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Beirut Explosion: What History Tells Us About Accountability

Jessica Field6 August 2020

The port explosion in Beirut on Tuesday is shocking for both the scale of the disaster and the level of mismanagement that led to the catastrophe. At least 137 people are so far known to have died, more than 5,000 are injured and countless more homes and businesses have been completely destroyed. For the people of Beirut, this disaster has come at a time of deep economic crisis as well as the coronavirus pandemic.

Chemically, the port explosion was caused by the detonation of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate which had been unsafely stored at a warehouse in the port for 6 years. The real cause, however, was chronic mismanagement and negligence. News reports call the Port of Beirut ‘one of the most corrupt and lucrative institutions in Lebanon’. Repeated warnings about the potential consequences of unsafe storage went unheeded.

Immediate attention in Lebanon is necessarily focused on humanitarian needs. Hospitals have been overwhelmed with patients and the Lebanese Red Cross has set up a number of first aid stations in order to triage the wounded. In the longer term, questions of responsibility, accountability and compensation will accompany moves towards recovery and rehabilitation. What might this look like for the people of Beirut?

Looking back at similar disasters in history, holding governments accountable for mismanagement and negligence has proven patchy – even when compensation has been forthcoming.

Comparisons have already been drawn between this crisis and the 1947 industrial disaster in the Port of Texas City in the United States, where a fire detonated ammonium nitrate cargo on a French-registered ship and set off multiple other fires and explosions, killing over 500 people. In the aftermath, the District Court in Texas ruled federal government negligence was evident in manufacturing, handling and export procedures. While this decision was overturned and the US Government did not take full governance responsibility, Congress passed an Act in 1955 that assumed ‘compassionate responsibility’ and provided the means for compensation to victims totalling around $17million USD. Perhaps a more relevant comparison, though, would be an earlier explosion in India.

On 14 April 1944 a British Fort ship containing cotton and ammunitions caught fire in the Victoria Dock of Bombay (now Mumbai) causing two explosions, fires and a water surge which killed 731 people. Similar to Beirut, onlookers initially feared the explosions were caused by enemy shelling, as the country was embroiled in World War II.1 Rescue and relief operations concentrated on putting out fires, pulling people (alive and dead) out of debris and aiding the injured and homeless.

Photo: Smoke following the explosions at the Bombay Docks, India, 14 April 1944

The explosions in Victoria Dock were caused by a series of intersecting errors and negligence: poor management of materials, absent watchmen, multiple failures to raise the alarm, and insufficient response capacity. The then-Viceroy of India Lord Wavell noted that ‘there is no doubt that safety precautions were broken for war reasons, and that explosives ought not to have been unloaded where they were’.2 In the aftermath, urgent questions emerged over accountability and compensation to those affected, but responsibility from relevant authorities was not forthcoming.

In these final years of British rule over India (which ended in 1947 with Indian independence), the two countries were feeling the strain of war. In the East, Bengal was reeling from a catastrophic famine caused by Churchill’s diversion of resources away from the region to maintain the war effort. Challenges across India to British authority and legitimacy had been growing for some time—often centring on the Raj’s inability to feed and protect the nation.3 It is against this backdrop that the Indian government went on reputation control and damage limitation around the Bombay port disaster, forcing a media blackout in the days afterwards and whitewashing a “Commission of Inquiry” months later.4 Responding to this censorship, the Bombay Sentinel presented a blank column on its front page stating that the space should have been occupied by news of yesterday’s ‘disastrous explosions’ in the docks. As Yasmin Khan documents in her book The Raj at War, the newspaper was suspended for this subversion.5

The Commission’s first report in September 1944 was not without its flaws but it did record that ‘a state of lamentable disorganisation and neglect’ contributed to the scale of the port explosion.6 However, the Ministry of War and Transport was reportedly furious at this evaluation and a second committee was established to revise the findings, drawing global condemnation.7 Compensation was paid to many of those affected, but the government avoided taking ultimate responsibility for the tragedy.

Looking at Beirut nearly eight decades later, mismanagement in the context of economic crisis and conflict suggests there are more echoes of the Bombay port disaster than that of Texas. Lebanon’s weak government and general corruption undoubtedly contributed to negligence around the storage and handling of these highly explosive materials in Beirut. We’ve yet to understand how neighbouring conflicts may have affected decision-making around what to do with this confiscated material, though lessons from Bombay suggest this may be critical. While Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hassan Diab has promised a full investigation, the country’s historically unaccountable government is unlikely to opt for an independent and transparent review.

What is certain is that this human-made disaster will only serve to exacerbate Lebanon’s deep economic and food crisis. And it may prove to be the breaking point for a country where many are calling for revolution.

