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Odisha Faces Double Whammy

Bhubaneswar: Amid the surge of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, Odisha now faces a double whammy following IMD forecast of the possibility of a very severe cyclonic storm in the Bay of Bengal. The storm is likely to impact the North Odisha region and thus a cause of concern for the state administration.

It is a fact that Odisha has emerged as a model of disaster management across the globe for successfully handling all the calamities after the 1999 super cyclone. The state has the capability to handle the situation, but is the preparedness sufficient during the double whammy situation? The question is evident because the people in coastal villages need to be evacuated in the event of the cyclone “Yaas” hitting the shore. As such, the state is facing an acute health crisis as people are left unattended in their homes due to lack of adequate provisions in health facilities like Primary Health Centers (PHCs) and Community Health Centres (CHCs).

Therefore, can the state now claim that it can smoothly handle both the pandemic and the disaster at the same time with its limited resources, both human and machinery? As such, the state is facing humongous problems in tackling the pandemic which would be multiplied in the event of a cyclone. Though the state has enough resources to handle a disaster, one should not forget that both the men and logistics are already deployed to tackle the pandemic. These same people, be it the District Collector, ADM, Tehsildars, are already overworked in the pandemic. Now, they too have to look after the cyclone. Is it humanly possible to manage the situation smoothly with inadequate physical support?

The state, during just two decades, has achieved a lot on the disaster management front. All the strategies were prepared keeping in view the cyclone or flood and not the severe pandemic like COVID-19. Nobody has ever thought of a situation when the cyclone will come amidst the pandemic. Therefore, to tackle both the issues simultaneously, Odisha must revisit its strategy to achieve its goal of ‘Zero Casualty’. It is another matter that the state’s efforts will save precious lives from the impact of the cyclone. Still, none can guarantee whether the evacuated people and the officials engaged in the disaster management will not get infected by the COVID-19. The situation is such that Odisha is caught between the devil and the deep sea. If one is saved from the cyclone, they will get into the trap of COVID-19.

The cyclone Amphan presented a similar situation. It came last year amidst the first phase of the pandemic and moved on to West Bengal after causing negligible impact in Odisha. West Bengal, Kolkata city, in particular, was pulverized. There was a massive rise in the COVID-19 cases in Kolkata even as the cyclone left the area after two days. This is evident from the fact that about 300 personnel of the NDRF, ODRAF and Fire Service got infected while working in Kolkata. The intensity of infection was less because the cyclone Amphan impact was accessed from Kolkata. No one has the idea what exactly happened in rural Bengal through which the cyclone passed.

Odisha, which started its fight against natural disasters with 3Rs – Relief, Restoration, Rehabilitation, in early 2000, has shifted its focus to 3Ps – Planning, Preparedness and Prevention. Odisha has exhibited in a real sense that necessity is the mother of invention. As the state is yet to recover from the 1999 shock when about 10,000 people died like insects due to the super cyclone, its spirit and will to win over the disaster has gained strength. The state can now make things possible and encourage other states to follow the model to beat nature, at least minimising human loss due to calamity if not of properties.

However, under the changed circumstances when the two calamities come hand to hand, the state needs to be doubly alert, and strategies should be prepared accordingly. Now, one should not be complacent that the Odisha model is the best for disaster management. But, this model should further stretch, keeping in view the double whammy situation.

How can this be possible? The COVID-19 pandemic has taught a lesson. The state first needs to focus on better medical facilities in rural areas instead of only concentrating on developing medical colleges. While stress is on the tertiary sector, the primary sector needs attention. It is a fact that medical colleges are also most essential. At the same time, village-level PHCs, CHCs and even District Headquarters Hospitals should be upgraded regularly to face such difficult situations. In addition, large scale vacancies of nurses and health care staff needed to be filled up.

It is heartening that the state has set up two hospitals, one at Puri and another at Jharsuguda, with oxygen support beds and ICUs. Similar facilities should be available across the state to be helpful during acute crisis period.

Setting up an institutional framework within the government system and keeping an eye on disaster management has helped the state, said an expert in calamity management, adding that capacity building at all levels to respond to disasters in different stages should now be the focus. The state has focused on the community while preparing for any disaster, maybe cyclone flood or even the CoVID-19. Community-based disaster preparedness became the policy of the State Government. The Gram Panchayat was strengthened as an institution for responding to disasters along with development. Similar attention is needed for PHCs to be maintained.

While going to the roots, the Naveen government strengthened and assisted the Women Self Help Groups, encouraged and supported them to emerge as a potential tool to ensure community discipline and community accountability. During the last 20 years, the housing stock, public infrastructure and facilities have been improved. However, health vulnerability is needed to be addressed by the government and decision-makers. And for it, short-, medium- and long-term approaches are necessary. The state has to prioritise improving primary health care facilities, which will help the people in the long run to save their lives.