Lessons learned (or not) in disaster resilience
As we distill the penultimate insights and takeaways from COVID-19 as it enters its endemic phase, and as we refresh our memory of Supertyphoon “Yolanda” (international name: Haiyan)—the strongest typhoon to hit land in modern times—as we commemorate its 10th year anniversary on Nov. 8, 2023, one fundamental question begs to be asked: Have we as a nation learned our lessons from these disasters?
It may be worth taking stock of key lessons of past disasters that surfaced in Yolanda and those that broke out again during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Effective risk communication can save lives. Early warning systems for typhoons and concomitant hazards like storm surges, flooding, and landslides and surveillance systems for infectious diseases with pandemic potential should generate information that can be used for preemptive or preventive actions. Thus, we must invest in these and improve the way we communicate and be understood. We must also translate this information into response actions that the government implements and the citizens observe and follow while engaging them so as not to lose their life-saving potential.
Local government preparedness is key to effective response on the ground. While the national government is mandated to provide support to address the disaster needs of the whole country, the frontlines of response is the local government unit. Thus, systems must be built from the ground up. Planning, training of response teams, stocking of supplies, establishing operations centers, designing permanent evacuation centers, putting up more health facilities and laboratories, investing in research and development—these should be part of local development and investment plans. The national government, on its own, apart from supporting local governments, should also muster additional and special capacities to address the requirements of national-scale mega-disasters.
Lack of policies and plans is not the problem, but their implementation. Making sure existing policies are coherent and plans are attainable will go a long way. To better implement, there must be clarity on roles and responsibilities among stakeholders, identification and commitment of resources, and improved interoperability with other players. These can be tested during the conduct of different exercises and drills. Policy gaps may also necessitate the crafting of new policies that will address specific and emerging needs, e.g., faster response, more flexible financing, better use of technology and innovations in response, addressing misinformation and disinformation, protecting data integrity and privacy.
Interagency coordination/whole-of-society approach can speed up and enhance the delivery of basic services. Using existing and tried-and-tested mechanisms for coordination, for instance, the disaster risk reduction and management council at different levels of governance is imperative for effective response. But this should not be limited to the government. Private sector, civil society, nongovernment organizations, academia, local communities, people’s organizations, international partners must all be engaged and involved in making the whole-of-society approach a reality. Moreover, the best time to build rapport and grow the network is during peacetime—before the disaster when strategies for prevention, mitigation, and preparedness are unequivocally more effective and thus should be more pronounced.
Leadership makes or breaks the response. Authentic, credible, strong but compassionate leadership is the only brand of leadership that can help us pull through the myriad challenges and adversities during disasters. Mediocre disaster leadership and management will only contribute to the catastrophic risks of a disaster. Thus, we must set a higher bar for the accountability of leaders in terms of disaster governance. This includes sound and evidence-informed decision-making and open and inclusive styles of working with different stakeholders and the people to listen to them and serve them better in decreasing disaster risks.
We are so rich in disaster experiences that unfortunately come at a very high price: lost lives, destroyed properties, damaged economy, broken dreams.
But what is more regrettable is that we are equally and arguably poor in learning our lessons from these.
For us to be truly resilient as a nation, let us not fail to learn from these disaster lessons.
After all, we are not just poor people in a risk-laden country perpetually trapped in disaster cycles that seem to have no end.
And by taking heed of this common disaster saying: “Failure to learn from lessons is a fool’s recipe for disaster.”
Ronald Law is a public health physician, academic, and scholar who specializes in emergency preparedness. He was deployed to Tacloban, Leyte, the ground zero of Yolanda in 2013, and played a pivotal role in the COVID-19 response.