Societies do not differ vastly in their ability to predict disasters, but their readiness to cope with them varies widely.
New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, and the state of Kerala in India that stand out in their Covid-19 response are notable for their innovative actions and results on the ground. A common denominator in disaster readiness is the priority accorded to health and education investments, with which is also associated a good degree of people’s trust and citizen participation in institutions.
Over decades, Kerala has spotlighted basic education, public health, and social systems, involving the participation of local civic organizations—and these investments have been paying off as India struggles with a devastating second Covid-19 wave.
Despite high levels of recorded infection rates and spikes from periodic mismanagement, Kerala’s Covid-19 record remains a favourable outlier. The state showed strong resistance during 2019’s Nipah virus outbreak, and the massive floods of 2018 and 2019. The state has a country-wide low of 0.4% death rate from Covid-19 infections.
Singapore is ranked by Bloomberg as best among nations in building resilience against Covid-19, with a death rate from infections of 0.05%. Digital and technological applications responses have been high on the Republic’s agenda. Singapore’s new generation of apps and technologies like TraceTogether, a digital check-in system, SafeEntry, to trace and contain system for epidemics, ePlanner, to locate the vulnerable and their travel patterns. Digital technology is highly relevant for countries at all income levels. For example, Kerala’s responses have included the use of E-Sanjeevani, a telemedicine portal, offering psycho-social support for the sick.
New Zealand, ranked second by the Bloomberg index, makes intense use of scientific expertise, spanning public health, infectious diseases, genomics, modelling and immunology. Like Singapore, New Zealand has drawn on its lessons from SARS. Among its actions during the covid pandemic, a vaccine taskforce has been made responsible for ensuring access to safe and effective vaccines as a strategy for exiting the crisis. New Zealand cancelled all international flights, while rigorously adhering to public health guidance.
Facing a massive outbreak of the virus, South Korea installed drive-through tests, body sterilizers in public venues and thermal scanners. Health administration authorities developed mobile apps to track and monitor those under quarantines, overseas visitors and use drones to disinfect large public areas. South Korea’s high tele-density enabled dissemination of information to target population through information alerts sent to their mobile phones.
Noted for trust in institutions, South Korea has been able to gain from citizen participation as ICT’s reach was coupled with protection of people’s privacy.
Across the spectrum of calamities, investment in early warning and evacuation has proven to have among the highest benefits relative to costs. Note the dramatic fall in death rates related to these investments across South Asia.
Japan is showing how better warning can be strengthened with locating the vulnerable and enabling their escape to shelter. Following the bushfires of 2018 and 2019, the Australian Natural Disaster Resilience Index assesses risk profiles of communities faced with bushfires. Following the 2004 tsunami, Indonesia’s Aceh region built multipurpose evacuation centres.
As no country or state can have enough staff power and financial resources in exactly the places that are worst hit by a calamity, there needs to be better coordination to get resources to the right places at the right time. Following the Great East Japan Earthquake and the 2011 tsunami, Japan has been improving the relationship between the national government that oversees policy and local governments in charge of implementation. It pays the Indian states to establish inter-state pooling of technology, supplies and staff to manage deficits.
Underlying crisis preparedness are high investments in health and education, with which are also associated trust and community participation in policies. Singapore and South Korea have had striking economic growth rates in the past, but it is their high shares of health and education investments, including private sector, that seems to make a lasting contribution to building resilience.
Kerala has not enjoyed high economic growth as other states. Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh are ranked higher than Kerala on measures of doing business. But the Public Affairs Index 2020 ranked Kerala as the best-governed large state in 2019 on the basis of 50 indicators reflecting equity, growth, and sustainability. In health, Kerala’s infant mortality is one third of Gujarat’s, and life expectancy 10 years longer than Uttar Pradesh’s.
Per capita spending on health by state governments (which is the bigger component than the central government in India) varies widely. Kerala’s per capita outlay is more than twice that of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Bihar.
Investments in health and education that bolster human capabilities, on the one side, and decentralized decision-making that empower those capacities with innovations, on the other, make a decisive difference to resilience and wellbeing during catastrophes. With the clear rise in extreme events, it is imperative that countries and states upgrade disaster resilience.
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