Tech acquired for COVID-19 pandemic useful elsewhere, says Carby

WITH the Caribbean region being menaced by potential twin disasters, COVID-19 and predictions of an active hurricane season, head of the Disaster Risk Reduction Centre at The University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, Dr Barbara Carby says technology acquired for managing the pandemic should be leveraged in the wake of other calamities.

According to official forecast for the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season — which began on June 1 and runs until November 30 — anywhere between 13 and 19 tropical storms are expected, with between six and 10 hurricanes and an average of three to six major hurricanes developing over the period.

Addressing a World Environment Day mini forum hosted by the university’s Faculty of Science and Technology last Friday, Dr Carby said investments made in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic should be put to further use.

“We have been really very tied to physical proximity for damage assessment — so teams go out into the field, they gather their data, they come back in and enter the data, and so on. This is an opportunity for us to start using the technology, geospatial technology, which are excellent to overcome access issues. So the use of drones, for example, the use of satellite imagery — we should be thinking in this way now, and this is also a way for us to speed up our damage assessment procedures,” Dr Carby, a former director general of the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management, said.

“To me, it’s the way of the future. A lot of investment has been put into technology for managing the COVID-19 pandemic. We have an opportunity now to leverage that investment in that technology — the databases which have been developed and so on, all of these can be used for other major events.

“So let us not think in silos. We have the technology, we have the information, we have the data for COVID-19, so how can we not leverage that for another major event, whether it be an earthquake, a hurricane, or a major flood? A disaster is a terrible thing to waste,” Dr Carby added.

In the meantime, she said governments will need to pay attention to several factors after the passing of a hurricane.

“We have to think of the management of humanitarian personnel and supplies. The external community has been very generous in its response to regional events, historically. Our border status will depend on the global situation. We are opening our borders now, but there could be a second wave of COVID-19 and if that is so, the governments will have to decide where humanitarian assistance will be allowed to enter the region and under what conditions,” she noted.

Dr Carby highlighted that Jamaica should be developing a set of scenarios and responses to those scenarios before any possible impact.

“Then we would have to communicate to our partners what those conditions are, based on the different scenarios, if they are going to offer assistance after the event,” she explained.

Turning to further adjustments to planning that may be required in light of COVID-19 and major hurricanes, based on the recommendations from the Pan American Health Organization for physical distancing for emergency shelters, which speak to separation of 4.5 feet for a “short stay”, which is 18 hours, and six feet for times longer than 18 hours, she said planners will need to identify additional, safe shelter space.

“More importantly, this should really be able to withstand a category five hurricane. The question is, can we find enough additional space which would be capable of withstanding a category 5 hurricane. This is something the practitioners will have to think about,” she said.

Noting that “normally” shelters for evacuees in Jamaica are “quite crowded”, Dr Carby said, “That shouldn’t happen for COVID-19. We need to have, at minimum, half the number of persons in the same space that we would normally have.”

There are more than 800 shelters in Jamaica, about 250 of which are primary shelters.

In pointing out that additional shelter supplies will be needed, Dr Carby said, in addition to the normal food and water stocks, “shelter supplies should now include disposable masks, gloves, fluid-resistant aprons, shoe covers, and goggles” for individuals who are going to be cleaning and disinfecting these spaces.

“In addition to the additional space changes required to the layout of shelters, there is now a need for isolation areas for potential positive cases, separate areas for the elderly, and sanitising and hand-wash stations,” she said, adding that training for shelter volunteers should take place before the need for the opening of shelters arises.

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