Notes

  1. Yasmin Khan, The Raj at War: A People’s History of the Second World War, Vintage (2015), p.287.
  2. Lord Wavell, The Viceroy’s Journal, edited by Penderel Moon, Oxford University Press (1973), p.68
  3. Benjamin Robert Siegal, Hungry Nation: Food, famine and the making of modern India, Cambridge University Press (2018).
  4. Khan, p.288.
  5. Khan, p.288.
  6. Excerpt fromThe Hindustan Times, 12 September 1944. Round-Up Bi-weekly, Vol. II-44, no. 21. September 12 1944. P. 51. National Archives of India, Home Political/I/1944/NA/F-51-8/KW/Part-1.
  7. Wavell, p.88; Khan, p.288.

 

Multiple faults across strike versus isolated faults, is there a difference in stress loading?

Claudia Sgambato30 July 2020

A new study by IRDR PhD student Claudia Sgambato, Dr Joanna Faure Walker, Dr Zoe Mildon and Prof Gerald Roberts, has identified a novel aspect of fault interaction that links the stress loading to the geometry of the fault system, which has important implications for fault-based earthquake hazard modelling.

By analysing the earthquake sequence of the Southern Apennines (Italy) in the last 600 years, the study presents a comparison of the stress loading history of “isolated” faults and multiple faults across strike, and shows that the stress evolution is not the same for all faults, but is influenced by the way faults are arranged in the system.

In the Southern Apennines the fault system geometry is relatively simple, with most of the structures aligned along strike. This area was the location of some of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded in Italy, such as the Mw 7.1 1857 event on the Val di Diano and Val d’Agri faults, that caused ~10,000 deaths and the more recent Mw 6.8 1980 earthquake on the Irpinia fault, that caused 3,000 deaths. For these reasons, this area provides an ideal place to investigate the role of fault geometry and fault interaction in the historical earthquake sequence.

Detail of the Vallo di Diano fault scarp (photo by Claudia Sgambato).

Fault interaction during earthquakes is usually calculated through Coulomb stress transfer. Using data from historical earthquakes, the authors have calculated the coseismic stress changes on the active faults. Deformation rates measured in the field have been used to derive the annual rate of stress loading. The combined coseismic and interseismic stress components allow calculation of the stress present on the fault prior to an earthquake, or pre-stress.

The analysis of pre-stress on all the faults before each historical earthquake has shown that 94% of the earthquakes occurred on faults that were positively stressed, and that where earthquakes occurred on an isolated fault, this had the highest pre-stress of all the faults at the time of the event. This is due to the fact that when a fault is isolated, the build-up of stress is not influenced by earthquakes occurring on other faults across strike, and the stress is distributed homogeneously across their surface, compared to faults that are across strike.

Coseismic rupture of the Mw 6.8 1980 earthquake (Irpinia fault) (photo taken during fieldwork in 2019 by Claudia Sgambato).

This suggests that isolated faults have fewer areas of negative stress, which can promote the propagation of the rupture, generating earthquakes with similar magnitude. An example of this can be seen for the Irpinia fault, with the earthquakes in 1694 and 1980, which share similar magnitude and damage distribution, and a similar value of pre-stress.

This means that for studies of seismic hazard it is important to consider the pre-stress on the faults in order to understand which fault is likely to rupture, and to take into account that the fault system geometry influences the way the stress is accumulated on faults.

 

The article is open access and available here: Sgambato et al. (2020)

Study of Icelandic active faults shows fault bends must be considered throughout fault development and maturity

Joanna P Faure Walker9 July 2020

Iezzi, Roberts & Faure Walker (2020) Throw-rate variations within linkage zones during the growth of normal faults: Case studies from the Western Volcanic Zone, Iceland, J. Struct. Geol., 133, 103977

Fault throw-rates and slip-rates are a fundamental input into fault-based seismic hazard assessments (SHA) i.e. how likely are earthquakes to occur….

Francesco Iezzi, Gerald Roberts and Joanna Faure Walker studied active faults in the Western Volcanic Zone, Iceland, to determine whether changes in fault throw-rates across fault bends, as identified in previous works in central Italy, are present in other tectonic settings.

This study shows that fault throw-rate increases within fault bends in response to non-planar fault geometry are present at a range of stages of maturity of the bend and extends examples of this phenomenon to mid-ocean ridge settings. This suggests that extrapolating fault slip-rates and slip during past earthquakes from individual sites along a fault must consider the location of data collection in relation to the geometry of the fault.

Why is this so important? Because if we use individual measurements of how fast a fault is moving, we need to understand whether this measurement is representative of the fault as a whole or whether it is underestimating or overestimating the slip. If we do not do this, we will overestimate or underestimate earthquake hazard.

The challenges that Covid-19 has brought to the newly elected women leaders in Nepal

Punam K Yadav22 June 2020

Co-authors: Pallavi Payal, Independent Researcher, Nepal and Punam Yadav, IRDR Centre for Gender and Disaster, UCL

Amidst this global pandemic and the initial chaos, there is an increasing attention to examine the different impacts of Covid-19, including the gendered impacts. On June 5th, 2020, the IRDR Centre for Gender and Disaster co-hosted a webinar with Pallavi Payal, an independent researcher from Nepal, which aimed to explore the lived experiences of women political leaders in Nepal in the time of Covid-19. It is becoming more evident that countries with women in leadership are doing much better, compared to those with men as heads of the state, especially in terms of managing the global pandemic and minimising the risks to people. The aim here is not to compare Nepal with New Zealand or Finland but to explore the contributions of women leaders at the local level during this pandemic.

