Disasters Article

Imperfect storms

As the Atlantic hurricane season begins and Covid-19 cases rise, countries such as Honduras, already reeling from last year’s storms, are being forced to manage multiple, overlapping crises.

With the Atlantic hurricane season already upon them, Central American relief organizations such as the Honduran Red Cross are scrambling to prepare for what will likely be a season of multi-layered disasters.

“We are preparing for population movements, dengue outbreaks, the Covid-19 pandemic, and what is predicted to be a very difficult season of tropical storms,” says Carlos Colindres, National Risk Manager of the Honduran Red Cross.

In a situation where people are already pushed to their limit, Colindres and his colleagues are working overtime to get communities ready, despite the challenges they’re already facing. “I don’t have time for anything, but I make time for everything,” he says.

One of those things is shelter. Thousands of people are still unable to return to their homes due to the damage caused by hurricanes Eta and Iota, which hit the country last November. Of the roughly 100 schools, community centres and churches used as shelters after last year’s hurricanes, six are still being used by people with nowhere else to go.

“Many people are still removing hurricane debris from their homes,” Colindres says. “We are concerned about another very active hurricane season, because there is no capacity for an extensive evacuation.”

As leader the Global Shelter Cluster (GSC) with UNHCR, the Red Cross is used to supporting and advising the government on how shelters should be managed in emergencies. But Covid-19 adds a whole new set of complications. Anti-COVID-19 measures in the shelters require rigorous respect of distancing and other protective measures, which limits capacity.

“If the evacuation centres are overcrowded, they can expose people already affected by weather events to a higher risk of COVID-19 infection,” says Roger Alonso, head of the Disaster, Climate and Crises Unit for the IFRC in the Americas. “In the confusion and chaos of the aftermath of these disasters, it’s difficult for people to maintain a safe distance and to follow the prevention guidance as much as is necessary.”

Meanwhile, interruptions of water supply and sanitation systems (in some cases caused by storm damage) can make handwashing and other basic hygiene measures far more difficult. In some areas, water blockages create favorable conditions for diseases carried by mosquitos or spread through contaminated water — all at a time when disease-tracking systems are struggling to keep up.

The government’s health system is also pushed to the limit. “It is terrible, because there are only free beds when people die,” says Colindres.
Even before the pandemic and the hurricanes, it was estimated that about 1.3 million Hondurans needed help in the areas of food security, health, protection, and water and sanitation. The near collapse of the economy due to Covid-19 has only made matters worse. “This whole situation has increased extreme poverty in the country; many people have lost their jobs”.

Meanwhile, migration through Honduras has slowed, but not stopped. “People who want to migrate do not stop because of Covid-19,” says Colindres. “They leave the country through blind spots, where there are no border controls, because many of them cannot afford to pay for the tests to enter other countries legally.”

Those who are detained and returned to the Honduran border, get assistance from the Red Cross, which provides protection, shelter, food and transportation. “The migrants come tired, they haven’t eaten or slept for a long time,” he says.

“I don’t have time for anything, but I make time for everything”.
Carlos Colindres, National Risk Manager of the Honduran Red Cross

When two hurricanes hit Central America late last year, emergency workers had to offer first-aid and other critical services while keeping themselves and others from getting infected. With Covid-19 cases rising, many fear the 2021 storm season could be an even bigger challenge.

A multi-hazard scenario

The overlap of Covid-19 on top or myriad other challenges is not unique to Honduras. Around the world, the pandemic is forcing a wholesale review of how humanitarian organizations, and society as a whole, prepare and respond at the local and international level.

“The case of Honduras illustrates very well the multi-hazard scenarios to which we are exposed more and more frequently,” says Martha Keays, IFRC´s Regional Director, Americas. “We need to continually review and improve our interventions and in particular, how we prepare and work together before each new challenge arrives.”

With storm season arriving, the people of Honduras, including the rescue workers and the system that supports them, are about to be seriously tested. “Without a doubt, this year we will learn a lot about the best way to face complex emergency scenarios,” adds Colindres.

Given these deep and widespread challenges, it has become increasingly clear to some that the status quo will not suffice. Like National Societies around the world, the Honduran Red Cross is transforming nearly every aspect of its operations in order to adapting to new multi-hazard scenarios.

Some of the changes are easy to spot. In shelters or at places where food or supplies are given out, sanitation stations welcome people at every entry point. Masks and physical distancing are mandatory. “Preventing the spread of COVID-19 is at the centre of our responses and it is an enormous challenge” says Alonso. “Every precaution is taken to ensure that they remain as safe as possible.”

Prevention and doing no harm have always been core Red Cross mantras. But the combination of Covid-19 and storms has brought the concept to a whole new level. In some 1,200 communities throughout Honduras, Red Cross teams work to ensure people have access to early warning messages and they urge people to set aside food, water, and other necessities. This is particularly critical now that the pandemic is causing delays in delivery of nearly all kinds of goods and services.

