Coming to grips with mega disasters

Sudhirendar Sharma | Updated on August 23, 2020

Title: Rethinking Readiness Author : Jeff Schlegelmilch Publisher : Columbia University Press, New York Price : $20

Rooted in research, the book reveals the existential threats we face and charts the roadmap ahead

As Rethinking Readiness went into production, the Covid-19 pandemic had begun to ravage the globe. With no let down in worldwide infection spread and human casualties, the dreadful virus has exposed the vulnerabilities of the very systems and processes that were intended to manage such disasters. Much like how the tragedy of 9/11 was beyond imagination in character and scale, Covid-19 has exposed the world to the most existential threat till date.

While there is little denying that the virus has caught all countries off guard, Jeff Schlegelmilch wonders if old ways of thinking about disasters will get us any better. With infectious diseases increasingly surpassing advances in medicine in an interconnected world, the impact of bio-threats is becoming far reaching and often difficult to contain.

How the world confronts the current viral invasion will determine preparedness to meet mega-disasters in future?

In assessing the threat of imminent five mega-disasters — bio-invasion, climate change, infrastructural failure, cyber threat, and nuclear conflict — the author contends that their potential to break down the old systems with respect to incident command, vulnerability assessment, and public safety raises serious questions on disaster preparedness. With extreme weather events like floods and earthquakes occurring in toe, the duress of the Covid-19 pandemic creates new anxieties among nuclear powers, with the potential for bad actors to exploit the situation. The oversized impacts from the pandemic are partly of our own making, because the threat of pandemics have been oversimplified and downplayed in recent years.

While the 1918 influenza remains a grim reminder of worst-case scenario, some of the more recent outbreaks haven’t met as serious an attention — the 2009 Swine Flu killed more than a million people; the 2014 Ebola virus is yet to be tamed; and the 2015 Zika re-emergence has remained potentially devastating to say the least. The evidence seems to show that the global environment has become an ideal incubator for bio-threats, both at an increased frequency and with increased severity. What is more, modern life in congested urban spaces backed by industrialised agricultural practices, and underfunded health systems is giving pathogens the opportunity to become internationalised. The fact that some 60-75 per cent of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic adds to the growing concern.

Ramp up research

At the core is the need for pharma research to outpace emergence of infections. Ironically, resources that go into the healthcare system rely on viable markets to justify financing research, development, and production. Should that not have been the case, a vaccine against Ebola would have been available. In reality it wasn’t because there isn’t a large market for it. Even in the best case, it is the disproportionate focus on treatment rather than prevention that has brought the world to an abyss. Even global programmes like the United States Biodefense Strategy and the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense have suffered on account of chronic budget shortfalls, shifting priorities, and a dearth of research funding.

Rethinking Readiness is about setting a new framework to ensure that we take serious risks head-on and build resilience to them, by articulating preparedness and redundancy in terms of economic benefit. Quoting climate change as an example where fierce headwinds from climate change deniers who don’t wish to face the increasing cost of reducing emissions for doing business in a competitive global landscape, the book suggests a slew of incentives like a discounted insurance rate, tax deduction, and financial collateral to secure funding for reducing the threats and vulnerabilities. In addition, this will require elected officials and democratic institutions accountable for preparedness, rather than just recovery from disasters.

Never before did we have more knowledge and more resources at our disposal, argues Schlegelmilch, and yet human delusions of purpose and exceptionalism have brought us down to the present state. No wonder, the continued appearance of high-impact infectious diseases or pandemic potential in humans is certain. By using a breadth of references, the author lends perspective to our continuing struggle to achieve readiness and sustainability because ‘we are not the first people to believe we are living at the end of time.’

The world seems to have been caught in its own trap. The number of laboratories studying dangerous pathogens have only proliferated despite the adoption of International Health Regulations by all 196 member-countries to detect, evaluate, and report on the risk of health threats. If Covid-19 virus’ accidental release is any indication, it is clear that ‘there hasn’t really been a governance structure in place to prevent gains from such malicious research.’ Rethinking Readiness illustrates interconnectivity between multiple drivers, and the need to embrace the whole problem than small pieces of it.

Jeff Schlegelmilch has made a significant and timely contribution on a subject that the world is struggling to comprehend. An insightful roadmap — rooted in research and practice — brings deeper learning to scale across all levels of system change. Rethinking Readiness is a must-read for everyone committed to understanding the most existential threats we face, reinforced by the inclusion of multiple examples of inadequate response, including the identification of risks, opportunities, and misapplications embedded in practice.

Unless the world invests in evidence-based, multi-sectoral, attainable solutions and prepares the next generations to engage in addressing the critical challenges, the threat of mega disasters will continue to loom large on us. That’s why the book makes a compelling reading.

The reviewer is an independent researcher based in Delhi

Published on August 23, 2020

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