Nepal has progressed significantly in recent years in terms of increasing women’s participation in politics. Currently numbers of women at the local government have been instrumental in managing the current crisis, despite many constraints, from quarantine management to the management of migrant returnees from India and abroad. Province 2 in particular is one of the hardest hits due to its open border with India, which has added additional challenges and responsibilities to the local and the provincial governments.

In situations like this, leaders and service providers are often labelled as ‘heroes’, if they are managing well or demonised, if they aren’t. However, what gets missed in this binary between the good and the bad leadership is the challenges that these political leaders face, both at home and at work in the times of crisis, such as Covid-19. Therefore, we wanted to have this conversation with women leaders from the local and the provincial governments. Therefore, we invited seven speakers to share their experiences. However, one could not join due to internet issues in her rural municipality. Out of the six speakers, who included Deputy Mayors and Provincial Assembly members, five of them were women and one was a male Provincial Assembly member. The aim of inviting a male politician was to understand how women’s challenges were perceived by their male colleagues as well as to help build support for them. The number of views on Facebook has reached over 2.9K, which suggests a lot of interest on the topic.

Due to the constitutional provision of a mandatory quota for women in Nepal, their participation in politics has increased to 41% in the local government. The majority of them, however, had no previous training in politics. Therefore, it has been a steep learning curve for many of them. It was only a little more than two years since their time in the office, when they were still trying to understand their roles and responsibilities, the country was struck by the current pandemic.

Nepal went into lockdown on the 24th of March 2020 with immediate effect, which created a lot of chaos and fear among people. Its capital city, Kathmandu, has a huge migrant population. As many of them thought that rural areas are safer than staying in the city, due to the lack of knowledge when the pandemic started, they made their journey back home, mostly on foot. Stories of people, including pregnant women and children, making their journey on foot for hundreds of miles were heart-breaking. Amidst this, migrant workers from various parts of the world, including India were coming home. Province 2 was also receiving a large number of returnees. The lack of planning from the government across all levels meant chaos for the local leaders without the means to support. Therefore, they started doing what they could in their own capacity. Although the local leaders are dealing with a number of challenges, women representatives had to face additional challenges due to their gender roles, some of which we aim to outline in this blog.

Dual Responsibilities

Women changed subject position from their previous roles to now as leaders. However, people’s perception about their gender roles has not changed. Women leaders at the webinar said that having to manage both home and work has been a challenge. They said, since the local government is the closest authority to the people, it is bound to have more responsibilities and challenges. Women leaders have suffered the burden of dual responsibilities. Their responsibilities at home have increased because of everyone staying at home, which meant more cooking, cleaning and caretaking. Likewise, workload has increased at work due to the pandemic. Ms Salma Khatoon, the Deputy Mayor of Pokhariya Municipality, shared her fear of contracting the virus and giving it to her family due to the nature of her work. She said she has a young child. However, she has been going out to monitor the quarantine facilities. All the migrant returnees and those who have tested positive are put into government-run quarantine facilities that have been poorly managed and overcrowded. Going to these places without any PPE means high risk of contracting the virus. She said she is scared of contracting the virus from the quarantine facilities and brining it home. Another speaker, Ms. Sadhana Jha, the Deputy Mayor of Rajbiraj Municipality also shared similar experiences.

Provincial Assembly member, Manish Suman said that while the male representatives have challenges too, one cannot ignore that women have additional challenges due to their responsibilities at home. They don’t get concession in their household responsibilities even though they have the same responsibilities as male representatives.

Work of Judicial Committee affected

One of the main responsibilities of the deputy mayor is leading the Judicial Committee, which involves dealing with social issues in their constituencies. However, the Judicial Committee has been badly affected by Covid-19. Evidence suggests increase in domestic violence. However, the Deputy mayor can’t meet the victims. They are still trying to support people. Salma Khatoon said she has been handling cases over the phone. Sometimes she has to meet in person. Even though she advises people to come in a small group, sometimes 20 people turn up, which increases the risks.

In addition to similar challenges faced by local representatives, Sadhana Jha added that not everything is possible via phone or internet because access to internet is difficult in rural areas. The increased responsibilities, due to this global pandemic, have exposed the local representatives to a higher risk. Provincial Assembly member, Manju Yadav, said that people in the villages are still not aware about physical distancing or even Covid-19. Manish Suman added that the idea of physical distancing or even washing hands so regularly is usually taken negatively in the villages and there is a chance of offending people if you tell them to do so.

Men in quarantine, women suffer at home

The local representatives pointed out that there are more men in quarantine but there are also women with their breastfeeding babies. Women representatives have been very active in supporting these women. In a male dominated society like Nepal where men are the breadwinners and women are the caretakers, when men are quarantined, all responsibilities fall on women’s shoulders. Deputy Mayor of Gaur, Kiran Thakur, said women come with their concerns to the women representatives. Women who have their relatives stuck at the border request the women representatives to help. As women representatives, Thakur feels that she should listen to their concerns and help them. However, the lack of resources means a lot of stress for her. Despite the challenges, women representatives said they are doing what they can to support women and advocating with their colleagues, Provincial and Federal governments for more support for women.

