• Eula Bianca Villar, PhD

Disaster Governance in the Time of Pandemic: A Reckoning with Complex Risks

Updated: Mar 1

The year 2020 demonstrates a departure from routine contexts in disaster management. The Philippines is considered as one of the most vulnerable countries to the effects of climate change, and related natural hazards. It has experienced a volcanic eruption at the beginning of the year, and then at least five typhoons amid a global pandemic. Two of the typhoons that occurred successively later in the year, Typhoon Goni and Typhoon Vamco, were described as having a comparable impact to the 2013 Typhoon Haiyan and 2009 Typhoon Ketsana. The efforts to manage the response and recovery phases have been described as particularly challenging due to the risks compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic.

A recent thought piece by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia Pacific argued that while COVID-19 has placed many governments in a lockdown, tropical cyclones will continue to impose more significant risks on vulnerable communities. On that note, they called for governments and related stakeholders to urgently act in three focus areas: (1) updating of emergency plans using a dynamic disaster risk assessment, (2) increasing capacity for rare tropical cyclones and ensuring that resources and capabilities can match the scale of unprecedented emergencies, and (3) establishing shelters in much more secure spaces, instead of creating an over reliance on evacuation. The pandemic has pushed governments into navigating non-routine situations of managing disasters and has consequently pushed them into an iterative process of addressing compound risks. In some manner, this iterative period of finding the best approach to managing compound risks is critical for two reasons. On the one hand, it lays bare the good and bad practices of disaster governance. On the other hand, it can also become a jump-off point for governments to assess and overhaul their respective approaches to disaster governance critically.

Zooming in on the Philippine experience offers several learning points for more effective disaster governance. Note that the Philippines is consistently ranked within the Top 10 countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, which includes both slow-onset (e.g., sea-level rise, drought, among others) and rapid-onset (intensified typhoons, increased precipitation, flooding, among others) climate events. The Asian Disaster Reduction Center reports that the Philippines is visited by 20 typhoons on average per year, with at least five typhoons being destructive. Given this, the expectation is that the Philippines has amassed both resources and capabilities that make managing disasters a routine process. Indeed, there are some acceptable practices that the country has exhibited over the years. These include improved early warning systems, improved public communication and local knowledge of risks imposed by the changing climate, better engagement of the private sector, and in some cases, robust local governance that employ an all-stakeholders approach to managing disasters. In the face of COVID-19, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) also issued Memorandum No. 54, which provides guidelines for COVID-19 preparedness measures during the rainy season.

Despite these developments, the country must remain cautious in acknowledging and addressing maladaptive practices that perpetuate poor disaster governance. These include a disinterested or disengaged citizenry in reviewing and calling for accountability and transparency practices, response-heavy investments that perpetuate reactive solutions, and finally, a single event-based risk assessment that often fails to capture the compound effects of multiple hazards occurring successively or simultaneously.

The Bayanihan to Heal as One Act (i.e., Republic Act No. 11469) allowed the Duterte administration to reallocate government funds to COVID-19 response. About PHP 275 billion fund has been earmarked for the pandemic response. The law calls for weekly Presidential reports submitted to Congress while still in effect. Reports to the Joint Congressional Oversight Committee are consistently filed since the first reporting date on 24 March 2020. However, it is not enough that the government provides these reports; it should be complemented by a citizenry that is engaged in ensuring that the reports are not only consistent with response operations on the field, but are also consistent with the needs on the ground through an effective needs assessment and consultation mechanism. As an example, specific policies adopted during the pandemic (mostly involving enhanced community quarantines) had been considered insensitive to the needs vulnerable sectors and front-liners (e.g., transportation restrictions, difficulty in implementing social distance measures, and an overly militaristic approach to the health crisis at the expense of science-driven approach). In a crisis/disaster situation, a blanket approach to response and relief operations should always consider sensitivities on the field, and all policies and interventions should be consistent with the realities on the ground. One way to address this is to ensure a consistently engaged citizenry that calls the government's attention it voted into power.

It is also common among governments to frontload their investments on response and relief operations (i.e., ex-post budgeting). This is the same case for the Philippines, where the NDRRM fund is reported to focus primarily on relief, recovery, and reconstruction. This results in patchwork and reactive solutions to disasters instead of proactively managing and reducing future risks. The government must reverse this funding pattern and instead redirect their investments on mitigation and preparedness (i.e., ex-ante budgeting). This could help limit the risk of future crises/disasters, and shift the focus on long-term, sustainable investments on ensuring that the country as a whole is protected against impacts of hazards. Ultimately, this would build a steady path towards resilience.

Finally, it is also crucial that the government consciously acknowledges that it can no longer plan its actions and disaster management practices around the plausibility of just single events. In a recently published technical report, the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction and the International Science Council released a classification and definition of various hazards to aid in effective planning for disaster risk reduction. The report also highlighted that while the hazards are listed individually, effective disaster management should account for a multi-hazard approach, considering that the types of risks we face are becoming complex, where one type of hazard can have a compounding effect on another, as well as have cascading effects on various sectors. The COVID-19 pandemic is a timely reminder of this complex space that societies at large are navigating, where a lot of other hazards like typhoons, fires, earthquakes, among others, are not likely to wane despite an already big hurdle of a pandemic that we are facing.

It bears emphasizing that this era of risks against the backdrop of another risk (i.e., the global pandemic) is not only a time to act but also a time to reflect, review, and revise old ways of disaster governance so that the way forward shows a more grounded path towards achieving resilience for all.

Eula Bianca Villar, PhD (ejvillar@aim.edu) is an adjunct faculty in the Stephen Zuellig School of Development Management at the Asian Institute of Management in the Philippines. She teaches courses on organizational resilience, strategic disaster risk management, and business continuity management. She was a grant recipient of the European Union Marie Curie Fellowship for the project, “IT-Enabled and Networked Approach to Crisis Management” and earned her PhD (cum laude) from Ramon Llull University in Barcelona, Spain. Her research interests include organizing processes in crisis environments, innovation in disaster space, and adaptive social processes to address climate risk.