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The Pandemic and Compounding Events: Natural and Stealth Disasters

  
Cleveland Volcano, Alaska, 2006. NASA image. The COVID-19 pandemic is the focus of attention in many ways during 2020 and is likely to remain so for months, if not years, to come. Because of its long duration other disasters are likely to occur: some could be technological (e.g., electrical grid failures, computer network problems, nuclear reactor difficulties) and some will inevitably involve the natural world of which we humans are a part. These additional disasters are being referred to as "compounding events" by the media and agencies involved in responding to them.
     Here I describe two end-member types of disasters, and suggest that recognition of the spectrum is useful in comparing/contrasting different ways of preparing for and recovering from them. Agencies such as FEMA assume that their management structure and operations are universally applicable to all disasters with, perhaps, some fine-tuning. However, differences in disaster characteristics such as duration, geographic areal extent, population numbers, and civil structures affected can be considerable (e.g., a town affected by a landslide versus a nation and world affected by a pandemic).
      Natural processes of the earth unleash energy in ways that are sometimes harmful or, at best, inconvenient, for humans: earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, landslides, floods. Ignoring the biological component of the geosphere,  such events have historically called such events "natural disasters," or "Acts of God" by the insurance industry. They are typically characterized by a sudden onset and relatively immediate consequences. There are many historical examples and our human societies have evolved various ways of coping with them logistically, economically, and psychologically.
     Preparation, co-existence, recovery, and remediation are possible, at least to some extent, even in the largest of events. The limited local extent of these disasters allows the possibility of discussion and resolution.
     There are other disasters that involve the natural systems that support us. Rather than being driven primarily by natural non-biological processes, this set of disasters is driven by human behavior. Examples are climate change, desertification, acidification and nitrogen-contamination of the oceans, compaction and erosion of fertile soils, and pandemics. They typically have more gradual onsets than natural disasters and, because of this, I refer to these as "stealth disasters." (See Footnote for reference) Although they are unfolding unnoticed or ignored by many, they are having near-term consequences. At a global scale they are new to human experience.
Dead zone (hypoxia), a biological desert in the Gulf of Mexico NOAA image      Our efforts at preparation, co-existence, recovery, and remediation for stealth disasters lag far behind those that we have in place for natural disasters. Furthermore, the four stages of preparation--co-existence, recovery, and remediation--in stealth disaster situations involve many ethical questions that typically must be solved in the context of much larger cultural and social differences than encountered in natural disaster settings.
    Four core ethical principles may provide guidelines—autonomy, non-maleficence, beneficence, and justice (e.g., Jamais Cascio).  We, as a community, and our leaders can work to ensure that as people take responsibility for their own lives (autonomy) they have relevant information in usable form. To minimize harm to others and the environment (non-maleficence), we can design and implement sustainable ways to extract resources and dispose of waste. To advance the welfare of humankind (beneficence), we can work on innovative new ways of living. This should strive for use of commodities that are easily-obtained, and on replacements for others, aiming toward zero waste. And, we can strive toward social justice by recognizing that social, ethical, legal and political issues regarding resource use may be far more difficult than the technical ones, and work within the (sometimes frustrating human) framework for resolution of those issues.
     The global scope of compound disasters raises far more ethical issues than we have encountered with either natural or stealth disasters taken one at a time. Just as we have learned (e.g., Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, Maria, and the on-going pandemic in the U.S.) that inter-agency response is crucial to successful management of natural and stealth disasters, we can expect that global cooperation in management and governance will be essential to the management of compound disasters.

Footnote: The Dynamics of Disaster by Susan W. Kieffer, Norton Press, 2013.

Adapted from an abstract at the EGU General Assembly April 7-12, 2013, Vienna, Austrai, I.D. EGU2013-2380.

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