Climate Change Places Vulnerable Populations in a Double Bind During Storm Seasons in COVID-19 Era

September 29, 2020

By Vivian V. Altiery De Jesús, MBE
Program Coordinator | Berman Institute
Doctor of Medicine 4th year -Student (MD) | UPR-SOM

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts an “extremely active” hurricane season for 2020. Climate change is responsible for increased hurricane strength and frequency in the Atlantic Ocean, with residents of islands like Puerto Rico and the Bahamas suffering devastation of environmental phenomena caused by industrialized countries’ carbon footprints. Previously, this has been framed as climate injustice .

Traditionally, people living in hurricane risk zones without the option to move in with family members or friends are relocated in shelters until the storms goes away and the country regains some stability during the storm aftermath.  However, the 2020 Storm Season is different. The COVID-19 pandemic imposes more risks to the population. And even prior to COVID-19, people in shelters had (and still have) communicable disease outbreak risks, as well as mental health and other health risks.

Climate changes and the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated vulnerabilities and placed disadvantage population in a dilemma. The first option is that people remain at their house located in the high-risk flood zone. This option may delay COVID-19 exposure; however, the household members could be at risk of drowning if the rescue team is not successful. On the other hand, if the rescue team is successful, the victims would be relocated to a shelter. Household members could be exposed to COVID-19 during the rescue attempt or at the storm shelter. The second option is choosing to relocate at the shelter before the storm arrives. In this scenario, household members are at risk of COVID-19 infection for longer time, but do not risk third parties involved in the disaster response.  Under a utilitarian perspective, the second option would be desirable since it minimizes the harms for household members and rescuers. However, there is an ethical responsibility at local and global levels owed to this vulnerable population.

In summary, vulnerable populations are in a double bind. The strategies for surviving hurricane seasons are high-risk for infectious outbreak. Climate change increases the likelihood of both devastating hurricanes and infectious disease outbreaks like COVID-19. Climate injustice are exacerbated for vulnerable and disadvantage populations that cannot safely weather from the storms.  What can we do to mitigate the harms imposed by climate change and the current pandemic?

At local level, efforts should be made to maintain social distancing among the people located in shelters. This could be through either by increasing locations or implementing features that facilitates social distancing (e.g. installing dividers).  Special locations should be considered for high risk COVID-19 patient such as elderly and immunocompromised population. Careful planning is needed, though, since complex cases will arise (i.e. an immunocompromised 10-year-old should not be separated from her non-immunocompromised mother). Nonetheless, minimizing the exposure of the high-risk COVID-19 population would be helpful.  Masks should be mandatory at the shelter. It is most likely that the quantity being sheltered exceeds the recommended quantity during gathering (e.g. no more than 10 people in a room). Therefore, interventions that slows COVID-19 spreads, such as wearing masks, should be implemented.  Hygiene efforts must be maximized; hand sanitizer, water and soap should be available. Countries at risks of Hurricanes should devised planning designs that encourage and promotes personal and overall hygiene at shelters without increasing the risks of COVID-19. The CDC offers guidelines for Public Disaster Shelters & COVID-19, providing insight to personal preparation and safety measures.  Lastly, local authorities should implement infectious surveillance for communicable disease, including COVID-19, in an attempt to mitigate outbreaks in the population.

At the global level, countries should collaborate in mitigating Category 5 Hurricanes formation. Warmer water in the tropics, means stronger atmospheric systems. Scientists had created models that shows the consequences if temperatures continue to increase. Unfortunately, even if all the Caribbean region eliminated completely their carbon footprint, it would not be enough to mitigate climate change. Regardless of the pandemic status, Category 5 Hurricanes, places vulnerable population in economic risk (e.g. losing their house), social risk (e.g. assessing education, employment after the event) , and health risks (e.g. mental health, diabetic complications).  Which again highlights climate injustice.

Lastly, the pandemic is forcing restructuration in various social system such as education, health, traveling, and workforce. In a more dramatic light , it feels like we are “re-inventing civilization”. This is our chance to incorporate designs that mitigates climate change. It is hard to see any positivity in the COVID-19 pandemic, but if we were to choose one, we should take the opportunity to aim for a fair climate in our new post-COVID-19 society.