On Tuesday, Assam’s Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma reportedly said that “it would be wiser for the people who are stranded outside the state to return by June 10 so that the state could shift its focus to flood management”. He was referring to the dual challenge the state has been confronted with since last week. Assam has a much lower caseload compared to most states. But with migrants returning, the number of COVID positive people in the state has almost doubled in less than a week. At the same time, it experienced its first wave of flash floods last week. Triggered by the cyclone Amphan, the floods have affected five districts. The situation drives home the urgency of framing protocols and creating institutions to deal with multiple emergencies simultaneously.
Epidemiologists and policy-makers now agree that the novel coronavirus is here to stay till there is a vaccine or people develop herd immunity. Meanwhile, societies will continue to be confronted with droughts, floods and weather vagaries. In some parts of the country, the response of the disaster mechanisms to such exigencies has been compromised by the imperative of dealing with the pandemic. Last week, for instance, when cyclone Amphan hit West Bengal and Odisha, the two states evacuated about 5 lakh people. In normal times, this would have been hailed as a feat in disaster management. However, since the two state governments also had to ensure social distancing, they fell short of cyclone relief centres. Such challenges are likely to increase with the onset of monsoon — synchronising flood control and relief with COVID containment measures will be a test for several state governments.
The Centre used the Disaster Management Act (DMA), 2005 to notify the COVID-19 pandemic as a “disaster”. Enacted after the tsunami of 2004, the Act does not mention a public health emergency. A criticism of the DMA is that it looks at disasters from an administrative and law and order perspective, and does not underline their humanitarian aspect. It talks of mitigating the “hardship of the community” but stops short of involving non-state actors in disaster relief operations. At the same time, the successes in COVID containment — in Kerala, Odisha, parts of Rajasthan — owe much to civil society involvement. The salience of such initiatives cannot be overstated. The country requires protocols to involve civil society in myriad post-COVID roles — from alleviating the stress of migrants and arranging quarantine to organising flood relief.
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