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UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction


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?

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?

Coronavirus and the Arctic: Svalbard, Norway

Saqar ' M Al Zaabi22 April 2020

Written by Patrizia Isabelle Duda and Ilan Kelman

Svalbard is a Norwegian archipelago about half-way between mainland Norway or the port of Murmansk and the North Pole. It is governed by the Svalbard Treaty from 1920 which gives living and resource extraction rights to the citizens of signatory countries. The territory’s population of 2500-3000 is located primarily on the island of Spitzbergen across several settlements, with the Norwegian settlement of Longyearbyen being the largest with over 80% of the population, followed by the Russian-populated Barentsburg.

Welcome sign. (Copyright Ilan Kelman 2019.)

The only states to have maintained continuous, historic presence on Svalbard are Norway and Russia. Svalbard has become a fascinating case study for disaster-related influences on Norway-Russia relations, such as through a project funded by the Research Council of Norway on Arctic disaster diplomacy. Svalbard’s developed areas are effectively in coastal lowlands and are susceptible to risks ranging from polar bear attacks to snowmobile and aircraft crashes to avalanches and floods. Disease is also a major risk.

Epidemics have been considered for Svalbard long before the 2020 COVID-19 outbreak. They include zoological and human epidemics due to rabies, tapeworms and the re-emergence of a (potentially mutated) H1N1 virus that previously killed miners on Svalbard during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic and remained in the tissues of their bodies which failed to decompose in Svalbard’s permafrost. The successful international fictional TV-series “Fortitude” from 2015-2018 dealing with a mysterious virus outbreak on Svalbard is testament to these concerns over the archipelago’s public health.

The fjord near Longyearbyen. (Copyright Ilan Kelman 2019.)

Healthcare services on Svalbard are limited and are provided mainly by Longyearbyen’s small hospital and to a lesser extent, simple facilities in Barentsburg. Given their limited capacity to deal with either a large influx of sick people and/or complicated health cases, Svalbard’s healthcare services are not built to handle many infected or isolated people, such as has been necessary for the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.

Longbyearbyen in winter. (Copyright Ilan Kelman 2019.)

Disaster discussions on Svalbard frequently raise the spectre of a cruise ship outbreak, with norovirus being prominent, where such a ship can easily have more people than Svalbard. Often docking in numerous locations before an outbreak is even detected, cruise ships can have potentially catastrophic consequences on the health and healthcare systems of the communities they visit, a risk highlighted during the Covid-19 pandemic, due to cruise ships with coronavirus, such as the “Diamond Princess” in Japan.

Thus, Svalbard has enacted precautions, especially in the form of communication protocols and pre-established logistical pathways between Svalbard and Tromsø (on Norway’s mainland) to re-locate patients, typically through air evacuation. In the current situation, Svalbard’s Governor quickly announced measures such as banning tourism and visitors from non-Nordic countries arriving in Svalbard; quarantining tourists already on Svalbard and sending them to Oslo; and enacting a quarantine of seven days for anyone arriving in Svalbard’s other communities.

(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2009.)

Nonetheless, even with travel restrictions, the possibility of an outbreak on Svalbard remains, as the virus can survive on inanimate objects such as packaging and boxes, although its resistance to cold is not yet known. In any case, beyond Covid-19, Svalbard must consider other possibilities for epidemics and pandemics. IRDR is contributing to this work by analysing how this remote Arctic location could better deal with disease among other risks.

Can you write about your research using the 1,000 most common words in the English language?

Joanna P Faure Walker10 May 2019

At the IRDR Spring Academy, I set each member of the IRDR the challenge of explaining their research using only the 1,000 most commonly used words in the English language (taken from this website).  We were allowed the odd exception for a few essential keywords (in my case “earthquake” and “fault”). We had about ten minutes to do this. Below we share some of our attempts. Would you like to try the same exercise?

IRDR Spring Academy 2019

Mohamed Alwahedi:

Some scientists think that all earthquakes happen in the same way, and by the same reason. That is called the self-similarity theory. I am going to test that theory.

