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“A marathon not a sprint”: Conversations with a disaster relief specialist about COVID-19

Updated: May 20, 2020

For many of us, COVID-19 will have been the first all-affecting crisis we’ve been through where all aspects of ordinary life are fundamentally altered. For relief workers experienced in natural disaster response, however, the situation bears strong similarities to an earthquake or a volcanic eruption - albeit playing out globally instead of in one confined geographic area.

While COVID-19’s scale is unprecedented, are there any lessons we can learn from the disaster relief sector - a sector well-versed in dealing with force majeure events that wreak havoc on vulnerable communities? Our very own colleague and disaster relief expert, Carol Liew, sat down to share her thoughts with us.

Currently leading our Impact Management work at Just Cause, Carol was previously Head of International Programmes with Mercy Relief, a Singapore-based humanitarian outfit, for 8 years. She has led major disaster relief efforts in Asia including responses to the Bangladesh refugee crisis in 2017, the Nepal earthquake in 2015, and Typhoon Haiyan in 2013.

“Carol brings a special combination of pragmatism, genuine caring, and humour to her work, which is definitely informed by her disaster relief experience,” says Emma, our Director. “She is incredibly grounded, always focused on what actually makes a difference, not what looks good on paper. She cares deeply about empowering communities and is as much in her element improvising with a stick in the sand with rural villagers as leading workshops with executives. And best of all, she does it all with a smile on her face! She’s a riot - always getting people laugh, have fun, and ease up from the moment they step into a room.”

Carol Liew (extreme right) - Myanmar floods 2015

Hi Carol! First question for those of us who have never seen a similar situation before: what are the similarities you see between natural disasters and the current pandemic?

There are definitely parallels. A volcanic eruption, for example, tends to produce warning signs but we often don’t know how extreme it will be or when it will stop. It can be a big challenge convincing people to evacuate and stay away from the volcano. With the pandemic, too, there were warning signs, and almost all countries have faced challenges in keeping people socially distanced.

Some specific points I’ve observed are:

  • Vulnerable are disproportionately impacted: It’s quickly evident, for both disaster relief and COVID-19, that the impact is disproportionately borne by the most vulnerable groups, such as the elderly, pregnant mothers, children, and marginalised groups. Singapore is a poignant example where migrant workers and low-income families are currently struggling the most, akin to how refugees and rural communities often bear the brunt of natural disasters.

  • Need for phased response: The disaster management cycle has 4 phases - response, recovery, mitigation and preparedness. For COVID-19, most countries are currently in the response phase and focused on meeting urgent needs. At some point, however, we will exit this phase, so time should be devoted in advance to mapping out a plan for each of the subsequent phases.

  • It’s never too late to invest in preparedness: For natural disasters, we develop early warning systems and continuously strengthen relief systems. While it is a little late now to restructure pandemic warning systems, there are many measures we can take to build resilience. Singapore has been building testing infrastructure to identify hot spots, improving our healthcare system to deal with surges, and providing economic support for workers. We also need to start paying attention to secondary effects of the crisis, such as mental health. Disasters end eventually, but the aftereffects can linger for a long time unless we start preparing now.

Bangladesh refugee crisis 2017

Given these parallels, are there lessons that organisations currently working on COVID-19 response (non-profits, grassroots organisations, government agencies) can draw from disaster relief work?

I think there are a few principles that can be equally applied:

  • Collect and share data. When everything is constantly changing, the use of data is what differentiates a good disaster relief response from a not-so-good one. Specifically, data that is collected rapidly and used to continuously inform the response. For example: today a vulnerable family might need medical supplies, but by tomorrow they might have already gotten that and now they need food instead. Grassroots organisations with direct links to affected people are usually best positioned to collect this but unfortunately, not many are able to do rapid needs assessment at scale since they tend to be small and informal. In addition, someone needs to aggregate data from different organisations to surface service gaps. In disaster relief, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) typically coordinates everyone to share data. This helps to reduce duplication of efforts and increases ground responsiveness. In this pandemic, there was no similar formal body assigned to play this role, but we’ve seen it happen in a less institutionalised, more crowdsourced way - from informal WhatsApp/Telegram networks of executive directors and ground up leaders, to real-time live surveys for donors or non-profits to identify needs, to one-stop portals like SGUnited or GivingSG.

  • Adapt bravely to the local context. Local and cultural context can be overlooked in the scramble to distribute aid. In the Thailand floods of 2011, containers of granola bars were sent as emergency food aid - and most eventually went to waste because Thai people don’t really eat granola bars. We need to make sure that we are satisfying actual needs and not merely what we think is the need. We need to concretely identify a) what is most helpful for affected people, b) ways to provide that help in a way that is empowering and that respects their dignity, and finally c) be bold enough to provide it even if it is unconventional. For example, cash distribution to affected communities can be extremely difficult to implement but can work well provided the conditions for success are in place, such as with the emergency cash transfer programming in Typhoon Haiyan.

  • Do no harm: It’s a basic principle amongst NPOs that aid should always be provided in a way that empowers the recipients. Beyond this, we should also be cognisant of the way we deliver aid and possible long-term ramifications. For example, disaster relief agencies used to rely on bottled water, which was at times unavoidable, but many local communities very quickly suffered the impact of so much plastic building up almost overnight. Similarly we should be aware of and ideally try to minimise the plastic and disposable packaging from delivering food, medical supplies, and care packs in the pandemic as well - it may not seem urgent but we shouldn’t let it fall by the wayside.

Typhoon Hagupit, Philippines, 2014

You mentioned that the fight against COVID-19 will come in phases, and we need to look ahead to the next one even as we are still stuck in immediate response. What should NPOs prioritise as we move to recovery phase and beyond?

Firstly, it’s never too late to start planning, even if we were caught off-guard at the onset. A common principle we apply in disaster relief is “anticipate the worst” - once you’ve anticipated and planned for the worst, you can deal with anything that comes your way. Make sure to take the time to regroup, plan and prepare for future scenarios. This way, you can just hit play when it happens. A disaster relief maxim is that every $1 invested in preparedness is $7 saved in response.

Emergency financing is one of, if not the most, critical factor behind any preparedness plan. NPOs should always ensure that they maintain a healthy reserve fund, which is essential to everything from being able to enact a swift emergency response, to ensuring that backend operations and staffing remain unaffected, to maintaining interim cash flow to programmes even if major donors pull out. Besides financing, business continuity plans and emergency communication channels should also be established. We’re starting to see funders actively engage their grantees to build their capabilities in these areas.

Secondly, COVID-19 is a golden learning opportunity in disguise. NPOs are essentially creating brand new crisis response blueprints on the fly. The key is to use this as input to strengthen preparedness and response for the future. Many NPOs have encountered new opportunities besides: new sources of funding (crowdfunding), new ways of working (embracing technology), new ways to engage with the community, and new partnerships. NPOs should document all the new initiatives and ways of working they have tried and take the time to reflect on and consolidate them when things calm down.

Lastly, NPOs should take good care of themselves and their staff! This is a marathon not a sprint; adequate rest and wellbeing is crucial to ensure that your efforts outlast the pandemic. I cannot emphasise how important this is after having seen so many disaster relief colleagues burn out. The last thing we want is to get through the pandemic but lose talent from the sector.

You certainly are a talent, Carol! And we are so lucky to have you on your team. Thank you so much for sharing your unique insights with us.


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