Reconsidering disaster evacuations and displacement in the COVID-19 era

Ana Mosneaga

Photo: Alan Motus/IOM


Evacuations in times of disasters, if managed properly, can be effective in saving lives. However, lives saved by moving out of harm’s way are also regularly lost as a result of chaotic mass evacuations and dire living conditions in evacuation centres or temporary shelters. Overcrowding, lack of privacy and poor hygiene are just some of the commonly encountered characteristics of many evacuation centres and displacement camps that easily turn them into breeding grounds for infectious diseases

The longer the time spent in evacuation centres, and the more protracted life in displacement thereafter, the greater the risk that people, especially (but not only) with pre-existing health conditions or weaker immune systems develop life-threatening complications. This has been well-known from responding to crises in diverse settings, and incidents of lives lost in evacuation are not uncommon even in high-income countries. In Japan, for example, despite multiple lessons learned and subsequent guidelines issued to improve the environment in evacuation shelters, implementation of concrete measures in this regard has been lagging behind

One of the underlying factors that prevented much-needed investments and change of the mind-set on this front has been the “common yet flawed assumption” that  evacuations and disaster displacement  are  a short-lived phenomenon. In reality, there is a thin line between evacuation and displacement and many evacuations often end up marking the beginning of longer-term displacement.

COVID-19 as a catalyst for change?
While COVID-19 has not overhauled this deep-rooted assumption as such, on some aspects pertaining to disaster evacuations, it has shown signs to be catalysing change. Most notably, the pandemic has forced disaster risk reduction actors around the world to grapple with long-standing issue of overcrowding not just on paper, but also in practice. This has led to introduction of various measures to ensure social-distancing, stricter sanitation and infection control in order to prevent evacuations centres from turning into virus hotspots. In some cases, the need for such additional measures has spurred greater cooperation with the private sector by expanding the use of hotels and/or shopping malls as emergency shelters and supply depots. 

The pressing need to avoid concentration of people has also led the authorities to more thoroughly review evacuation protocols and procedures. A greater emphasis than before was placed on providing early warnings, and on ensuring that these are widely communicated. More public facilities were repurposed as evacuation sites with a cap on the number of evacuees that each site can accommodate. At the same time, there were stronger calls for people to find alternative shelter with relatives or friends

There is some emerging evidence that COVID-19 and the measures taken to avert the spread of the virus during disaster evacuations have influenced people’s behaviour. In the cases of Cyclone Amphan that hit Bangladesh and India in May 2020, and Typhoon Haishen that struck  southwestern Japan in September 2020, more people than expected followed the calls to evacuate pre-emptively, while many of them also tried to avoid evacuation centres fearing the risk of infection. 

At the same time, lockdown measures and movement restrictions during the pandemic meant that disaster-affected communities could not readily receive outside support. Such restrictions have significantly constrained the inflow of both relief supplies and/or relief workers and volunteers, leading to delays in response and recovery activities. In communities with limited resources to start with, such constraints directly increase the risk of prolonged displacement for evacuees. This was evident in the aftermath of Tropical Cyclone Harold that hit several Pacific Island countries in April 2020. In Vanuatu, the hardest hit by this cyclone, many people remained displaced as of June 2020 with no immediate prospects for durable solutions

Considering the psychosocial implications  
While there is emerging evidence on different types of COVID-19 prevention and control measures put in place during disaster evacuations  and some analysis on the impacts of the pandemic impacts on displaced people, much less attention has been paid so far on  the psychosocial implications on evacuees and displaced persons. COVID-19 in itself represents a complex emergency, and so are many displacement situations – including those triggered by disasters. Contrary to the widely-held belief that disaster displacement is apolitical compared to conflict-induced displacement, finding solutions for people displaced by disasters is far from being a straightforward process. The complexity of dealing with loss caused by disaster and displacement and the challenge of recovery can be daunting. In the COVID-19 era, this complexity is multiplied by the less immediately visible, yet powerful impacts of the pandemic such as social stigma and discrimination

The COVID-19 is also a pandemic of fear. Besides disrupting social and economic lives of individuals and families, it also jeopardizes social cohesion in communities and societies at large. The social consequences of being stigmatized and discriminated as the “spreader” of COVID-19 are often “feared more than the potential health risk of the virus itself”. In fact, such fears are found globally, in both developed and developing countries. Stigma and discrimination towards those perceived to have any contact with COVID-19 make people hesitant about getting tested, and/or seeking assistance even when they experience symptoms. This presents an immense challenge for disease prevention and control, which is exacerbated in times of disaster. The fact that COVID-19 has impacted on the way people interact with one another further complicates any response and recovery activities in the aftermath of a disaster. Besides imposing many practical challenges (consider for example the case of providing post-disaster psychosocial support under COVID-19), it adds to the stress levels of all those involved in such activities.

In the context of disaster evacuations and displacement, measures to isolate individuals with confirmed, probable or suspected cases of COVID-19, while necessary from an epidemiological perspective, may be damaging psychologically and socially if not handled carefully. How are individuals to be isolated within evacuation centres? How are they then approached by service providers and personnel? How much confidentiality and privacy can be ensured when these individuals have already spent some time in the centre? How should positive cases (or even probable/suspected cases, when testing is not readily available) be reported to the rest of the displaced people? These and a myriad of other relevant questions all demand to be handled carefully, and the existence of multiple other urgent priorities in times of disaster should not be an excuse to sideline such considerations. Likewise, it is important to document what has worked and what has not in tackling the often “untold” issues such as fear, stigma and discrimination during disasters and displacement.

Learning lessons from the pandemic
COVID-19 has been pushing many actors to reconsider how to handle disaster evacuations and displacement. Continued analysis is necessary to understand the full range of implications that such processes have revealed both in terms of possible improvements and additional challenges. Essentially, the spread of infectious diseases in crowded and close-contact settings in evacuation centres and displacement camps has been a recurrent problem, just as the issues of stigma and discrimination in times of pandemics. In fact, many structural issues that are creating today’s “unprecedented” crisis have been repeatedly pointed out but also effectively ignored in pre-pandemic times. Our ability to draw meaningful lessons from COVID-19 hinges upon not re-packaging such issues as “new” challenges, but on seriously reflecting on what prevented them from being properly addressed thus far. Only by doing that can we turn this pandemic into a catalyst for much-needed change for the millions of people exposed to hazards and displaced by disasters. 


About the author:
Dr. Ana Mosneaga, PhD, is a migration and displacement specialist currently working as Lecturer of international relations at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, Japan. Ana researches how diverse population movements are sought to be managed, and the implications that relevant policy and practice carry for the lives of migrants, refugees and IDPs. Her current research focuses on disaster displacement and how it features in international policy processes. Ana has previously served both as an expert and coordinator for research, policy development and advocacy initiatives in international organisations, NGOs, academia and private sector. She has also obtained first-hand insight into the making of international agreements, most recently by being actively involved in discussions on the Global Compact on Refugees.



This article is part of the IOM Series on The COVID-19 Pandemic, Migration and the Environment and was published in March 2021.