COVID-19 and natural hazards: a complex multi-risk scenario

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COVID-19 has been a disruptive ‘tsunami’ that most countries were not prepared to handle. The pandemic has been representing a global slow-onset long-lasting disaster that has drastically challenged all emergency management systems worldwide. The pandemic slow-onset disaster has been characterized by a prolonged emergency phase with varying intensity levels, and a cyclic behavior, where the interpandemic, alert, pandemic, and transition phases [1] alternated for more than two years.

In the first phases of the pandemic spread, the level of preparedness – including pre-existing protocols, development of testing and tracing capabilities, and the stockpile of personal protective equipment– was not adequate to deal with such an unexpected and complex event. Moreover, the health systems have been stretched to their limits, with a dramatic overload in intensive care units. Capano [2] identified that almost all Western countries had to go through a problem-recognition process before reacting effectively to the pandemic outbreak. After the first phase of denial (‘it is not happening’), then the countries went through the phases of normalization of the risk (‘it will not happen here’), underreaction (‘we must do something to show that we are doing something’), and finally arrived at the recognition and reframing (‘it is here, and it is our problem!’).


Is COVID-19 a black swan? 

The scientific community and public opinion have widely debated whether the COVID-19 pandemic could be considered a Black Swan event, i.e., an event with an outsized impact, that is harder to predict and even harder to compute its probabilities. Professor John Drake, Director of the Center for the Ecology of Infectious Diseases at the University of Georgia (US), says it’s not [3]. Drake says that pandemics have always been part of human history and the number of recorded epidemics is vast. “Epidemics that affect a lot of people are less common, but certainly not rare” [3].

On the other hand, the COVID-19 pandemic has been different from any other disaster type and even other diseases [4]. Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic management has involved temporal and spatial scales very different from those characterizing sudden-onset natural hazards such as earthquakes, floods, or landslides [5]. Regarding the temporal scale, the COVID-19 pandemic disaster has been ongoing for more than two years, with the number of cases and deaths continuously varying with time. As a consequence, there has not been a clear distinction between the impact and response phases and casualties can continue to increase even when response activities are already implemented [4]. Looking at the spatial scale, COVID-19 has almost simultaneously struck wide areas – even larger than a continent – contrary to all other disaster types that are geographically circumscribed. Several surrounding countries were coping at the same time with a high demand for emergency response resources, hampering the allocation of resources from one place to another, and leading to a reduction in international assistance [4,5].


A complex multi-risk scenario

To make the scenario even more complex, the COVID-19 pandemic has overlapped and interacted with co-occurring disasters that happened all over the world since the beginning of the pandemic crisis [5,6,7,8], such as the earthquake in Croatia, the tropical cyclone Harold, and the floods in Western Europe. The lack of multi-hazard risk Early Warning Systems has increased the risk of compounding impacts originating from natural hazard events during the COVID-19 pandemic, including both the natural hazard disaster’s effects being worse than they would otherwise be without COVID-19 and an additional spread of COVID-19 due to the presence of a compound disaster [6].

A series of complex logistics and ‘‘asynergies” arose in this multi-hazard management since procedures and protocols for the integrated management of pandemics and natural hazards were underdeveloped or absent [9]. Indeed, emergency response for natural hazard disasters, such as an earthquake can necessitate evacuation and mass gathering measures, which are in contrast with the pandemic prevention strategies, such as physical distancing and home isolation. For example, staying at a shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic would potentially lead to a pandemic outbreak, highlighting what has been defined by Sayfouri et al. [10] as the “Contradictory Nature” of COVID-19 and the Earthquake Co-occurrence.

The co-occurrence of COVID-19 and other natural hazards has dramatically highlighted the need for an improved scientific understanding of the interactions between natural hazards and pandemics, and for a better assessment of these complex multi-risk scenarios, where both synergies and trade-offs among disaster risk reduction measures can arise.


COVID-19 and natural hazards at EGU23 

During the next EGU General Assembly, which will be held in Vienna from 23 to 28 April 2023, the Union Symposium US1 ”Managing compounding impacts from extreme events through societal crises”, will address how Europe can more effectively face multiple hazards and compounding impacts from extreme events through ongoing societal crises, such as the COVID-19 pandemic crisis. Moreover, complex multi-hazard risk scenarios and the interplay between natural hazards and pandemics will be explored in several scientific sessions inside the program of the Natural Hazards Division, such as NH9.2 New data and methods to explore the interplay between natural hazards and social vulnerabilityNH9.3 Resilience to natural hazards: assessments, frameworks and tools, and NH10.1 Innovative approaches for multi-hazard risk assessments and their applications to disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation, among others.


[1] World Health Organization (2017). Pandemic influenza risk management: a WHO guide to inform and harmonize national and international pandemic preparedness and response (technical documents). https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/259893/WHO-WHE-IHM-GIP-2017.1-eng.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

[2] Capano, G. (2020). Policy design and state capacity in the COVID-19 emergency in Italy: if you are not prepared for the (un)expected, you can be only what you already are. Policy and Society, 39(3), 326-344.

[3] Drake, J. “Was Covid-19 A Black Swan Event?” Forbes, Nov 11, 2021, https://www.forbes.com/sites/johndrake/2021/11/11/was-covid-19-a-black-swan-event/?sh=6b499411bd36.

[4] Peleg, K., Bodas, M., Hertelendy, A. J., & Kirsch, T. D. (2021). The COVID-19 pandemic challenge to the All-Hazards Approach for disaster planning. International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, 55, 102103.

[5] Terzi, S., De Angeli, S., Miozzo, D., Massucchielli, L. S., Szarzynski, J., Carturan, F., & Boni, G. (2022). Learning from the COVID-19 pandemic in Italy to advance multi-hazard disaster risk management. Progress in disaster science, 16, 100268.

[6] Quigley, M. C., Attanayake, J., King, A., & Prideaux, F. (2020). A multi-hazards earth science perspective on the COVID-19 pandemic: the potential for concurrent and cascading crises. Environment Systems and Decisions, 40(2), 199-215.

[7] Phillips, C. A., Caldas, A., Cleetus, R., Dahl, K. A., Declet-Barreto, J., Licker, R., … & Carlson, C. J. (2020). Compound climate risks in the COVID-19 pandemic. Nature Climate Change, 10(7), 586-588.

[8] Svetina, L., Kosec, A., Curkovic, M., & Iskra, A. N. (2022). A case study of complex disasters within the resilience framework in Zagreb, Croatia: Two earthquakes in one pandemic. Environmental research, 204, 112079.

[9] UNDRR (2021). Building resilience during COVID-19: Lessons learned from disaster risk reduction programming. United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction Stakeholder Engagement Mechanism https://www.undrr.org/publication/building-resilience-during-covid-19-lessons-learned-disaster-risk-reduction-programming

[10] Sayfouri, N., Heidari, M., & Miresmaeeli, S. S. (2022). Mutual Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic and the Recent Earthquakes: A Scoping Review of the Lessons Learned. Disaster medicine and public health preparedness, 1-34.


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