Relief Distribution and Women’s need

The women leaders also pointed out that the relief packages are handled by the Mayors and the Ward Chairpersons, who are mostly men, but the needs of women are not considered. Therefore, women come to them asking for help. They also said that women representatives are not consulted or informed before making any decisions on relief distribution. Nonetheless, they have to support people in their constituencies. Salma Khatoon said long before the directives from the Federal government, she suggested that the local government should provide nutritious food packages to pregnant women. However, her municipality ignored her proposal. She said the culture of ignoring and excluding women representatives has continued but they are navigating their own ways to fight against the exclusion.

All the panellists said that one of the main challenges to manage the current crisis is the lack of data. They said they don’t know how many people have entered Nepal via open border, which makes it difficult to manage the spread of the virus.  The panellists also raised other challenges, such as the lack of enough financial support from the federal government and the lack of coordination between the governments. They also said NGOs working in the region should divert their funding to support the people impacted by Covid-19.

Although Covid-19 has brought a lot of challenges to the women leaders at the local level, they think that this pandemic has also been an opportunity to work closely with the people in their constituencies. They have had the opportunity to prove themselves through their work, which has helped build trust with the local people. They have also learned to use Zoom. They have access to the outside world through Zoom and the outside world also has to them.

This webinar was livestreamed via Facebook. Please click here.

What Could Delay the Activation of an Early Warning System?

Saqar ' M Al Zaabi15 June 2020

This blog has been jointly written by Saqar Alzaabi and Salma Alzadjali, PhD students at the IRDR, UCL.

The recipe for effectively responding to extreme weather emergencies is based on the triangle of forecasting, warning and evacuation. Kelman and Ahmed, in their recent article in the Conversation, have illustrated how these three were utilized to save millions of lives in Bangladesh’s response to cyclone Amphan. Despite the apparent rationality of such a thoughtful process, making decisions on reality does not necessarily follow along as activating emergency plans and warning the public of a possible threat might be constrained by a number of factors. While it is difficult to pinpoint a specific cause behind a delayed warning, this blog argues the implication of relying on the intensity of the hazard when establishing situational awareness of a possible emergency, and the embedded problem of excluding the vulnerability of the place in the warning system.

Tropical Depression over the South Coast of Oman, Copyright Oman Meteorology.

While being busy responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, Oman had also been affected by a tropical depression between May 29 and June 1, 2020, that formed over its southern coast. According to the Indian Met Department (IMD), the sustained surface wind speed did not exceed 25knots. Similar to many countries, Oman relies on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane classification scale that is purely based on wind intensity. The higher the wind speed, the higher the tropical system is classified. And, the higher the classification, the higher degree of response is triggered.

Despite the fact that it was forecasted in advance, the first bulletin was issued on May 27 by the national early warning centre, when, in fact, heavy rainfall had already taken place. The delay in initiating the warning process, i.e., communicating the risk to the public, had not only led to the underestimation of its impacts but also delayed the activation of the response and mobilization of resources.  The depression was not forecasted to intensify, based on its wind of course, into a tropical storm or a cyclone. Therefore, it was not anticipated to cause significant impacts, again based on the intensity of the wind, neither the strength of the rainfall nor the vulnerability of the place as these are not integrated into the warning system.

Flood in recent Dhofar depression

However, the stationary movement of the depression caused hefty downpours in different areas of the southern region. The highest accumulated rainfall according to the Ministry of Regional Municipalities and Water Resources was 1055 mm between May 27 and June 1, and the maximum daily rainfall was 552 mm on May 30, according to government sources. Recent cyclones that struck the same region such as Mekunu and Luban in 2018 brought a maximum daily rainfall of about 492 mm and 176.6 mm, respectively. Despite that, they triggered a national early warning response that was widely broadcasted in advance through several multimedia channels and in eight different languages.

The depression had caused wide-scale flooding. Four people died due to flash flooding and a building collapse. Several others were injured. Many houses and businesses were flooded. Main roads became inaccessible. Disruption of power and water lasted for several hours to a couple of days in some areas. Despite being a depression, significant damages as a consequence had occurred. The place, due to its physical built environment conditions, is already vulnerable to heavy rainfall. Poorly-constructed infrastructure and inefficient drainage systems are already existing and providing the right conditions for an emergency to take place. Classifying the emergency based on the intensity of the hazard instead of the vulnerability of the area did not only delay warnings but also result in a large demand for urgent emergency services.

Flood due to a poor urban drainage system, obtained from Muscat daily.

