This year, the consequences of the hurricane season that is advancing in Central America, North America and in particular in the Caribbean region, are more serious than usual, due to the pre-existing emergency of COVID-19. The particularly difficult climatic conditions add to the socio-sanitary and economic crisis caused by the virus and at this dramatic point of convergence, migrants - including those forcibly displaced as a result of disasters - are severely affected.
Forecasts for the current tropical storm season (which corresponds to the months between June and November) estimate that between 6 and 10 tropical storms could turn into hurricanes, with winds reaching more than 120 kilometers per hour. Furthermore, due to the influence of a phenomenon called La Niña - which causes variations in ocean temperatures in the Pacific - the number of hurricanes in the Atlantic may increase significantly due to the more favorable wind. The current panorama is described by experts who warn of a very active and long-lived hurricane season, suggesting that the Central American and Caribbean region may witness an increase in migrations and displacements due to the impacts of climate change.
Why are people displaced by disasters like hurricanes more at risk of contracting COVID-19?
Migrants and those who will have to move - whether internally or across borders - due to extreme climate phenomena could be more exposed to the risk of contracting the COVID-19 disease, particularly during the hurricane season.
This is indicated by a UNICEF statement that warns about the serious difficulties that children in Central America and the Caribbean, together with their families, will face during the hurricane season that coincides with the COVID-19 outbreak. The statement also examines some of the main challenges faced by people displaced by disasters, such as hurricanes, in times of pandemic. In this context of health, economic and climatic difficulties, various issues can facilitate the transmission of the disease among migrants and displaced people:
- The crowded shelters in which many displaced people are sheltered and the difficulty of maintaining physical distance are situations that greatly increase the risk of the spread of COVID-19. Likewise, in emergency operations and eventual evacuations, guaranteeing physical space between people can be complex, since the measures that are usually taken to carry out evacuations clash with some indications to counteract COVID-19. It is therefore necessary to design evacuation and shelter protocols that take into account contagion prevention measures.
- The vulnerable displaced population suffers from precarious conditions, such as limited access to health services, as the infrastructures that host these services can suffer damage, be destroyed after a natural disaster or experience a power outage. Also, access to clean and safe water can be limited or impossible, obstructing the respect of preventive measures against COVID-19, such as frequent hand washing.
- The health situation could be aggravated by scarce financial resources, which also leads to a lack of protective equipment, a condition that causes an exacerbation of the COVID-19 emergency, facilitating the spread of the disease. On the other hand, having focused principally on the urgent health emergency, the countries of the region may have neglected adequate preparations and response to hurricanes. Likewise, humanitarian aid addressed to the affected population is being temporarily restricted in the context of the pandemic. This has implied a significant decrease in resources and aid.
- Finally, cross-border movements to flee the affected areas are suspended due to mobility restrictions; therefore stranded people may not be able to evacuate their area of residence. On the other hand, internal displacements must be managed by trying to ensure that displaced people are not placed in areas with high rates of COVID-19 cases, to guarantee their protection.
The pandemic is another “hurricane” that has unleashed in our region and around the world, further weakening the ability to respond promptly to the consequences of disasters. Migrants and displaced people in our region need greater attention that focuses on protecting them and increasing their capacity to recover from timely episodes such as hurricanes, limiting the effects that can be dramatic and can nullify previous efforts to contain the pandemic.