We all know that Bangladesh is considered as a role model for many low-income, disaster-prone and populous nations in tackling with high impact natural disasters particularly in its preparedness phase. As an important policy document, the Government of Bangladesh has had the Standing Orders on Disasters (SOD) in effect since 1997. The country has been updating it since then being a global signatory of the Hyogo Framework for Actions to mainstream disaster risk reduction and climate change risk issues in all development sectors of the government.
Besides SOD, the broader policy document in this regard is the National Plan for Disaster Management (NPDM). Now the question is what is the purpose of this SOD and how this can play the most vital role in also responding to a pandemic like COVID-19 and clearly capable of meeting the policy makers' needs in the future in taking immediate and responsible national and local-level actions?
The Standing Orders on Disaster (SOD) basically outlines the role and responsibilities of the ministries, divisions, agencies, organisations, committees, public representatives and citizens to cope with any natural and human-induced hazards. Over the years, our disaster management model has become more integrated, comprehensive and shifted its focus on ex ante risk reduction i.e. preparedness compare to its previous model of post-disaster relief and rehabilitation. Our structured model of disaster preparedness clearly possess an ample scope to deal with any sudden and future human-induced hazard risks like the on-going trauma of COVID-19 as well particularly at the national, local and community level co-ordination in preparedness responses.
So far, we can find some similarities in government's responses to prevent, prepare and protect our citizens from the severity of COVID-19 with past high impact natural disasters at the regional level. For example, in accordance with the SAARC Framework of Action 2006-15 for comprehensive disaster management and emergency preparedness, the SAARC leaders have already initiated the SAARC COVID-19 Emergency Fund in which Bangladesh contributed $1.5 million along with modest contributions from its other South-Asian counterparts. However, we are still uncertain to what extent the current government response mechanisms will trigger repercussions in various development sectors in the short-to medium-term impacting longer-term economic growth as well.
Hence, in this line of argument, the SOD can clearly show us the pathways in outlining our to-do list if situation deteriorates: (i) identifying the main focal point of coordination which could be Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief in our case e.g. the Federal Emergency Management Authority (FEMA) has been placed in-charge to co-ordinate the federal response to the outbreak in the US; (ii) initiating and volunteering emergency awareness and preparedness training at the community level; (iii) motivating and outlining household level preparedness measures including mandatory hygiene rules and home isolation procedures; (iv) provision for scaling up existing social protection programmes to tackle extreme poverty; (v) awareness programmes to stable social unrest; (vi) strict imposition of legal mechanisms for broader public safety; (vii) designing a mapping mechanism to identify human movements; (viii) ensuring a disaster-proof functional market mechanism; (ix) dissemination of clear government orders of maintaining safety rules and acquiring of consumption goods at a guided scale; (x) gathering more observational and experimental data for further research etc.
The Standing Orders on Disaster can be further reviewed and revised by incorporating some clear guidelines in the case of epidemics/pandemics as high impactful events threatening broader public safety. They are: (i) clear definitions of the terms quarantine, home-quarantine and isolation and outlining the preparedness measures and timeline adhering to the WHO guidelines; (ii) clear definition of physical and social distancing; (iii) outlining the preparedness measures at various disaster-phases and household preparedness behaviour; (iv) providing some forms of early warning when to take tests and hospital measures; (v) preparedness measures for non-affected household members; (vi) moral guidelines for the local level public officials to increase mass awareness; (vii) guidelines for community level leaders to follow government orders at the household and community level; (viii) designing public awareness programmes in accordance with cultural and religious disciplines and ensuring social empathy; (ix) ensuring all kinds of hospital kits, doctors and logistic supports in-order; (x) designing a coherent mechanism (i.e. administrative-economic-social-environmental-legal) to keep abusiness-as-usual environment across all major development sectors.
The Standing Orders on Disaster is not to articulate a longer-term strategy for any severe disease outbreak or to comprehensively handle a global pandemic disaster like COVID-19. However, it can clearly provide the policymakers' some immediate guidelines how to ensure a business-as-usual environment in the short-to medium term and hence a longer-term strategy can follow in our subsequent national plans. This should be taken seriously as this time is different and situation can further deteriorate when other public health concerns such as dengue are likely to add and we have to formulate strategies how to tackle the upcoming global recession as well.
The author, Azreen Karim, is a Research Fellow based at the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS), working on natural and human-induced hazard prevention, mitigation and adaptation policies