Placing scientific knowledge, preparedness and public awareness at the core of disaster risk policy

1st April 2020

Alik Ismail-Zadeh

Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Institute of Applied Geosciences
Chief Scientist / Research Professor at the Russian Academy of Sciences, Institute of Earthquake Prediction Theory and Mathematical Geophysics


Knowledge-based advice to governments, preparedness, public awareness, and timely actions are an earnest of success in coping with crises and disasters. A fruitful cooperation between scientists, policymakers and the society at all stages of disaster risk management would contribute to resilience and sustainability, and is vitally important during crises/disasters such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Without having scientific knowledge and public awareness raised, no political and governmental actions are productive.

The world is facing an unprecedented global threat of the XXIst century due to coronavirus (COVID-19), a biological hazard, which by its impact could be compared to a world war with the virus. Actually the threat has been developed rapidly into a disaster, which is characterized by a “serious disruption of the functioning of a community or a society at any scale due to hazardous events interacting with conditions of exposure, vulnerability and capacity” leading either to human, economic or environmental losses and impacts1. Considering significant efforts of China to contain the coronavirus in the country, the total number (over 16,000 on 25 March 2020)2 of human losses due to the COVID-19 for about three months is perhaps not big compared to those during pandemic disasters of the XXth century, which took lives of hundred millions3. Meanwhile the number of human losses is growing exponentially along with the number of infected people despite various forms of containments recently introduced by affected countries. As for estimates of economic and financial losses, the numbers are not yet known, but are expected to become very high. How well are states and societies prepared to cope with a disaster caused by a biological or other natural hazard extreme event?

We are witnessing an intolerable and irresponsible unpreparedness of many countries, including economically most developed, to cope with the COVID-19 allowing the virus to spread around the world so easily. The majority of population has been unaware about the severity and reproductivity of the virus versus fatality ratio4,5, sometimes considering the new coronavirus as an annual seasonal flu. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 is not a surprising or unexpected biological hazard. Scientists remember the 2009 pandemic flu6 and have been well aware of a mutation nature of coronaviruses foreseeing a new type of coronaviruses to appear in the future7. This means that either the knowledge available was not properly delivered by scientists to national governments and the societies to become useful, useable and used8 or the evidence-based knowledge was delivered to policymakers but it was not used in some countries allowing for developing a disaster.

The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 outlines several priorities for actions to prevent new and reduce existing disaster risks including understanding disaster risk, strengthening disaster risk governance for management of disaster risk, investing in disaster reduction for resilience and enhancing disaster preparedness for effective response9. Projecting these priorities onto the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic disaster, we see that despite significant efforts of scientists to understand the nature of the coronavirus and its risks, a little has been made toward management of a disaster risk associated with this pandemic. Many countries did not take care of their health systems to deal with infected people, put hospitals under an economic pressure or even reduced public health care. It is known that unpreparedness costs a lot compared to well-designed, implemented and informed measures to reduce disaster risk. Unfortunately, people in many countries have not been informed on the treat and relevant protection measures associated with biological hazards, in general and this coronavirus, in particular, well in advance, and information materials have started to appear only after the pandemic turned into a crisis.

The Problem

Reducing disaster risk due to natural hazards becomes a foundation for sustainable development, especially in increasing the disaster resilience of communities. Although considerable progress has been made in loss reduction due to specific natural hazards, risk is evolving and growing as evidenced by the COVID-19 pandemic. Our knowledge on natural hazards and their interaction with human systems is being challenged by the repercussions of an increasingly interdependent world, which is transforming by technological change, globalization, political and economic instabilities. In such a tightly coupled world a disaster, especially caused by a biological hazard, affects not only the immediate area where it occurs, but also has cascading impacts because of transmission of diseases as well as disruptions of supply chains, transportation traffic and functioning of financial markets10. An impact of the COVID-19 pandemics on the world economy highlights the interconnectedness of global society even when considering that disasters have local origins. Therefore, the urgent and important actions are vital to contain the spread of coronaviruses and to prevent the pandemic disease to become a disaster11.

