A deadly mix: Disasters accelerate coronavirus spread

A deadly mix: Disasters accelerate coronavirus spread
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The blast that shook Beirut Aug. 4 claimed more than 170 lives and forced more than 300,000 from their homes. Yet the worst of the disaster may be yet to come. 

Lebanon's COVID-infection rates have spiked, more than doubling in the weeks after the explosion of ill-stored ammonium nitrate at the nation's primary port. 

To be sure, the blast is not to blame alone. Like most other countries, Lebanon followed World Health Organization guidance to impose lockdowns, enforce social distancing and mask-wearing and took heed of the serious nature of the disease. 

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The Aug. 4 flashpoint offers us a window into what's at risk if we do not work harder to control the novel coronavirus before disaster strikes.

It is an especially prescient point now, as the northern hemisphere enters what is predicted to be one of the most active hurricane seasons on record. This, as the hurricane-prone Latin America and the Caribbean region, sees coronavirus death rates that lead the world's once again quickening pace. 

And as we watched Hurricane Laura slam into Louisiana, where a lackluster coordinated response to the novel coronavirus awaited, we will likely see a renewed and rapid rate of infection.

It's bad news and even worse news for the world's poor. Decades of disaster response work by governmental and non-governmental actors have shown us that poor communities suffer most in disasters, and have the most challenging time recovering. 

In the scramble to figure out how and where to prioritize, critical investment in COVID-19 responses now must be viewed through a disaster response lens. We know we cannot COVID-proof every community or every disaster scenario.  

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Yet we do know where disaster risks are great – 80 percent of people at risk for all disasters live in Asia, for example. Investing in disaster prevention saves lives, as does investing in measures to prevent coronavirus' spread. 

Yet global investment to stem COVID-19's spread has only been a drop in the bucket there – more so when compared to the developed (and largely Caucasian) west. Only about a quarter of the U.N.'s COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan has been funded to date.

On the African continent, Ebola taught us the power of investing in community-level organizations that can be at the tip of the spear in preventing viral spread. In the recent Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, some of the best and most effective outreach involved working with local organizations and health systems, and engaging faith communities and other trusted members of the community. Training and equipping community members to keep their neighbors informed and reassured facilitated efforts to detect the virus and encouraged individual and family responses that slowed its spread. 

This kind of investment strengthens the community fabric by building trust between the local health care system and community members, enhancing healthy behaviors and increasing disease prevention measures. The U.S. Agency for International Development, through its New Partnerships Initiative, rightly aims to replicate this approach globally through its support for partner countries and local organizations. 

However, unless coronavirus responses are prioritized around compounded risks of disaster vulnerability and poverty, any investment will be wasted. Beirut's blast peeled back more than walls to reveal lives changed forever. It showed us the critical need to reconsider how we prepare for and respond to crises in a pandemic era, mitigating a second disaster of infection that could be the worst cataclysm of all. 

Audrey Sullivan leads the coronavirus response for Corus International, parent of faith-based international NGOs Lutheran World Relief and IMA World Health. Carrie Taneyhill is the organization's director of humanitarian response.