Cyclone Amphan Complicates COVID-19 Response As Relief Efforts Underway in Bangladesh and India’s West Bengal State
Bagh Bazaar, Kolkata, post cyclone Amphan

Even as Eastern Africa and the Horn of Africa are facing unprecedented flooding and locust swarms, a cyclone that has hit Southeast Asia, is presenting new challenges there in the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Torrential rain, fierce winds of up to 180 km per hour, and a 16-foot tall storm surge cut off road links, snapped power lines, destroyed crops and displaced hundreds of thousands in Bangladesh and India’s West Bengal region after the storm made landfall  last Wednesday

In India, Kolkata was particularly hard hit by the cyclone.  And while vulnerable Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh escaped its worst effects, several United Nations agencies and NGOs warned that Amphan could thwart existing efforts to contain the current COVID-19 pandemic. In Kolkata, many residents had to be forcibly displaced from their homes to shelters, due to their fears of becoming infected, authorities said.  At least 5 cases of COVID-19 have already been confirmed in Cox’s Bazaar, the largest refugee camp in Bangladesh.

Amphan Could Exacerbate Efforts to Contain COVID-19 pandemic in Region

Early evacuation of 2.5 million people in Bangladesh and half a million people in India helped mitigate the worst effects of the cyclone, but some civilians refused to evacuate from their homes for  fear of becoming infected by COVID-19 in crowded shelters, authorities said.

In the West Bengal city of Kolkata, “we have literally had to force people out of their homes, make them wear masks and put them in government buildings,” a senior police official told Reuters

There are now “hundreds of thousands” of Indians sheltered in relief camps across West Bengal, Indian government officials said – fueling fears that the shelters may spawn a breeding ground for COVID-19.

In Bangladesh, some two million people in total had been evacuated to over 12,000 cyclone shelters, and supplied with masks and sanitizers to combat the spread of the coronavirus, according to the UN. In the temporary shelters as well as the crowded refugee camp of Cox’s Bazaar, home to around a million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, conditions are ripe for virus transmission, officials warned.

“With 40,000 people crammed per square kilometre [in Cox’s Bazar] maintaining social distance is impossible. People share water and toilet facilities making it extremely challenging to maintain the strict hygiene needed,” said Oxfam’s Bangladesh Country Director Dipankar Datta. “If a serious outbreak is to be avoided more prevention and containment measures – adapted to the needs of women and men – must be rapidly put in place.”

“Communities are already vulnerable to the devastating health crisis and we know that if people are forced to seek communal shelter, they will be unable to maintain physical distancing and run the risk of contracting or transmitting the disease,” warned the International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) Deputy Chief of Mission Manuel Pereira.

Relief Efforts Swing Into Action 

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a US $132 million emergency relief package for West Bengal after he was flown through the cyclone affected areas on Friday. A day later, he deployed 5 columns of the Indian army to help restore infrastructure.

German NGO Welthungerlife released 100,000 Euro on Monday to fund Cyclone Amphan relief efforts. In Bangladesh local NGOs, such as the Bangladesh Women’s Development BRAC released BDT 30 million for the response, following a pre-release of US$138,000 in funds from the International Federation of the Red Cross .

Children displaced by cyclone Amphan get a meal from relief workers in Kolkata, India

Despite its precarious coastal location, Cox’s Bazaar fortunately escaped the worst wrath of the storm.  UN agencies and NGOs had issued early warnings about the potentially devastating effects should the storm hit the refugee camp frontally. 

As it turned out, just over 7,000 Rohingyas refugees in the settlement were directly affected, and 555 had been moved to temporary shelters or were staying with relatives while their homes were repaired, UNHCR’s Charlie Yaxley told UN News. Some 118 shelters were destroyed and 1,423 had been damaged, while relief organizations were positioning to respond.

Across Bangladesh, however, over 370,000 houses have been damaged as of Friday, according to the UN Office of Humanitarian Affairs.

In neighboring India, the cyclone left a “trail of destruction”, said one relief officer. Reports were that the cyclone so far had claimed  80 lives in eastern India’s West Bengal and some 20 lives in neighboring Bangladesh, mostly from people trapped in collapsed homes or electrocuted by falling wires. Some 176,000 hectares of crops, 200 bridges, 150 km of dams and 1,100 km of road in coastal districts had been damaged.

Relief workers battling cyclone aftermath under Covid-19 shadow in Kolkata, India

UNESCO World Heritage Mangrove Forest Suffers Major Blow In Trail of Destruction

The Sundarban mangrove forest straddling India and Bangladesh has also suffered a devastating blow – The UNESCO World Heritage Site is the largest contiguous mangrove forest in the world, and is  home to some 4 million Indians. The total damage of the cyclone could amount to 1 trillion rupees ($13 billion), said Indian state officials to Reuters.

The Sundarban’s embankments may have been breached, with many houses already damaged, Anamitra Anurag Danda, a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation think-tank, told Reuters.

Road connectivity is a priority right now, said Kolkata’s deputy mayor Atin Ghosh to Reuters. And although municipal teams, civil defence and police personnel are working “overtime”, “there is an acute shortage of manpower due to coronavirus related restrictions,” he said.

And water contamination from heavy rains and flooding could lead to a spike in illnesses, warned the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHCHA).

Massive damage is also expected to standing crops and plantations.  The cyclone destroyed farmland in Bangladesh’s low-lying coastal areas, damage that will likely endanger livelihoods, the non-profit ActionAid said.

“Communities need urgent support as they are without basic necessities such as food, clean water and materials to rebuild their homes,” Farah Kabir, the country director of ActionAid Bangladesh said.

Eastern India and Bangladesh are frequently battered by cyclones between April and December, although climate change is making them more frequent and severe, experts say.  On the other side of the hemisphere, Caribbean regions like the Bahamas are less than a week away from the beginning of their hurricane season, said Caribbean Community and Common Market Chair Mia Mottley last week at the World Health Assembly.


Image Credits: Ramakrishna Math & Ramakrishna Mission, Ramakrishna Math & Ramakrishna Mission, Ramakrishna Math & Ramakrishna Mission.

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