To significantly reduce a disaster risk and create a resilient environment, scientific knowledge as well as public awareness during crises and disasters are important. If people do not know how to act properly and hear unclear and diverse messages from various sources (not always reliable), they do not know what to do and hence a panic starts. Their mental (not only physical) health is in danger, especially in the places of high infection rate and mortality. Moreover, as a side effect, the unawareness builds a background for developing various conspiracy theories, e.g., regarding an origin of the hazards.

The Solution

Science for disaster risk management

Many nations face challenges in understanding, assessing and responding to the time- dependent nature of disaster risk and this is where integrated disaster risk research plays a critical role. Changes in the intensity of occurrences and/or severity of hazard events, partly because of climatic and environmental variabilities, coupled with changes in vulnerability and exposure will alter the impacts of natural hazards on society in mostly negative ways. Meanwhile, it is possible to develop projections of future hazard events based on modeling and data analyses, but these are also of varying value depending on models employed and spatial and temporal scales used in the forecast. The macro and micro-scale social processes producing vulnerability (unsustainable development, increasing urbanization, social inequalities, and wealth/livelihood disparities) are accelerating and in many regions amplify the impacts of natural hazards.

Understanding how people interpret risks and choose actions based on their interpretations is vital to any strategy for disaster reduction12. Affected communities have both resilient and vulnerable groups, and it is the interaction of these two that provides the relative balance of strengths and vulnerabilities which govern the timing and nature of social recovery. Business continuity planning provides the foundation for business and livelihood survival in disaster- affected regions. Quality and types of infrastructure and access to essential services (food, water, sanitation, shelters, and medical assistance) often differentiate the length of the recovery period10.

Significant funds are expended on national and international emergency assistance during and after disasters. More timely interventions and sustained multiyear efforts to support disaster risk management including research, management and resilience building can enhance sustainable development efforts13. Greater efforts are still needed to communicate science-based disaster risk assessments14, socio-economic impacts, evaluations of mechanisms for risk reduction, and prescriptive options for translating scientific findings to practice15.

Preparedness and public awareness

Facilitating sustained preparedness is essential to reducing risk from natural hazard events and to ensuring people can act on warning in timely and appropriate ways. It involves not only making sound scientific and practical information and resources available to people but also developing the psychological and social capital required to interpret and use information and resources in ways that accommodate diverse and unique local needs and expectations. Preparedness and awareness are important factors in preventive measures to mitigate disasters13.

To effectively manage disaster risk reduction and disasters themselves, science-based information should be made available to people by local authorities well in advance of a hazard knocks at the door, and not a few days before a crisis starts. It is unlikely that people would respond to the information in appropriate manner on a short notice, as most of them do not know how to behave and how to respond to a warning information. Emergency management practices should always be planned and exercised well before a potential disaster might occur. Human adjustment measures to live with risk are quite important. Such measures among others include awareness raising, emergency protection, and periodic exercises related to quarantines or evacuations, and all these require knowledge-based decisions. For example, scientists could provide detailed models of epidemic growths at the local, national, and regional levels at the level of accuracy required by authorities. Economists could estimate an expected financial expenditure related to the number of affected people, health facilities, medical personnel required, and other issues to be well prepared for each scenario of pandemic development.

Scientists and other stakeholders of disaster risk reduction should act together supporting their governments and nations in implementation of state-of-the-art preventive measures and communicate the available knowledge to the public to protect the societies from recurrent extreme natural events. Otherwise, all we will witness tragic aftermaths of disasters, which could have been avoided. ‘‘Of course, things are complicated … But in the end every situation can be reduced to a simple question: Do we act or not? If yes, in what way’’16.




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11 WHO Director-General's opening remarks at the Mission briefing on COVID-19. 12 March 2020. Available at: mission-briefing-on-covid-19---12-march-2020 (accessed on 25.03.2020)

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