While it remains essential to understand the intensities of weather phenomena, the vulnerability of the place is the crucial element in understanding the possibility of an emergency taking place. Therefore, an early warning system should integrate the vulnerability of the place rather than solely relying on the hazard’s intensity, especially if it is only based on one element. The intensity of the wind is one piece of information, and it could, in many cases, provides a less accurate and partial projection of a possible scenario.  A GIS-based decision support system that integrates the vulnerability of the place, the possible hazards and exposure is one practical solution that could assist in establishing a better awareness and more accurate assessment of possible emergencies.

Governance ‘of’ and ‘by’ COVID-19: the Spotlight on Private and Non-State Actors

Saqar ' M Al Zaabi25 May 2020

Written by Eija Meriläinen, Postdoc at the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction (IRDR) and the Institute for Global Health (IGH)

In the response to COVID-19 pandemic, the doings and undoings of nation-states and public authorities have captured the spotlight, if Finnish and Anglophone media coverage is anything to go by. In this blog, I argue that fixing the attention on governments alone can obscure the extent to which private and non-state actors influence how disaster governance unfolds.

While SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus can be viewed as a hazard, according to UNISDR’s definition, the actual disruptive impacts can be referred to as a disaster. How a disaster is viewed is an important element in identifying what actually needs governance.

Various disaster researchers have strived to bust the myth of ‘natural disasters’, drawing attention to the social and political root causes of disasters. Related to the ‘unnaturalness of disasters’, it cannot be emphasised enough that the impacts are not equally faced and suffered. Quite the contrary, people who are in the status quo marginalised in society, are likely to face the heaviest toll from disasters. Those who are most vulnerable to disasters are also disproportionately likely to be those facing the dire effects of urbanization, economic globalization and global environmental change. As vulnerability does not exist in a social vacuum, it is a product of unequal social processes. Therefore, addressing it means addressing the socio-economic conditions underlying its existence.

Graffiti expressing unequal socio-economic conditions, Beirut 2016. Copyright Eija Meriläinen

When looking at the unequal impacts of disasters, we should not only be looking at the marginalized and vulnerable but also at those who are not deemed vulnerable. Facilitation is an important phenomenon that refers to how individuals and actors with power and resources can insulate themselves from hazards’ impacts, and even reap benefits from disasters. With respect to COVID-19, as one level of generalization, while it initially may have been the more affluent people travelling across the globe and catching the disease, as a social group they are unlikely to be the ones whose lives suffer most as a result of the pandemic. Within and across the countries, people with precarious livelihoods and poor living situations are the ones who are repeatedly exposed to the disease, without appropriate access to healthcare – whether we are talking about the homeless or the low-paid essential workers.

Disaster governance can be split between two strands: governance of exception and governance by exception. The first refers to how a hazard is mitigated against, prepared for, responded to and recovered from by various actors. This definition comes close to typical DRR activities though the focus on governance highlights the diffused nature of the undertaking. For instance, response to COVID-19 involves practices of quarantining and social distancing as well as developing a vaccination. Meanwhile, governance by exception refers to the ways in which exceptional circumstances are leveraged to drive political measures, that may do very little to address the impacts of the disaster on those affected, let alone the patterns of marginalization and facilitation. For instance, the emergency powers granted to Hungary’s Orban and Fidesz-led government with no end date in sight have been criticized for being a way to extend their power and crackdown on the opposition, rather than per se address COVID-19.

Antofagasta, 2015. Copyright Eija Meriläinen

Governments, national or local, continue to be central actors in both stands of disaster governance, having, for example, the power to declare a state of emergency. In the case of COVID-19, we have seen that while states have been hollowed out, they still have a tremendous power to restrict the rights of citizens. However, their resources and influence in relation to other actors have been on the decline in many contexts. Furthermore, while intergovernmental agencies, like the WHO, are central actors in facing transnational disasters such as the pandemic, the precarity of their existence has been recently exposed, as the president of the U.S. has halted the funding to the organization. This is worrying in a situation where, according to Society for International Development, only 20% the WHO’s budget is for its core mandate, while the remaining 80% is earmarked by donor countries for specific projects.

As a whole, non-state actors, such as businesses, NGOs and think-tanks, increasingly influence how disaster governance unfolds. They may directly assume the responsibilities previously associated with the role of the state, or shape the context as a whole, for instance, through deploying certain discourses. They could also act as suppliers to governments. We have seen this in COVID-19. For instance, the nationally widely publicized face mask escapade led to some reshuffling at the Finnish National Emergency Supply Agency. A major issue with this increasing power of private and non-state actors is that disaster governance efforts might become increasingly diffused and fragmented. Despite this fragmentation, some powerful actors can also gain disproportionate influence over disaster governance within and across national borders.

In the case of COVID-19, it would be important for the media and researchers to shine the spotlight not only on governmental actions but also in the ways in which private and non-state actors are entangled into the governance of and by disaster.

Why No Coronavirus Diplomacy?

Saqar ' M Al Zaabi7 May 2020

Written by Ilan Kelman

Hands together, Salamanca, Spain. Copyright Ilan Kelman

Could the global disaster of the Covid-19 pandemic bring warring parties together to improve diplomacy? Based on events so far, the wider conclusions from disaster diplomacy work conducted at IRDR are holding: No new and lasting peace is emerging from coronavirus.

