Disaster preparedness and resilience is an essential public health function to protect people during times of crisis. Disasters strike unexpectedly, overwhelming response capacity and causing significant human morbidity and mortality. Though the timing of disasters is unpredictable, response capacity can be planned in advance to mitigate the risk they pose when they strike, stopping them at just a crisis or emergency.
The European Commission has recognised the need for common goals across the EU to enhance such preparedness and resilience to disasters and emergencies.
The Commission’s five-point plan is:
- Anticipate – To improve risk assessment, anticipation, and disaster risk management planning.
- Prepare – To increase risk awareness and preparedness of the population which helps to reduce the impact of disasters.
- Alert – To enhance early warning. Enhancing early warning systems ensures that warning messages across the national, regional and local levels reach the right people on time.
- Respond – To enhance the EU Civil Protection Mechanism response capacity.
- Secure – To ensure a robust civil protection system. Civil protection systems need to remain operational 24/7, during and after disasters, when they are most needed.
To kick-off the implementation of these goals, the European Commission is launching five flagship initiatives, one under each goal. For example one is “prepare EU”, a pan-European awareness raising programme for disaster resilience targeting European citizens.
Climate change will require increased disaster mitigation and resilience to protect public health. As the climate changes, some natural processes will intensify, increasing the risk of harm to populations. These will take on a number of forms; natural disasters from increased heat, drought, rainfall, storms and sea level changes, infectious challenges and pandemics from the human-animal-environment interface and shifting geographic distribution of vectors, and also conflict-related disasters from social pressures of resource insecurity.
A focus for the Commission is enhancing the capacity of Civil Protection services to respond to droughts, floods, fires as well as Health authorities capacity to identify and respond to infectious disease threats.
Vulnerable people will suffer these effects the most. They already are. Countries in the global south will bear the main burden of climate change-related events, but it will also be the most disadvantaged in the population who stand to suffer the most. People without means of protecting themselves from environmental exposures, people who don’t have access to information or services to ensure health and safety, those who live with vulnerabilities meaning their ability to respond to changes in the environment create different outcomes to those who can. Preparedness can address these vulnerabilities before an event occurs.
The Covid-19 pandemic was a vivid example of how emergencies unequally affect individuals and communities. There is also much that can be learned from the new coordination mechanisms included in the European Health Union to ensure that authorities and stakeholders involved can collaborate more efficiently in future health emergencies. A central piece of this, is the recently created EU Health Emergency Preparedness and Response (HERA), which coordinates the development of a ‘healthy’ pipeline of medical countermeasures that can be rapidly available for future health emergencies. EPHA’s detailed assessment of HERA and the response to the lessons of the COVID pandemic can be found here.
Disaster preparedness and resilience needs to look at the systems that govern individual and population safety in times of need. Information campaigns should inform people of the risks of natural events, and advise what to do in times of need so that when an event occurs, so as to decrease vulnerability. Systems testing and planning can assess weaknesses that need to be addressed before an event, so that inefficiencies or weaknesses in organisational structures are not discovered at a critical time they are needed. Emergency surge capacities and resources can be planned so that when supply chains, communication channels and infrastructure are compromised, systems can continue to function and meet the needs of people, when their need is the greatest.
This is essential work.
Disasters will occur, and they will generally always be unpredictable. No one is safe, but some will be more safe than others. Disaster preparedness and resilience are essential to protect health in times of crisis and will be increasingly relevant in a climate-changed world. The risk of disaster is increasing, both from nature, but also from the effects of these changes on society. Work now can reduce vulnerability, and therefore increase resilience. These challenges need to be faced, and disaster preparedness and resilience is the way to keep these expected, yet unpredictable events, at the level of crisis or emergency, before spiralling into a disaster.