A devastating cyclone hit India and Bangladesh on Wednesday and killed more than 80 people and leave thousands of homeless. That will only exacerbate the crisis those countries are undergoing due to the coronavirus.
Cyclone Amphan, considered one of the most dangerous storms in recent memory, wiped out bridges, trees, power lines and houses after landing. The storm was weaker than expected once it reached the coastline of the region, but it still left a trail of destruction, leaving many to live without electricity or shelter.
The storm mainly affected the Indian states of Odisha and West Bengal in the east of the country, where about 130 million people live, and West Bangladesh. And according to Deepmala Mahla, the Asia director of the humanitarian organization CARE, it has done enough damage to economically reduce the badly hit areas for years.
In the most affected districts in those two Indian states, about 90 percent of the “social assets” – places like health centers, schools, and businesses – have been destroyed or damaged by Amphan, CARE India director Shantamay Chaterrjee told me. In Calcutta, the capital of West Bengal with almost 15 million inhabitants, water flooded the streets and the airport. The wind of the storm that reached 100 miles per hourdotted with debris, including fallen trees and power lines.
“I have never seen such a disaster”, Mamata Banerjee, The Prime Minister of West Bengal said to reporters on Thursday. “All areas have been destroyed. Nothing is left. ‘
CARE’s Mahla told me that many farms are in trouble now because the storm surge has wiped out the crops and the salinity of the sea will make it nearly impossible to grow crops next year. That probably means that farming communities will go hungry and suffer economically in the coming years.
And all this is exactly what the photo experts have so far, a day after the storm. The full extent of the damage in India and Bangladesh remains unclear. Lack of electric power means that many affected by Amphan, especially those living on islands, cannot ask for help or report their situations.
What is clear is that the cyclone has unleashed a disaster that requires massive government efforts and humanitarian aid to recover from – a disaster made even more complex by the coronavirus pandemic.
So far, leaders of the nations have pledged such help. “There will be no means untried to help those affected,” said the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi tweeted Thursday. The Bangladeshi government almost said it 2000 medical teams are already working, and more are likely to follow.
Few experts, including retired Air Force General Douglas Fraser, who led the U.S. military response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake, believe the recovery effort will be simple. “It’s a tough place where they are,” he told me. “Like any disaster, it will start slowly and it will be difficult.”
It will be difficult to get India and Bangladesh back to normal. The corona virus does not help.
Unfortunately, India and Bangladesh are used to this type of crisis.
“India and Bangladesh always get a bad hand when it comes to responding to cyclones and tsunamis,” Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington, told me. “That’s because these countries and the wider South Asia are facing a perfect storm of factors – densely populated coastal areas, poverty and poor infrastructure, just to name a few – that are aggravating vulnerability.”
But, he added, “that doesn’t make it easier to deal with.”
The main reason is that the east of India and the south of Bangladesh are on the east side Bay of Bengal, an impoverished region of 500 million people that has seen 26 of the deadliest 35 cyclones ever recorded. Last year, for example, the state of Odisha in India was severely affected Cyclone Fani and still has to recover completely from it.
The area is ripe for complications as it is barely above sea level and has low, hollow bays leading sea water into the land. And the bay the surface temperature is usually warm, which helps fuel strong storms.
That’s especially problematic because climate change leads to more powerful hurricanes, like one analysis storms dating back to 1979 released this week were shown.
“The trend is here and it is real,” James Kossin, a researcher with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and lead author of the study, told the New York Times on Monday. “There is remarkable evidence of this amount of evidence that we are making these storms more damaging.”
So as the region tries to recover from Cyclone Amphan, an equally dangerous storm could quickly follow.
But Indians and Bengal have yet another crisis: the corona virus is already affecting both countries.
“Many people in India and Bangladesh refuse to leave their homes because they fear becoming infected in storm shelters,” said CARE’s Mahla. Aid organizations such as Mahla’s usually send food and medical equipment to areas near such shelters. If those severely affected by the storm don’t go to those areas, they may not be getting the supplies they need.
Those who are concerned about getting sick in a storm shelter have an understandable concern, experts say, because it is nearly impossible for the thousands of people who are in tight spaces to practice social distance. If someone infected with the coronavirus enters a relief area, they may very well spread the disease unconsciously.
That means that both India and Bangladesh have to choose between two bad options: try to keep the social distance, or bring people together to provide help as efficiently as possible.
Experts believe that the two governments will understandably opt for enlightenment, despite knowing they will face a wider public health crisis as a result.
“It is very likely that this cyclone and its aftermath will intensify the spread of Covid-19 in the community as large numbers of people will be moved to safer but small and crowded spaces,” said Kugelman of the Wilson Center. “It’s a government policy nightmare for officials trying to save people from a destructive storm while also protecting them.”
The way to avoid the worst outcome, Mahla said, is that India and Bangladesh are rapidly recovering electricity and telecommunications and addressing the agricultural problems that plague the region. But doing that while warding off a growing coronavirus outbreak will be a daunting task.
“The more difficult the logistics, the harder it is to solve the problems,” Fraser told me.
Umair Irfan contributed to this report.