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By Sunday Akin Olukoju
March 1, 2016
According to the British Broadcasting Corporation, “one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded struck off the coast of Indonesia, triggering a tsunami that swept away entire communities around the Indian Ocean. About 228,000 people were killed as a result of the 9.1 magnitude quake and the giant waves that slammed into coastlines on Dec. 26, 2004.” However, the report concluded that, “Despite there being several hours between the earthquake and the impact of the tsunami, nearly all the victims were taken completely by surprise.” This was due to:
• No adequate warning systems in place
• No alert issued to people to seek safety
• No Indian Ocean tsunami warning and mitigation system to detect seismological changes and provide warnings of approaching waves until after the disaster struck.
Sadly, “risk experts and U.N. officials have warned [that] weaknesses remain in the system, particularly regarding the communication of warnings at local level.” This calls our collective attention to an urgent need for reflections on some best practices.
The World Health Organization (WHO) identified some emergency management gaps that gave the Ebola virus an undeserved tenacity and led to high fatalities in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Some of these include:
• Poverty/mismanagement leading to inaccessibility of highly equipped medical facility and care
• Traditional belief systems that attribute adverse events, including diseases, to non-medical causes
• Denial of the outbreak
• Low level of education leading to a community’s resistance, creating a false belief that foreign teams were causing deaths in order to harvest organs
• Challenges of conducting cross-border contact tracing
• Gaps in the surveillance system and the difficulty of uncovering what was happening in the shadow zones, which led to gross underestimation in the official data
• Lack of trust due to delayed response in answering calls for an ambulance or burial team
• Lack of logistical support, bad road conditions, lack of properly maintained vehicles and fuel and fear on the part of ambulance crews, among others
Reflecting on best practices
The Nigerian government stopped the Ebola virus from spreading in the densely populated city of Lagos and the oil-rich city of Port-Harcourt, areas where two people infected with the virus had escaped. The WHO shared some insights as to how they did it.
• The government established emergency operations centers and effective coordination of an immediate and aggressive response by the country’s strong leadership.
• Nigeria’s first-rate virology laboratory, affiliated with the Lagos University Teaching Hospital, was staffed and equipped to promptly diagnose a case of Ebola virus disease.
• The government generously allocated funds and dispersed them quickly.
• Isolation facilities were built in both cities, as were designated Ebola treatment facilities.
• House-to-house information campaigns and messages on local radio stations in local dialects eased public fears.
• Infrastructures and cutting-edge technologies for polio eradication were repurposed to support the Ebola response, putting GPS systems to work for real-time contact tracing and daily mapping of transmission chains. As such, contact tracing reached 100 percent in Lagos and 99.8 percent in Port Harcourt.
• Excellent epidemiological detective work eventually linked all cases back to either direct or indirect contact with the air traveller from Liberia.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) shared best practices that will mitigate significant natural hazards such as floods or tornadoes.
• In Hays County, Texas, proactive identification and monitoring of high-risk, hazardous and dangerous flooding points and deployment of appropriate flood warning technology to mitigate fatalities. There is also the use of solar-powered electronic billboards that can relay updates and information every 10 minutes.
• A tornado early alert warning system that alerts residents in San Marcos, Texas, to take cover and or precautionary measures.
• Building tornado shelters and safe rooms to help residents protect themselves in Cooke County, Texas, against dangerous tornadoes.
• In the city of Austin, Texas, mass community education and empowerment of residents in disaster preparedness for all types of hazards, including first aid tips and what to do in case of flash floods, wildfires, severe weather, pandemic flu or accidents involving hazardous materials. This includes getting the message out in as many languages as residents speak, through all available local and national media including social media.
• In Harris County, Texas, the introduction of the power of synergy through collaborative community resilience approach gave birth to multi-jurisdictional, hazard mitigation planning to mitigate significant natural hazards, such as floods, hurricanes, storm surge and severe thunderstorms.
• Involvement of all stakeholders in recovery plans, as exemplified in New Jersey’s successful approach to purchasing homes along the Hurricane Sandy’s flooded path.
• Defensible space and use of fire resistant building materials, which saved properties in Calaveras County, Calif., in September 2015.
There is the need for a pre-emergency training, clear chain of command and the list of responsibilities for each applicable agency and locality. An effective communication system for all stakeholders must be kept open at all times. Local communities must play major roles of caring during and after the emergency, including physical, emotional, spiritual, financial and psycho-social support.
Author: Sunday Akin Olukoju, Ph.D. is the president of Canadian Center for Global Studies and teaches at Athabasca University in Alberta, Canada. Olukoju can be reached at [email protected]