This analysis provides two levels. First, the cooperation and offers of international aid are either part of already existing diplomatic initiatives or else are being conducted for political rather than humanitarian purposes. Second, typical diplomatic spats and violent conflicts are continuing, sometimes using the disease as an excuse to continue them.

A sampling of reported coronavirus-induced cooperation and assistance is:

– China and Russia sent aid around the world, including to the US. China is in a drive to overcome the blame it receives for being the origin of, and for its initially lackadaisical response to, the new virus. Russia is trying to position itself as a friendly giant given the current sanctions against the country.

– Cuba provided medical aid and personnel to numerous countries, a continuation of Cuba’s long-standing medical diplomacy efforts.

– Taiwan donated medical equipment and supplies to several countries, including some which have been more aligned to China.

– Turkey sent aid to Israel, although the two countries have a long history of disaster-related collaboration.

– Ceasefires were offered in Yemen and Afghanistan to support addressing coronavirus, following similar patterns of temporary peace for combatting disease such as through polio vaccinations.

Mexican truck and workers helping clean up tornado damage in Rosita Valley, Texas. Copyright Ilan Kelman

None of the descriptions above precludes altruism. They indicate that any selflessness fortuitously coincides with desired political gain, a typical trait of public diplomacy including for disaster-related activities.

A sampling of reported political and violent conflicts related to the Covid-19 pandemic is:

– Boko Haram ramped up violence in the area around Niger, Cameroon, and Chad.

– The US President criticised and pulled funding from the UN’s World Health Organization, although he has never been a UN supporter.

– Italy lambasted the EU for the lack of support, which is not unfamiliar territory given other member states expressing similar concerns during disasters, such as the economic crises in Greece and Cyprus.

– The governments of China and the US ripped into each other over the pandemic, continuing the usual diplomatic spats between them.

– Iran declined aid from the US, a continuation of the two countries’ hostilities.

Fundamentally, as is typical for activities preventing and dealing with disasters, political entities have their pre-set political pathways and they will not use disaster-related work to deviate from their already established decision. Where they had reasons for supporting others and pursuing diplomacy, the pandemic disaster gave them one excuse among many to do so. Where war, conflict, or enmity were preferred, the pandemic disaster gave them one excuse among many to do so.

Two principal research questions for disaster diplomacy emerge, extending to wider discussions of health diplomacy, medical diplomacy, and pandemic diplomacy:

  1. Are there counterexamples to the observed pattern, showing that coronavirus diplomacy does create new and lasting cooperation?
  2. Do options exist for parties, within governments or not, to insist that disasters should create cooperation?

Corona Wars: The Cost of Calling Disasters ‘Wars’

Patrizia Isabelle Duda4 May 2020

Written by Patrizia Isabelle Duda and Navonel Glick

War on Coronavirus poster

On March 17th, U.S. President Trump began calling the Covid-19 pandemic a “war”, to wide acclaim by supporters and scathing condemnation by critics.

The reasons for using the war metaphor are straightforward. By calling the pandemic a war, Trump is appealing to a familiar scenario that we feel we ‘know’ how to relate to. It ostensibly simplifies the crisis, mobilises the public, and calls for unity.

The war metaphor is a powerful and effective tool that is often used in politics, but it is also pervasive in the world of disaster risk reduction and response. The historical links between disaster management and the military are well-documented. Today, from operational frameworks like the Incident Command System (ICS) that were inspired by military management structures, to the extensive use of military terminology like ‘deploy’, ‘mission’, or ‘surge’ by even the most ‘military-averse’ NGOs (e.g. IRC, Plan International), the connection remains.  Even the widely revered (and much maligned) ‘logical framework’, meant to improve transparency and accountability in the aid sector, originated in planning approaches for the U.S. military.

At first glance, the war metaphor makes sense. The chaotic images from disaster areas that make the headlines are reminiscent of war zones, and the associated urgent, high-stress, life-and-death decisions demand composure, bravery, and decision-making attributes that we have learned to equate with our armed forces.

Yet, the analogy quickly crumbles. For one, as most disaster practitioners would confirm, the period immediately following a disaster which might require such an approach, at best, represents only a fraction of any disaster response effort, let alone long-term recovery or disaster risk reduction (through sustainable development).

In addition, as our experience in the field shows, armed forces are notoriously poor at interacting with vulnerable civilian populations, particularly in complex situations of unrest. More importantly, the war analogy is plagued by a core contradiction. While it can be argued that armies engage in war to ‘defend’ or ‘protect’ a population, destruction is often their main tool for doing so. This is not what disaster response or humanitarian aid are about, much less how one reduces disaster risks and builds disaster-resilient communities.

So why does the war metaphor continue to dominate the field? The simple answer may be because it works. It appeals to the pleasure-pain principle, triggers our basic fight-or-flight instincts, and provokes a reaction.

