Jul 30, 2020, 11:31 AM
About 1.8 billion Muslims across the globe are set to celebrate Eid Adha on Friday, amid a pandemic that has so far infected more than 16 million people and killed many more.
Humanitarian workers on the ground analyze who needs what relief and draw up plans. The government asks for help. The United Nations coordinates international pledges. Relief comes in - money, bags of grain, medical supplies.
But by that point, weeks or months have gone by.
Rarely is there pre-planning, pre-fundraising, or pre-agreement on a plan. “This is medieval,” said Stefan Dercon, a professor of economic policy at Oxford and a former chief economist of Britain’s bilateral aid agency, the Department for International Development.
He and Daniel Clarke, head of the London-based Center for Disaster Protection, wrote the book “Dull Disasters? How Planning Ahead Will Make a Difference.”
“It is as if financial instruments such as insurance do not exist,” they wrote. “This is begging-bowl financing at its worst.”
But here’s what can happen instead - what, in fact, did happen in the Kurigram district of northwest Bangladesh in July. With colossal rains predicted, the United Nations World Food Program and the Bangladesh government identified about 5,000 particularly vulnerable families. Three days before the flood hit, they used mobile phone banking to send each family the equivalent of $53. With that money, the families secured their houses and belongings - for example, buying materials to lift their furniture off the ground. And they could pay the costs of taking their livestock and fleeing.
Instead of getting relief after they were wiped out by the flood, the residents were able to avoid much of the loss - for $10 per person.
The accomplishment in Bangladesh is one of a handful of examples worldwide of anticipating disaster.
But it doesn’t have to be the rare exception. If disasters take us by surprise, it’s because we weren’t looking. With satellite data and mathematical modeling, we can now know about a flood or drought days or even weeks in advance.
“We’ve improved so much in getting the precise likelihood of this particular area being flooded, and the number of people affected. We probably couldn’t have done this 10 years ago,” Dr. Dercon said of the Bangladesh case.
We can’t predict the first case of a new outbreak of Ebola, but we can know where that deadly disease recurs and use that first case to predict later ones. Using satellite data, scientists can anticipate cholera outbreaks days, even weeks, in advance. When violent conflict breaks out or terrible drought sets in, we can plot the mass movement of refugees.
An early response can prevent suffering. With famine expected in Somalia in 2017, for example, U.N. and other aid agencies sent 600,000 families vouchers by text message redeemable in local markets. (All hail mobile phone banking!) The vouchers fed families and the local economy, and famine was averted.
A Guest Editorial
The Gambia government last Friday makes it mandatory for people to wear face masks throughout the country. The move came following the lifting of State of Public Emergency by the presidency. Though, the mandatory use of face masks is part of a broader mechanism to help stem the spread of Covid-19 in the country.
The upward surge in the number of Covid-19 reported cases in the country has been very alarming, yet many still doubt the existence of the virus. These spikes in the discovery of new positive cases remind us all that the battle is far from over. And there is more work to be done in the containment of this deadly virus.