Aftermath of the 2010 Christchurch Earthquake. Photo by Alistair Paterson

Natural hazard preparedness and COVID-19 – Expert Reaction

Over the past week we’ve had several reminders that natural hazards may still occur while we are focused on the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last week, Vanuatu was hit by Cyclone Harold, Christchurch was jolted by a 4.3 magnitude earthquake, and Anak Krakatau erupted in Indonesia.

The SMC asked experts to comment on preparation for and response to natural hazards during a pandemic. Feel free to use these comments in your reporting or follow up with the contact details provided.

Bruce Girdwood, Data Science and Geohazards Monitoring Manager, GNS Science, comments:

“Our capability and commitment to monitor New Zealand’s geohazards continues – even in these uncertain times.

“The GeoNet network of instruments is robust and continuously feeds data back to us to monitor geohazard activity in New Zealand. Twenty-four hours a day, the National Geohazards Monitoring Centre watches for earthquakes, volcanic activity, landslides and tsunami. This is complemented by our science teams, who are currently working remotely. Our systems allow them to join a response as needed – regardless of location or time of day.

“The Covid-19 lockdown has presented New Zealand and the world with a truly unprecedented situation. GNS Science provides an essential service, and should a geohazard event happen in New Zealand during the lockdown, we will respond as quickly as possible to provide crucial information to emergency services and NEMA – just as we would at any other time.”

Dr Julia Becker and Professor David Johnston, Joint Centre for Disaster Research, Massey University, comment:

“As a nation, we need to prepare for all sorts of different hazard events, from weather and geo-hazards through to biosecurity and pandemics. While such perils are different, the basics remain the same: the more we prepare for such events, the better we will cope, adapt, respond and recover.

“Preparedness can take many forms, including gathering basic survival items (e.g. food, water, medication and other essentials), making sure you live in a safe home (e.g. ensuring it is structurally sound), psychologically preparing yourself, ensuring you are part of a social network, or making plans and practicing those plans (e.g. evacuation plans, business plans).

“In the context of COVID-19, we have seen people and organisations undertaking many of these actions, with some already having done so in advance of the lockdown, and others preparing as the lockdown has progressed. What we know is that people’s experiences of disasters shape their future actions. In the new COVID-19 world, people’s experiences will help them adapt and prepare for both the evolving pandemic circumstances, and future hazardous events.”

Dr Emily Lane, hydrodynamics scientist, NIWA, comments:

“Obviously a tsunami alert would represent a more immediate threat to human life than COVID-19, so if there is a large offshore earthquake/tsunami warning those living in the relevant evacuation zones should still evacuate.

“The tricky part would be how we could do this in ways that, as much as possible, still maintain physical distancing. In ‘normal times’, if there were a tsunami evacuation most people would be instructed to go to evacuation centres that were set up in places like school halls, community centres and marae.

“This would be less desirable at this time. Ideally, some distributed way of looking after evacuated people would need to be sorted out – perhaps billeting people so you have one evacuated bubble joining up with another bubble in a safe location. This might be feasible in the case of a far-field tsunami (most likely from South America) where there are 10-12 hours between the earthquake occurring and the tsunami arriving in New Zealand. It wouldn’t be easy, but there would be some time to match bubbles up and for people to get there while maintaining physical distance.

“This would be a lot trickier for local or regional tsunamis (local = the first wave arrives in less than an hour, regional = the first wave arrives in 1-3 hours). During the actual movement of the evacuation – especially if it were a local tsunami and there was time pressure to get out – (e.g. in places like the East Coast of the North Island in a Hikurangi trench subduction zone scenario) there could be difficulties with the physical distancing just in terms of the number of people evacuating in a short time.

“Rest homes and the vulnerable/less mobile would be especially tricky. Even at the best of times, evacuating rest homes and elderly people is very tricky, and given that they are the most vulnerable to COVID-19 this would compound the issue.

“One simplifying factor is that people tend to be in their family bubbles all the time right now. In Japan, because the Tohoku-oki earthquake happened during a work day, there were some people who went into evacuation zones because they were trying to get to their children who were at school.”

John McClure, Emeritus Professor in Psychology, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“We have seen how COVID-19 can spread rapidly and overwhelm health systems even in wealthy countries, such as the USA. Those who are more prepared, such as countries in Asia who experienced other recent epidemics, have been more successful in limiting the spread of COVID-19 than those that are less prepared, such as the USA and Italy.

“The worst outcomes are in countries where governments were slow to require actions such as physical distancing. The NZ Government heeded scientific advice and took strong action on this issue and others. This strategy has been successful in containing the disease, but it also has massive costs in terms of the economy, especially in countries like New Zealand that depend heavily on tourism.

“This robust Government action is to be admired in terms of containing the disease.  It raises the question as to why such strong action leading to massive economic costs are taken for this disease, when far less draconian action is taken to reduce the incidence of well-known major killers like cancer and heart disease.

“Approximately 32,000 people die in New Zealand every year, many of these from heart disease and cancer (Statistics NZ).  These diseases and the premature deaths they inflict are partly a reflection of lifestyle factors. And of course, there are other hazards such as vehicle crashes and earthquakes.

“Could these other hazards and deaths also be reduced more stronger government action? Sometimes this has happened, as in the ban on machine guns after the 2019 Christchurch massacre, taxes on cigarettes, and tighter legislation on earthquake-prone buildings following the recent earthquakes.

“But with other hazards and illnesses, preventive action is less evident. For example, there is strong evidence that added sugar (as in soft drinks) leads to diseases, tooth decay and premature deaths. Despite this evidence, these sugar drinks and foods are not banned (except in some hospitals) or heavily taxed in NZ; yet they make up a regular part of the diets of thousands if not millions of New Zealanders. Countries that have introduced modest taxes on these drinks have seen a reduction of sales of these drinks.

“Currently, we are getting frequent messages telling us what actions to take to fight COVID 19. But there’s nothing telling us to drink water rather than sugar drinks. Stronger action on the controllable causes of these diseases that kill thousands of New Zealanders every year would not incur the massive cost to the economy of the government actions on COVID 19. The same applies with other hazards.

“These comparisons with other risks raise the question of whether the strong Government response to COVID-19 is disproportionate to the risk.  Some academics have argued that this is the case; however, their arguments have been rebutted by Dr Siouxsie Wiles and others. But it is important to apply the same principles to different hazards, not just COVID-19.

“Why do we have this more interventionist treatment of COVID-19?  One person with an infectious disease can lead to many others being infected, and possibly dying. Many other hazards don’t have this infectious quality – one person drinking a sugary drink doesn’t lead to many others being harmed. So infectious diseases differ from many hazards. Note, however, that one engineer’s sloppy design of a large building may cause the deaths of many others in an earthquake. The same applies to a pilot making a risky decision in bad weather.

“But the different treatment of various hazards also reflects our psychology. Research shows that people perceive greater risk in hazards with vivid media coverage like murders and hazards that harm a large number of people at once, like plane crashes and earthquakes. By contrast, we are less anxious about illnesses like stroke that harm many more people but are scattered through the population and over time (and get little media coverage), even though these hazards harm and kill more people.  It is important that citizens’ and governments’ response to different hazards reflect the best research on the likely outcomes of the different hazards we face and the costs resulting from government interventions to reduce harm.”