David Alexander:

My latest research is on a sunken ship that is full of thousands of live bombs. The work looks at how the risk has been managed and what might happen to the wreck. There are several reasons why the ship might explode. Unfortunately, for 75 years, nothing has been done to reduce the risk, which has grown as the wreck has become older. The British Government has failed to create a clear picture of the danger posed by the ship. Hence, in terms of details, the risk is poorly known. An explosion could cause a terrible disaster. It is time to act, defuse the bombs and clear away the ship, but the options are limited by the danger.

Lucy Buck:

I study how a tsunami changes the land after the water has gone and what this means for the people who live there.

Joanna Faure Walker:

What makes an earthquake occur when and where it does? Scientists seek to answer this question using many different methods. My current work has two main approaches. First, if we collect more field data can we improve risk knowledge? Second, how much more can we learn when we measure details of fault structures? Through my work we have learnt more about how faults join and grow, where earthquakes occur and why, and what next steps need to be taken to help us reduce risk from earthquakes.

Jessica Field:

I have been researching in archives (which is a place where old documents are kept) in Delhi to better understand how the Indian government managed aid during emergencies like floods, earthquakes and conflicts during the 1940s-1960s.

Nathanael Harwood:

Not all ‘Global Warming’ has an equal impact across the Globe; the Arctic in particular has warmed at twice the rate of the rest of the globe, causing the region to be warmer and moister than it should be according to the last half-century of records.  At the same time weather extremes, including hot and cold waves that stick around for longer, have become a common occurrence further south of the Arctic where billions of people live in the warmer ‘midlatitudes’.  As Londoners, that includes us.  Normal weather conditions, or at least weather we would expect given the record, rely on a stable temperature and pressure difference between the Arctic and the midlatitudes which drives the wind and blows weather patterns like storms away at a reasonable pace.  But when these differences are changed, and the Arctic warms at a rate never seen before, it seems obvious that wind patterns and the atmosphere as a whole could be disturbed, made wavier and slower, or even blocked.

Despite this, we still don’t know the specific details on how the Arctic is impacting our weather, or the main driver of our weather called the ‘Jet Stream’, which blows above us at about the height you would take a jet plane at.  Computer models have given a wide range of results, and traditional techniques to look at climate records have failed to provide any robust answers.  This project uses ‘Bayesian Networks’, a way of considering how different things relate to each other in a large network, to look at how the Arctic region fits into relationships between the atmosphere and different parts of the world.  These large-scale disturbances of the jet stream, wind and weather are a crucial part of the climate change puzzle because they can cause devastating cold conditions, like on the US East Coast, unbearable heat waves across parts of Europe, as well as floods and droughts.  If we want to understand what the future holds for us in terms of extreme weather, we need to understand the relationships between these different drivers so that we can predict and better prepare for a future with a very warm Arctic.

Ilan Kelman:

There is a lot of talk that people must move because the climate is changing. Counting these numbers of people is very difficult and cannot really be done. People move for many reasons and do not always make decisions using long times. It is hard to pick only one factor.

Claudia Sgambato:

Earthquakes are some of the most dangerous natural events, causing many deaths and damage. It is important to contribute to the knowledge of when and where the next earthquakes will occur, and how destructive they can be. However, it is not an easy task: at present there is no way to predict an earthquake. My research addresses this problem, by studying where the structures responsible for producing earthquakes, called faults, are, and how often they rupture. I also study the geometry of the faults, in other words their changes in shape, because these may have an important role in the seismic hazard, causing a higher rate of deformation.

Mark Shortt:

Alone, I travelled to the north to research sea ice. It was very cold with a lot of wind, but with the help of other scientists I got some strength values. This will be important for oil and gas companies.

Omar Velazquez Ortiz:

I am trying to understand and improve the different escape ways that structures’ occupants can use under a shaking event, considering early warnings

Rory Walshe:

How does the history of risk from major cyclones effect society and culture for institutions and individuals and how can we research history to understand response.

