International aid for disasters during pandemic
What if another major earthquake triggers a tsunami somewhere along the vast coastline of Indonesia? Or a supertyphoon devastates one of the many islands of the Philippines? Would these countries or other vulnerable countries in Southeast Asia be more willing to accept international assistance in light of the pandemic?
Before the pandemic, we saw a shift in the policy of some countries in the region where response to disasters was largely nationally led; and if there were any support from the international community, it was based on priorities. This was true during the Central Sulawesi earthquake in 2018 where the government of Indonesia clearly manifested that the response was a local one, and that any offers of international assistance should be in line with identified gaps and channeled to local partners (e.g., Palang Merah, local NGOs, local government, among others).
This tendency of governments to temper overwhelming global “love and support” can be traced back to the painful experience of having a secondary disaster —a “tsunami” of unsolicited assistance. The Banda Aceh tsunami (2004) and Supertyphoon “Haiyan” (2013) put this assertion in context: Donations and teams posed more challenges to the governments of Indonesia and the Philippines, respectively, that they oftentimes eclipsed their well-intentioned purpose.
So we ask the question: Are countries in the region more willing to accept offers of international assistance during a disaster in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic? Let us examine possible scenarios to provide some insights and initiate conversations about how to plan to respond to natural disasters in light of the pandemic.
In the short term, countries in the region will probably remain steadfast in their preference for a more nationally-led response. Understanding that most countries in the region have very strict restrictions on movements, particularly from “foreigners” who are potential carriers of the virus, cash or remote technical support will be preferred. Durable goods may be accepted on the basis of diplomatic relations. For political considerations, offers from “friendly” countries may be accepted to maintain good standing as well as in the interest of reciprocity. Regional organizations such as the Asean may be accorded more space to reduce the international humanitarian footprint.
In the longer term, and if the threat of the pandemic persists, countries in the region may reconsider this position. The policy shift will stem from the fact that government resources, including its frontliners, may be exhausted. With an economic downturn and the mounting pressure to support communities, governments may be more flexible to accept international assistance. Although still considered to be a national response, governments may extend greater flexibility to allow exemptions.
Regardless, national authorities will carefully weigh in on issues related to national capacity and domestic politics. For a country reeling from the effects of COVID-19, food and durable goods such as mobile storage units, health and hygiene kits, and the required logistics to move them will be prioritized. Planning and anticipation are key when it comes to issues surrounding entry and quarantine requirements, certifications of compliance with national standards for medical teams and their equipment, special handling requirements for relief items (disinfecting at port of entry), etc.
One thing is undeniable: Disasters during this pandemic will redefine how we do things. It will challenge not only how we think about humanitarian action during the pandemic, but also how this model of response can be adapted post-pandemic. The difficulties faced at this time are showing us that there are ways to provide support other than being on the ground, and that it is not about who is first to plant their flag on the ground. Rather, it is about a more profound need for greater thinking on how the international humanitarian community can enhance and add greater value to any nationally-led response.
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Arnel Capili is the deputy executive director of the Asean Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance in disaster management (AHA Centre). He has been part of emergency preparedness and response operations in Dubai, Fiji, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. He also led the first Asean-Emergency Response and Assessment Team (Asean-Erat) assessment mission for the repatriation of the displaced population in Rakhine State, Myanmar.
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