IRDR Spring Academy 2021

Joshua Anthony28 April 2021

This article is a summation of points and questions raised by members of the Institute for Disaster Risk Reduction at the 2021 Spring Academy.

The mid-afternoon sunshine passes through my east-facing window and strikes my laptop screen, where the faces of the Institute for Disaster for Risk Reduction shine back at me. It is not mid-afternoon for all: for some, they gather for the annual Spring Academy as the same sun straddles a different horizon. Due to coronavirus restrictions, we gather online, tuning in from around the globe, demonstrating the department’s widespread influence. Through activities organised by both the PhD students and research staff, we are here to engage with the diverse range of expertise in our department.

What can floods tell us about covid-19? Can the unsettling rise of water on the doorsteps of schools and hospitals inform the decisions we make during a pandemic? Using the UNDRR game, Stop the Disaster, as an illustrative tool, Qiushuang Shi and Rob Davis lead us through the process of emergency planning and management to answer these questions.

While some of us struggle to allocate funding for flood defences and deliberate over where to build the hospital in our virtual disaster village, one cannot help noticing the people that populate the little green boxes of grass next to the blue pixels of seawater. How would they respond to an early warning system, and would it work if it were a virus and not flood water knocking at their door?

A snapshot of the UNDRR game Stop the Disaster.

Once the unfortunate villagers are subject to the 8-bit flood water, Rob and Qiushuang move us on to discuss what we have learnt. There is a consensus between us that communication is vital to affect successful disaster risk reduction—across all hazards. No early warning system or public health advice it worth it if the information is not widespread and consistent and the risks properly conveyed; or if there are significant economic, cultural, political or societal conditions—such as gender structures—that inhibit this process or adherence to it. Prior knowledge and experience of a hazard within a society (or lack thereof) is likely to alter the perception of, trust, and response to the message, not to mention the political will to support and fund emergency resources and planning initiatives, which could be assisted by media initiatives.

The visceral threat of quick onset hazards may put the screws on emergency fund release at showtime, but what of slower hazards for which there is ample time to plan? For some in the world, climate change is a distant reality, while for others it is an immediate threat. Uncertainty plays a key role in the way we respond to hazards—in scientific calculations (such as for early warning systems) or in individual perceptions and acceptance of risk.

We can see that, though the propagation and imagery of flood water and coronavirus—or any hazard, for that matter—may differ, there is an unavoidable factor underlying the multitude of research topics across the Institute of Risk and Disaster Reduction’s members: vulnerability. Indeed, the most contrarian of us posit that one could approach disaster risk reduction entirely from a vulnerability perspective. This notion hangs in the balance. We move on to the next stage of the session: multi- and cascading-hazard scenarios

There are places unfortunate enough to be subject to multi-hazard events. Even now, as we live through COVID-19, one member notes, the HIV and AIDs epidemic that gained notoriety in the 1980s still affects millions of people. As we have seen over the past year, floods, forest fires, earthquakes, disease outbreaks—you-name-it—do not rest for each other, and all the while the climate still changes. Mitigation, preparedness and response procedure efforts must consider multi-hazard scenarios, and not be subject to a “flavour-of-the-month” approach to disaster risk reduction. Critical infrastructure may be pliable up to a point and break beyond that threshold. Existing and dormant vulnerabilities may be triggered under cascading disaster scenarios—otherwise interpreted as cascading vulnerabilities—as seen in the infamous triple-front attack on Tohoku in 2011, which manifested in a combination of an earthquake, a tsunami and a nuclear meltdown. The complexities of multi- and cascading-hazard scenarios are vast; one must look for interconnected and parallel vulnerabilities that transect all hazards in order to tackle the challenges. The importance of transdisciplinary research and collaboration of individual expertise are highlighted further by these situations.

Even when two hazards do not strike in unison, emergency planners must consider the impacts of a prior hazard on material and human resources for the next one. Under a changing climate, goalposts shift; resource allocation and size may change, funding options may have to be reconsidered. An example of a way to make use of existing resources in a multi-hazard scenario is suggested in adapting training facilities for one type of hazard to accommodate multiple. As we consider the way planning and management needs are altered in response to multi-hazard and cascading scenarios, one asks a question that should follow all disasters: has the learning come through? In other words, are we more or less resilient now we have experienced the crisis? This is a question one can imagine asking as we optimistically search for a light at the end of the tunnel after over a year of COVID. The darkness associated with the proverbial tunnel is often oversimplified to a period of turmoil before the promise of the light, but one overlooks its poignancy in portraying the struggle that one experiences while operating within the shadow of uncertainty.