Floods caused by hurricanes Iota and Eta forced thousands of people to quickly move from their homes. Some returned home within weeks. Many others are still displaced.

Prevention transformation

But not all changes are as visible from the outside. A key part of Honduran Red Cross transformation is embedded in something called “Preparedness for Effective Response”, an approach to disaster preparedness that allows Red Cross teams to clearly identify weaknesses and strengths across their disaster preparedness and response systems and establish concrete measures to improve them in the short, medium and long term.

What that means concretely is that, within the National Society, all departments are working more closely than ever before as each discipline — health, shelter, hygiene, economic recovery, communications and emergency response — are increasingly critical to everyone’s survival and recovery. Similary, it means working more closely with government agencies and other partners in all these areas.

After all, if any one of these pieces is missing, or weak, it will impact the success of the other. If people are hungry, they won’t be able to respect stay-at-home restrictions. Or if they are suffering psychologically, they may not be able maintain healthy habits. And if efforts to address these concerns are not coordinated, the impact will be diluted at a time when there is no room for wasted efforts.

This kind of multi-discipplinary approach is critical since in Honduras, some 250,000 people live on less than $1 a day and the pandemic is making things even worse. Many people who were doing well before the pandemic and the storms, but they’ve since lost either homes, businesses, or both.

To address these diverse needs, the Honduran Red Cross has developed cash transfer programs so vulnerable people can have access to basic food baskets and essential medical services. The National Socieety also provides grants for small businesses that are going bankrupt, notes Colindres, referring to a programme funded by ECHO that will benefit 25,000 small and medium-sized enterprises.

Not only have thousands of people been displaced by last year’s storms, many have lost jobs, income, their ability to go to school. This insecurity makes them more vulnerable to future storms and to future waves of Covid-19. | Photo: IFRC

A new global reality

At the regional and global level, meanwhile, the overlapping of Covid-19 on an increasing number of severe, climate-related crises has also ratcheted up the urgency of prevention, coordinations and advocacy for equal distribution of supplies, medicines and vaccines.

To get ahead of the logistical challenges caused by COVID-19 in Central America, the IFRC has prepositioned humanitarian goods in Panama, Guatemala, Honduras and across the Caribbean to provide an immediate response to the humanitarian needs of up to 6,000 people. Procurement agreements with suppliers are also in place to mobilize quick additional resources to reach more families if needed.

Financial resources are also critical. At the global level, the IFRC is pushing donors to get behind efforts to dramatically beef up a pool of funds — known as the Disaster Relief Emergency Fund or DREF — set up specifically to support National Society responses to crises as soon as they unfold.

The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is also playing a leading role in global advocacy efforts aimed at making vaccinations more accessible in lower-income countries where many people still cannot access vaccines.

In Honduras, for example, the vaccination rate is still below 2 per cent. Red Cross workers, along with the armed forces, firefighters, police and health personnel have only recently begun to receive vaccinations.

“Equitable vaccination is urgent,” says IFRC’s Alonso. “Many months after the beginning of the vaccinations worldwide, less than two out of every thousand vaccines have been administered in the poorest countries in the Americas. Leaving the most vulnerable behind in vaccination processes is a moral and public health catastrophe.”

Covid-19 is forcing a rethink of many aspects of aid delivery, requiring new levels of preparation and coordination. As Covid-19 slows deliveries, emergency supplies have been positioned in Honduras and other countries in anticipation of hurricane season. | Photo: IFRC

“Stressed and tired”

Survival and recovery through multiple, long-term crises requires more than money and vaccinations, however. The sustained impacts of these overlapping crises has pushed people beyond the breaking point. “People are very stressed and tired,” Colindres says. “Mental health is part of people’s well-being, it is important to work on it.”

It’s particularly critical for those who work day-in, day-out, over long periods of time helping others as they process sometimes very traumatic experiences. “The Honduran Red Cross has a network of psychologists who also support volunteers,” he says. “The psychologists do debriefings with the volunteers who are responding to the Covid-19 pandemic and supporting the victims of Hurricanes Eta and Iota.”

Given the additional exposure emergency workers face when responding in emergencies, there is also the all-pervasive worry about infection from Covid-19. That in itself has added a new layer of stress, as well as several new layers of protocols, training and regulation.

Add to this that many in the communities they serve know little about the virus, or don’t believe it exists. This can add a lot of tension when people don’t understand or respect Covid-19 protocols, delays, or restrictions when they are facing so many other, more visible and urgent concerns.

“It is a testament to the volunteers’ bravery and their dedication,” says Alonso, “that despite all the risks and stresses — and the fact that many of them have also been impacted by the devastation — they have continued to work tirelessly to support their communities.”


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