Yet, this strategy may be poorly suited to pandemics. We rightfully celebrate our health-care workers and other front-line personnel as ‘heroes’—yet another war term—and many of them may be faced with ‘war-like’ situations of urgency and life-and-death situations. But for the rest of us, “wash your hands” and “stay at home” are woefully anti-climatic ‘weapons’ to ‘fight’ the ongoing coronavirus ‘enemy’.

Photo credit: hairul_nizam / Shutterstock.com

Furthermore, the ‘war metaphor’ may succeed in the short-term during a crisis, but such bursts of energy (or adrenaline) cannot be maintained over time. Pandemics are not addressed by acute, short-term measures or bursts of adrenaline, but instead, by a complex web of systematic health and public health initiatives, drawn out over a long period of time.

The most damning trait of the war metaphor is, therefore, the focus on the disease itself, instead of the systemic issues that allowed it to become a pandemic. Diseases, much like earthquakes or hurricanes, are natural hazards. They only become disasters when we are left exposed and vulnerable to them by insufficient preparedness and poor risk reduction measures. Thus, tackling the underlying social, economic, and political systemic issues that drive disaster vulnerability should be our priority.

The analogy of a marathon instead of a sprint comes to mind, except that in this case the race has no end. In fact, it never was a race to begin with. This may be the biggest fallacy with using the war metaphor for disasters: wars are arguably won or lost; at least they (should) end. Disaster preparedness and reducing risks do not—they are an ongoing process of achieving and maintaining sustainable practices.

The war metaphor, therefore, from the very beginning, begs to disappoint, because there will not be the closure it promises. Calling our health workers and other frontline workers ‘life-saving heroes’ is an admirable title they deserve, but were they any less worthy of it before the pandemic? And will they not continue to perform the same essential role once the coronavirus pandemic has passed?

In this time of acute crisis, when the lack of preparedness and risk reduction is painfully exposed, we may be glad to have the war metaphor for the action that it catalyses. But by continuing to prioritise response over prevention, and perpetuating the myth of the ‘race’, what social habits will we continue to reinforce, and at what cost?

What would an alternative look like?

Coronavirus and Disaster Leadership

Saqar ' M Al Zaabi29 April 2020

Written by Ilan Kelman

During this pandemic, some world leaders have listened to the advice from their experts and scientists while others have ignored and contradicted it. The step from research and evidence to decisions and actions will always lead to a variety of outcomes where the researchers and the decision-makers are different. What examples do we have of academics, notably disaster academics, as political leaders?

The answer seems to be that disaster academics as politicians are rare. Partly because of scientists’ general inclination to shun the public spotlight. Partly because disaster research is an amorphous field, ill-defined and only relatively recently being large enough to potentially be considered a cohesive discipline.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel © Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 4.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Heads of state and heads of government who worked as academics are more common. Angela Merkel of Germany was a quantum chemist; Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga of Latvia spent decades researching, teaching, and publishing on psychology, semiotics, and cognition; Woodrow Wilson of the USA was, suitably, a scholar in American politics.

Margaret Thatcher of the UK is often mentioned, but she did not have a PhD, although she worked as a research chemist before qualifying as a barrister. Meanwhile, casting the net wider to ministers rather than heads of state and government, opens up possibilities such as Henry Kissinger and Condoleezza Rice as US Secretaries of State. Their policies were not the most supportive of disaster risk reduction.

At least a dozen other current or recent world political leaders have doctoral degrees with a vast range of topics and experience levels in post-PhD research. None identified could be said to have worked in disaster research.

Then, there is the meme circulating about the countries doing well in keeping Covid-19 under control, all of whom have women as heads of government. It is a somewhat artificial list, as there are several counterexamples. In fact, in mid-April, Israel was listed as one of the highest-ranked countries for Covid-19 safety when it did not even have a government and the caretaker Prime Minister (a man) was under indictment.

So we pose plenty of questions regarding political leadership and disaster risk reduction and response, especially during the current pandemic. In particular, given that we as IRDR scientists seek public and policy influence from our work, could we achieve more as academics or as politicians–or is there some combination which could function best?

Integrating Earthquake Early Warnings into Organisational Resilience: The case-study of Mexico City

ucesvel28 April 2020

Mexico has been historically impacted by earthquakes due to its geographical location within the well-known ring of fire. In September 1985, a large earthquake heavily affected the country, leaving behind a substantial death-toll, injuries and hundreds of collapsed structures. As a result, many DRR changes emerged, such as establishing the National System of Civil Protection and updating the construction code for Mexico City, adding new necessary regulations regarding seismic design. The Mexican Earthquake Early Warning (EEW) system was also proposed in 1986, and in 1991 the system began operations.

The Mexican Earthquake Early Warning System (source: cires.org.mx).

The EEW system was tested in September 2017 when two earthquakes hit the south and central regions of the country, on the 7th and 19th of September, respectively.  A 90-seconds warning was effectively released to the residents of Mexico City on September 7, but no alert was given on September 19, as the area surrounding the epicentre was not covered by the EEW’s seismic network.  In addition, the capital was very close to the epicentre, therefore, if the EEW was able to provide a warning, it would have been very short, and the impact had still been the same. This was challenging to accept. The residents expressed their concerns as they expected to receive an alert.