As we close the session, the faces of IRDR, hailing from a wide array of different disciplines, stare back expectedly at me for a summary of the session proceedings. Well, here they are. However, it’s made evident—as I scrabble to collate my mish-mash of notes—that one voice solely is not enough to tackle the challenges we attempt to understand here at the IRDR.

Happy (mostly) Faces of IRDR

WHO Classification for Emergency Medical Teams: A Step in the Wrong Direction?

Navonel Glick20 April 2021

National/international medical professionals working together at a clinic in Ormoc, Philippines – a model that is no longer allowed by the current WHO EMT guidelines. Photo Credit: Boaz Arad/IsraAID (2013)

In 2013, Typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines and galvanised the international community. Organisations, like the American Red Cross, sent full-scale field hospitals. Others, like IsraAID, despatched medical personnel and supplies, providing surge capacity to local clinics.

Integrating external resources into existing healthcare systems is an effective strategy, with potential long-term benefits. Yet, while such activities may be a model for integrating disaster risk reduction into response, World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines do not permit them.

The WHO classification system was created to counter the variation “in capacities, competencies and adherence to professional ethics” amongst Emergency Medical Teams (EMTs). Each of the three approved EMT types must operate independently and be self-sufficient for 2–4 weeks. This emphasis on independence avoids ‘burdening’ affected populations, but it leaves no room for interventions to support national/local healthcare institutions.

In fact, the WHO’s 91-page document outlining EMT minimum standards contains no reference to existing healthcare systems, let alone strategies for cooperation. This omission perpetuates the myth that ‘helpless’ disaster-affected people need international organisations to ‘save them’, instead of recognising that disaster response is often locally driven. Further, EMTs acting alone face avoidable linguistic, cultural, and logistic obstacles that hamper the quality of care provided. Setting up alternative healthcare locations, pathways, and practices may also sow confusion, thus increasing long-term vulnerability by undermining trust in the healthcare system.

Efforts to standardise EMTs and rout out malpractice and disaster tourism are welcome. But the WHO guidelines sadly disregard successful integrated models, like IsraAID’s, instead promoting foreign intervention over local capacity and prevention. If only the WHO abided by their own Health Emergency and Disaster Risk Management framework.

Mountains Matter

Myles Harris1 December 2020

Mountains are often described as harsh, desolate environments that few people choose to venture to. Yet since 2003, 11th December is the United Nations International Mountain Day. This raised the question, why do mountains warrant a day of recognition? Perhaps it is because 27% of the Earth’s land surface is mountainous, which is home to approximately 1.1 billion people and that more than half of the fresh water humankind is dependent on is from a mountain source [1]. With this in mind, it is clear mountains are integral to our life on Earth, but is there much life in the mountains?

Mountain range sunsetThe remoteness of mountain regions enable ecosystems to develop in isolation and the variety of micro-environments on each mountain (altitude, topography and weather) enrich the life that thrives there [2]. Despite low levels of oxygen, challenging terrain and exposure to extreme weather, the biodiversity of mountains includes mammals, birds, insects, not to mention unique plants, vegetation and crops, all of which is in balance with human life at ground level [3]. International Mountain Day is about celebrating the importance of mountains and this year the spotlight is on mountain biodiversity. However, International Mountain Day 2020 is also about creating awareness of how mountain biodiversity requires protection.

The impact of climate change and unsustainable living reaches even the remotest mountain environments and is causing significant damage to their ecosystems [4]. Physically, glaciers are melting and landslides are more common, which is contributing to the loss of biodiversity. The deterioration of biodiversity in the mountains has negative consequences for the life that has existed there for millennia and the local communities who depend on it. As a result, the United Nations sustainable development goal 15 (target 1) concentrates on the sustainable management and conservation of mountain biodiversity [5]. International strategy and cooperation is a positive step forward, but more research is needed to understand and inform disaster risk reduction for the protection of mountain biodiversity. A recent example is COVID19 – lockdowns were predicted to have positive effects on the climate; however, greenhouse gases have continued to rise [6] which accelerates biodiversity damage in the mountains.

