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Commentary

Turning disasters into opportunities

Disasters have a negative connotation as they entail loss, death, disruption, and havoc. We associate them with pictures of destruction and desolation, of houses buried deep during a landslide, or terrified people shaken by an earthquake. Many people think of disasters as “acts of God” or something beyond our control.

That is where the problem lies. If people do not have any control over disasters, government leaders and we ourselves can run away from responsibility. Most importantly, it takes away any possibility of improvement and learning from a catastrophe.

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A different perspective. Some consensus in the scientific community points to disasters as anthropogenic. They are man-made. Disasters happen when hazards interface with vulnerable human activities and lack of capacity to withstand shocks in the system. Typhoons are not necessarily disasters when they occur in the middle of the Pacific Ocean without leading to any human or economic losses. They only become a disaster when a poorly planned and managed drainage system gets inundated with floodwaters and cause loss of livelihood, injury, or death to people. Hence, there is no such thing as a natural disaster.

This line of thinking is important, because it means that individuals and their governments have, within their power, the capacity to prevent or reduce disaster risks. Such perspective means that there can be opportunities following a disaster.

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History provides ample cases. The Federal Emergency Management Agency was created following the catastrophes of the 1970s in the United States. The concept of Build Back Better emerged following the devastation caused by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. In the Philippines, Typhoon “Ondoy” provided a strong push in the enactment of Republic Act No. 10121 or the country’s disaster risk reduction and management law.

Building back better. COVID-19 challenges many of our assumptions about disasters. The country is frequently hit by typhoons that last for a few days. This pandemic is different as it wreaks havoc for months. While typhoons call for significant policy shifts after a disaster, this lengthy pandemic requires major policy changes to happen during a disaster. Leaders with reactive and short-term approaches anchored mostly on doles are caught unprepared by a pandemic that requires decisive and well-thought-out policy decisions. To attribute failures in managing this crisis to nature or the divine becomes even more irrelevant.

While our country has strengthened its response mechanisms to hydrometeorological and geological disasters, there has been less attention paid to pandemics. This explains why both the public and private sectors have had a difficult time grappling with COVID-19.

Much of the lessons from COVID-19 will emerge in the future, as leaders contemplate its implications and more scientific studies emerge. However, there are several lessons that can be gleaned now. First, the country’s laws and policies should have mechanisms to mitigate and manage pandemics. The health system plays a very important role in the national strategy to fight pandemics and deserves support in funding, organizational reforms, and human resources. Second, contingency plans in the private sector should prepare not just for short-term disruptions but also for the long term to prevent the loss of livelihood of millions of people. Third, disaster education is crucial not just in making people more prepared, but also for them to demand better leadership during disasters. These lessons are crucial for the Philippines to build back better systems and turn the COVID-19 pandemic into an opportunity.

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Ron Jay P. Dangcalan is an assistant professor at the Department of Social Development Services, College of Human Ecology, UPLB, and a specialist at the Interdisciplinary Studies Center for Water.

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TAGS: Commentary, disasters, Ron Jay P. Dangcalan
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