Caroline Wood:

International professional instructions are available to help doctors give drugs to stop disease. Doctors can find it difficult to use these instructions in their practice, particularly for operations. Our research designs digital decision resources (apps) to help improve knowledge and educate doctors about the correct drugs to give.

Punam Yadav:

My recent research, which focusses on political participation of women and their agency, examines the life experiences of women who have been elected at the local government. The aim of this research is to examine the impact of reservation on the everyday life of these women politicians.

I carried out 25 interviews with women politicians and 5 interviews with male politicians. Despite increase in women’s representation in politics in Nepal, these women politicians talked about how difficult it was for them to work in a male dominated environment. They also spoke about opportunities their new roles had brought for them. They have access to new space and earned more respect due to their new roles.

Disaster Science is one of five key themes for partnership between UCL and Tohoku University

Joanna P Faure Walker21 October 2018

UCL and Tohoku University signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Thursday 11th October 2018 as part of the kickoff partnership event. President Arthur and President Ohno stated their commitment to continuing research exchange, following the agreement of the previous five years.

President Arthur and President Ohno sign memorandum of understanding Photo source: https://www.tohoku.ac.jp/japanese/2018/10/news20181018-02.html

Workshops for five key themes were held on the 11th and 12th October as part of the event that saw 50 delegates come to UCL from Tohoku University. The five themes were disaster science, data science, neuroscience, higher education and material science and spintronics.

The disaster science delegation (From left to right) Prof. Shinichi Kuriyama Dr Katerina Stavrianaki Dr Ilan Kelman Ms Anna Shinka Dr Tiziana Rossetto Dr Joanan Faure Walker Dr David Robinson Assist. Prof. Shuji Seto Prof Maureen Fordham Ms Miwako Kitamura Prof David Alexander Assoc. Prof. Anawat Suppasri

The disaster science delegation comprised representatives from UCL IRDR, Tohoku University IRIDes (International Research Institute for Disaster Science), and UCL EPICentre. The workshop has helped form new collaboration opportunities building on the existing relationship between these research institutions. Our collaboration cincludes joint publications in earthquake stress transfer (e.g. Mildon et al., 2016), disaster fatalities (Suppasri et al., 2016), and temporary housing (e.g. Naylor et al., 2018). We look forward to the next five years of working with all our colleagues at IRIDeS to enhance the field of disaster science.

Discussions during the disaster science workshop Photo source: https://www.tohoku.ac.jp/japanese/2018/10/news20181018-02.html

The disaster science workshop included the following talks, which prompted discussions of further questions we would like to research together:

  • Assist. Prof. Shuji Seto (IRIDeS)
    • New Research Project on the Fatality Process in the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake for Survival Study from Tsunami Disaster
  • Dr Ilan Kelman (UCL IRDR)
    • Disaster, Health, and Islands
  • Prof. Shinichi Kuriyama (IRIDeS)
    • Challenge of Public Health to Disaster – Using Public Health Approach and Artificial Intelligence Techniques
  • Prof Maureen Fordman (UCL IRDR)
    • Gender and Disasters
  • Ms Miwako Kitamura (IRIDeS)
    • Gender problems as seen from the oral history of the bereaved families of the deceased Tsunami in Otsuchi Town, during the Great East Japan Earthquake
  • Ms Anna Shinka (IRIDeS)
    • A questionnaire study on disaster folklore and evacuation behavior for human casualty reduction – Case of Kesennnuma City, Miyagi Prefecture.
  • Prof Tiziana Rossetto (UCL EPICentre)
    • Building response under sequential earthquakes and tsunami
  • Assoc. Prof. Anawat Suppasri (IRIDeS)
    • Building damage assessment considering lateral resistance and loss estimation using an economic model “Input-Output table”
  • Prof David Alexander (UCL IRDR)
    • A framework for Cascading Disasters
  • Dr Joanna Faure Walker (UCL IRDR)
    • Disaster Warning, Evacuation and Shelter

NHK, the largest broadcaster in Japan, reported the workshop with a focus on Miwako Kitamura and the UCL Gender and Disaster Centre:  NHK report (in Japanese)