Expert: Pandemic should serve to boost preparedness for future megadisasters

By Jorge Fuentelsaz

New York, Jul 21 (efe-epa).- An American expert on disaster preparedness says he is convinced the coronavirus pandemic will not be the only catastrophe that humanity faces in the 21st century, particularly considering the steadily increasing threat of climate change and cyberattacks.

Jeff Schlegelmilch, the director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, therefore believes this current crisis should serve as a wake-up call that boosts global leaders’ readiness for the next large-scale calamity, which he said could strike anywhere.

“We don’t know with precision what disasters will occur, but we know the kinds of challenges that we’re going to face,” the New York City-based research scholar said in a video interview with Efe, noting that future crises could affect infrastructure or be related to cybersecurity or nuclear conflicts.

Schlegelmilch is the author of the newly published book “Rethinking Readiness: A Brief Guide to Twenty-First-Century Megadisasters,” which examines what he sees as the five major threats facing humanity: biothreats, climate change, critical infrastructure failure, cyberthreats and nuclear conflict.

The book was ready for publication in 2019 but was not released until July of this year to allow time for the author to include a preface about Covid-19.

Schlegelmilch, who joked that it is hard to look at the bright side “when so much is going wrong,” said now is the time to take a step back and firstly examine what is working.

He also stressed the importance of supporting local communities that are directly affected by disasters.

“The world is going to keep turning, whether we have enough information to make us confident in our decisions or not. So I would say that … we need to truly engage with communities and invest in those relationships with communities and make sure that they are relationships that empower communities,” the author said.

Noting that governments and large organizations have traditionally made the mistake of imposing solutions on the affected populations, Schlegelmilch suggested a different approach.

“The more that we look at ways of truly elevating the voices of community and harnessing that capacity that exists within community and supporting that capacity rather than supplanting it with outsiders, I think the more opportunity we have for that recovery to be an opportunity to build resiliency at the same time, rather than impose solutions and then jump off to the next disaster,” he added.

Referring to the disaster response in the United States, Schlegelmilch was critical of authorities in Washington.

“Nationally, especially within the United States, it’s been a mess. It’s been politicized … Divisions between different walks of life have been used to break people apart for political reasons,” he said, linking this toxic situation to the country’s status as “one of the (coronavirus) epicenters” globally.

By contrast, the expert praised the response of certain states like New York, Connecticut, Vermont, Massachusetts and New Jersey that he said have acted in a united, coordinated fashion.

Schlegelmilch, who said he went to a restaurant with his family last weekend for the first time since the onset of the coronavirus crisis and felt safe wearing a face covering every time the waiter approached their table, also stressed the importance of responding flexibly to catastrophes.

“It’s all about harnessing the complexity and the uncertainty, instead of trying to force certainty and force clean, clear, crisp answers,” he said. The key is to “create new systems and new approaches that have more multidisciplinary teams and build systems that are more about creating different options that can be used that embrace the uncertainty rather than try and expel it from our thinking.”

Although he said the range of potential disasters facing humanity and the challenges in preparing for and responding to them may seem “overwhelming,” Schlegelmilch still sees the glass as half full.

The problems are “really complex, but we also have more connections available than ever before,” he said. “We have more knowledge available to us than ever before. And so I do want to end on a positive note that I truly believe that we have the tools necessary.” EFE-EPA


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