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A cyclone-battered state struggles with COVID-19 compliance

As India’s eastern state of West Bengal reels under the effects of a devastating cyclone, choosing between life and physical distancing has become tricky.

Alakananda Dasgupta

doi:10.1038/nindia.2020.90 Published online 29 May 2020

Cyclone Amphan in coastal Bay of Bengal.

© IMD

Cyclone Amphan made landfall on 20 May 2020 near Sagar in West Bengal at the northern end of the Bay of Bengal, leaving at least 100 dead and millions affected.

Although more devastating in its intensity than cyclone Fani that ravaged its neighbouring state Odisha in 2019 or cyclone Aila that pummelled West Bengal 11 years ago, Amphan did not result in as many deaths as the other recent severe cyclones, primarily because of the nationwide lockdown to arrest the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The West Bengal government with a larger burden of COVID-19 cases evacuated around 1.8 million coastal people, and Odisha, around 0.2 million. The efforts in West Bengal were disproportionately onerous since many cyclone shelters, repurposed into COVID-19 quarantine centres for migrants returning home from other states, had been packed to capacity.

The West Bengal government, therefore, turned schools, colleges, government offices and village administration buildings — vacant due to the lockdown — into cyclone relief centres. The state had more than 4192 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 289 deaths (as on 29 May 2020), with double the case fatality rate than India's national average.

Following the meteorology department’s forecast of a cyclone, the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) teams rushed into the states warning locals about the twin trouble they were to face – that of a cyclone alongside a highly contagious virus. Post-cyclone, the NDRF personnel have been working in close physical proximity to one another to clear uprooted trees and clean roads. Following the World Health Organization’s guidelines on maintaining a 6 feet distance has not been feasible in such a scenario.

Choosing between life and physical distancing is tricky, says a New Delhi-based disaster risk reduction specialist says, on conditions of anonymity. When saving lives is the prime concern in a cyclone, people and governments have to disregard the threat of the novel coronavirus, he says.

“We just seemed to be on the wrong side of the very small but finite probability of a once-in-a-few-decades storm landing during a once-in-a-lifetime-pandemic,” says Dibyendu Nandi, a physics professor at the Center of Excellence in Space Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) in the West Bengal capital Kolkata. “Can't blame anyone.”

Nandi, who is engaged in COVID-19 modelling and outreach, says people are not wearing masks in shelter homes and this could trigger a spurt in infections. “In areas seriously affected by the cyclone, specifically those that may have had a seed population of infected people – asymptomatic or symptomatic – there may be a surge in the number of new infections,” Nandi says.

Epidemilogist Giridhara R Babu at the Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI) agrees. “The efforts against COVID-19 will take backseat, deservingly so, given the prioritisation of restoration and rehabilitation efforts in cyclone-hit areas.” It would be difficult to implement social distancing norms in the cyclone rehabilitation centres, and so the affected areas are likely to see a rise in COVID- 19 cases and fatalities, he adds.

The aftermath

Student volunteers distributing food packets and demonstrating mask use to local villagers impacted by the COVID-19 crisis in West Bengal.

© D. Nandi

Almost 10 days after the cyclone, people in West Bengal are still grappling with the trail of destruction it left behind. “Those who don’t have pucca houses and live in low-lying coastal areas do not have a home to go back to. The dual onslaught of the pandemic and the cyclone will have a long-lasting impact on their lives,” Nandi says.

Nandi and his team’s computational models predicted about 60,000 active infections in India by 17 May 2020, which seems to have largely matched the national figures. However, in the last 10 days, daily new infections have grown rapidly and are diverging from their model’s predictions, indicating that the current phase of the lockdown has not been as efficient as modelled, he says. His team’s modelling research has been on hold since the cyclone struck.

A greater worry now, says disease modeller Gautam Menon, should be water-borne diseases, such as cholera. Menon, a professor of physics and biology at Ashoka University in Sonepat, says public health efforts should not be solely directed at COVID-19 when many other pressing diseases afflict the population.

Blackout and water scarcity

Most parts of capital Kolkata experienced long power outages due to uprooted trees that hampered grid supplies.

© Jerry R.

Power outages and disruption in water supplies in large parts of coastal West Bengal have made it challenging for people to either stay indoors or practice hand hygiene as mandated. Front line workers, such as doctors and relief and rehabilitation cadres, face an uphill task in delivering services.

For the elderly living in high rise buildings in the cities, fetching pails of water from the government's water supply tankers has been a major challenge. "We don't know what's more life-threatening -- not stepping out of home to avoid the virus or having to go up and down for water," says 76-year-old Chitralekha Banerjee, a resident of north Kolkata, one of the areas in the West Bengal capital that saw long power outages.

Due to the lockdown, schools, colleges and universities had started online classes, which have now been disrupted with the cyclone battering cable networks and mobile phone towers. Many professionals forced to work online from home before the cyclone have had to accept another new normal of no internet connectivity.

The effects of this cyclone will stay with West Bengal longer than any other natural hazard in the recent past since efforts around COVID-19 – which is a bigger woe for the local administration – have sidelined cyclone relief and rehabilitation work. Even in the local and national media, the pandemic remains the bigger focus. “After a day of breaking news, when the cyclone made landfall, its aftermath seems to have been largely forgotten,” Nandi says.