Research of mountain-related phenomena can involve going into mountain environments and visiting communities who live there. Each mountain environment is unique, therefore a localised-approach to research reduces the risk of local communities and ecosystems being overlooked [7]. However, mountain conditions are dynamic and unpredictable. Providing healthcare to researchers and local communities in these circumstances is extremely challenging. Figure 1 is photo of a medical tent on an expedition in a remote region of the Nepalese Himalayas, with the Doctor (right) and Nurse (left) who provided healthcare to a team of 15 (including themselves). With limited resources and environmental challenges, healthcare providers require the capability of acute emergency interventions (if needed) and prolonged field care (healthcare).

A doctor and nurse standing on a mountain, with a medic-tent in the background.

Figure 1.

Prolonged field care is a newly recognised area of clinical practice and can be described as the provision of healthcare beyond expected duration and with limited resources to mitigate the risk of patient morbidity and mortality [8]. Military healthcare systems have been developing this concept during the past few years due to the paradigm shift in military deployment and healthcare provision [9]. However, civilian services are beginning to develop this area of practice too. Remote Area Risk International ® have developed a civilian prolonged field care course, which is relevant to expedition, wilderness and mountain medicine [10]. Training and research of prolonged field care contributes to disaster risk reduction in mountainous environments,which promotes the health of researchers and local communities.

It is clear that although mountains appear to be everlasting, the impact of climate change and unsustainable living is damaging. However, the protection of all mountains and their biodiversity, informed by valid and reliable research, will enhance their resilience and contribute to sustainable development for all. #MountainsMatter 

References

[1] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. (2019) Mountains matter. [online]. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Available at: http://www.fao.org/3/ca6779en/ca6779en.pdf [Accessed 10 November 2020].

[2] United Nations. (2020) International mountain day 11 December. [online]. New York: United Nations. Available at: https://www.un.org/en/observances/mountain-day [Accessed 10 November 2020].

[3] Mountain Partnership. (2015) Mountain biodiversity. [online]. London: Mountain Partnership. Available at: http://www.fao.org/mountain-partnership/our-work/focusareas/biodiversity/en/ [Accessed 10 November 2020].

[4] World Meteorological Organization. (2019) Avoiding the impending crisis in mountain weather, climate, snow, ice and water: pathways to a sustainable global future. [online]. Geneva: World Meteorological Organization. Available at: http://www.fao.org/mountain-partnership/publications/publication-detail/en/c/1253730/ [Accessed 11 November 2020].

[5] United Nations. (2015) Protect, restore and remote sustainable se of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reserve land degradation and halt biodiversity loss: mountains. [online]. New York: United Nations. Available at: https://sdgs.un.org/topics/mountains. [Accessed 11 November 2020].

[6] World Meteorological Organization. (2020) United in science 2020: a multi-organization high-level compilation of the latest climate science information. [online]. Geneva: World Meteorological Organization. Available at: https://public.wmo.int/en/resources/united_in_science [Accessed 11 November 2020].

[7] Mountain Research Initiative. (2018) Leaving no one in mountains behind: localising the SDGs for resilience of mountain people and ecosystems. [online]. Bern: Mountain Research Initiative. Available at: https://www.mountainresearchinitiative.org/images/MRI_Publications/Issue_Brief_Leaving_No_One_in_Mountains_Behind.pdf [Accessed 11 November 2020].

[8] Keenan, S. (2015) Deconstructing the definition of prolonged field care, Journal of Special Operations Medicine, 15 (4), p. 125.

[9] Smith, M. and Withnall, R. (2017) Developing prolonged field care for contingency operations, Trauma, 20 (2), pp. 108-112.

[10] Remote Area Risk International. (2020) Prolonged field care – welcome to the home of civilian PFC in the UK. [online]. Wirral: Remote Area Risk International. Available at: https://www.r2rinternational.com/prolongedfieldcareuk [Accessed 12 November 2020].