Residential building that collapsed in Mexico City during the 19 Sep 2017 earthquake.

In the last two years, several scholars investigated peoples’ reactions to the Mexican EEW system. The results show that there is a lack of public understanding on how the Mexican EEW system operates. In that same period of time, also my interest in the topic raised significatively. I started talking with relatives and friends who live in Mexico City. I understood that few people nowadays are properly informed about the operational basics and potential benefits of the EEW system.

In April 2019, my supervisor Dr Carmine Galasso (UCL CEGE) and I decided to extend the topic of my thesis in earthquake engineering to include the societal dimension of the EEW. We involved Dr Gianluca Pescaroli (UCL IRDR) as second supervisor, who suggested to focus on understanding how organisations integrate the alerts in their operational procedures. This was developed into a phased project titled ‘Integrating earthquake early warnings into organisational resilience’. The different components of the project were financed by the British Academy’s Leverhulme Small Research Grant, supported by the United Kingdom’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Grant Reference: SRG19\191797), and by the Earthquake Engineering Field Investigation Team’s (EEFIT) 2019 Research Award. The main goal of this project is to provide new and impact-oriented insights on the connection between the technical and social components of the Mexican EEW. In particular, we aim to investigate which measures could be needed to increase the organisational resilience of local community stakeholders and the private sector, such as business and infrastructure providers, deriving new guidelines for improving emergency preparedness.

Our first steps led to a journal paper, currently in review, that studied the technical and social aspects of EEW in 4 countries where EEWs operate with different levels of maturity: Italy (Campania region), the USA (West-Coast), Mexico and Japan. What emerged in the Mexican context shows that technically the EEW system performs well but the applicability in the social and organisational context is very poor. We investigated the critical interaction between the technical, organisational, social and political spheres, including elements such as stakeholders’ perceptions of the Mexican EEW system, the current status of planning for mitigating disruptions, and training needs related to EEW.

The second phase of the project involved data collection in Mexico City. As a research assistant, I developed the fieldwork during the months of December and January. At this step, Professor Irasema Alcantara-Ayala (UNAM Mexico) and Ms Sandra Camacho-Otero (ARISE-MX) also became part of the investigation team. They were very kind in providing comments and suggestions for the format of the interview so that it became more contextualised to the Mexican background. I carried out 15 semi-structured interviews targeted at experts in the areas of Local Government-Civil Protection, Private Sector, Academia, Disaster Risk Reduction, Civil, Seismic and Mechanical Engineering, Hazard Modelling, Architecture, NGOs and Civil Societies. I sincerely thank my friends Oscar Cardel and Tai Cardel as they incredibly helped me to approach those top experts in Mexico City who are closely related to the EEW system.

After the third interview, I noted that the respondents were very interested in the subject, more than I actually imagined. During the 4th interview, I decided to inquire more in the sections related to DRR education in Mexico, acceptability of false alerts and the perception of the EEW system outside Mexico City. This was done with the previous confirmation and consent of my supervisors as these topics were more secondary. In my opinion, this was a clever move as the respondents showed plenty of interest for every single question I was asking, and the collected data will result in very interesting conclusions and outcomes. In fact, the first interviews had a duration of 30 to 40 minutes approximately, while interviews 4 to 15 had a duration no shorter than 1.5 hours.

One of the biggest challenges I faced during the interviews was dealing with some concern as I knew I was interviewing very important people in Mexico. Also, some questions exposed subjects about the lack of organisation and capacity of the EEW system and of those bodies in charge of DRR in Mexico City. At some point, I thought their hierarchy and expertise might come over me and make me hesitate or feel without confidence during the interviews. However, I managed to have a composed attitude during every single interview and whenever the atmosphere became slightly challenging, I knew how to deal with the situation. Nevertheless, I did not have any kind of tough discussion nor important issues with any of the interviewees. I strongly believe the fact that all questions had a strong background based on previous studies and experiences, and that I prepared myself, mentally and academically, helped me a lot not to panic.

A second visit to Mexico City was planned in the months of March and April to distribute a questionnaire and obtain more data. However, the Covid-19 pandemic did not allow it. Therefore, we had to switch to an online format and produce an online questionnaire that was delivered through the UCL’s Web-Based Survey Tool ‘Opinio’. I would also like to express my gratitude to my friend Mara Torres-Pinedo for her recommendations and ideas to improve the quality of the questionnaire.

Right now, the project is at the analysis stage where we are implementing qualitative and quantitative analyses of the collected data. In the following weeks, we are expecting to culminate the analysis process and begin the discussion phase. Considering the data acquired, we feel confident that the results of the study will have a positive significance, so we are targeting to publish our results in a high-impact journal for the dissemination of the results and conclusions.

Aftermath of the 19 Sep 17 earthquake in southern Mexico (source: globalmedia.mx).

For more information and updates, please visit the ResearchGate website of the project.