We can never be the Singapore of the Indian Ocean as we often boast. But let us learn from them and apply at least some lessons
By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee
As prepared as we are for cyclones: to my mind, we have learnt to face cyclones very well post the two devastating ones of 1960, Alix and Carol, and Gervaise in 1975. By then I was working in the health services, based at SSRN Hospital, and in the dead of the night there was an emergency to attend to in the Labour Ward. Walking from the quarters and climbing over a fallen tree to get into the waiting ambulance – which couldn’t reach our doorstep because of the big trunk lying across the road – is an experience that can never be forgotten.
I remain convinced that our preparedness for cyclones is probably one of the best and a prototype to be emulated when it comes to other catastrophic risks. The early warning system from Class 1-4 has ensured that all sectors know exactly what they have to do at each level, and this includes precautions which people as individuals and families too have to take. Certainly, in the health sector we have honed the system almost to perfection, with specialists on call staying in hospital and all other service arrangements made, ready to deal with any emergency.
That is why, over the years, there have been hardly any deaths during cyclones except the few which took place because of negligence by the persons concerned. By the same token, the SMF is deployed to clear roads and help with restoration of power, and similarly water supply is attended to with promptness, an exercise that continues in the immediate aftermath of the cyclone. In parallel, the authorities get shelters ready for the fewer and fewer numbers of people who need them temporarily.
In contrast, however, we have not been as prepared to respond to other major events carrying significant risks to our security. At the end of the day, when we talk of security, the central concern is about human security – whether lives will be lost, and even a single avoidable one is one too many, so preciously do we value human life.
To the list of known risks such as those associated with climate change over which we have little control, there are others where our actions may have contributed to the aggravation of the impact. Thus, topographical changes in the surrounding sugarcane fields are presumed to have played a role in the flash floods at Ilot, Pamplemousses in 2007, and wild urban and suburban sprawl without respect for building norms and the proximate environment could go some way in explain the extent of the damage caused by the floods that overtook the Caudan basin in 2011.There is also the clogging of waterways by solid waste dumped into them, and unfortunately with my own eyes I witnessed this but a couple of weeks after the Caudan floods at the Jardin de la Compagnie. Yet, repeated advice was being given against such practices.
We have been unprepared for the Wakashio shipwreck, which has looked more and more like a manmade disaster, and ill-prepared for the Delta wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. After over a decade of hearing about billions spent to repair leaking age-old pipes, we are still at practically back to square one about water security. Our water reservoirs have, once more, filled up to capacity during the very rainy winter we have been through, but already there are rumbles about rationing supply as the summer rolls out, not to speak of localities where water shortage is an endemic problem.
We are not done with the pandemic yet, and the devastation of lives and morale that has overwhelmed the health services continues unabated. It is no consolation that other countries too have fared similarly, some at the very beginning of the pandemic, and as has been noted elsewhere (a comment to the ‘Year in Review’ by Bill Gates on Dec. 7):
‘There’s definitely a lot to unpack regarding what nations learned from the pandemic.
Unfortunately, the news on preparedness for future pandemics from the Global Health Security Index isn’t encouraging.
The Index prepared by Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, the Nuclear Threat Initiative, and the Economist Intelligence Unit reviews 6 categories, 37 indicators, and applies 171 questions in scoring each country.
Six categories include (1) Prevention; (2) detection and reporting; (3) Rapid Response; (4) Health Systems; (5) Commitment to Improving National Capacity, Financing, and Global Norms; (6) Risk Environment.’
This would be a good starting point to estimate our own Index, and build on that to consolidate our current response and plan our future one.
In fact, these categories could well apply, perhaps with suitable modifications, to other sectors as well, because at the end of the day as mentioned above, all risks end up impacting human lives – and the health systems which have the responsibility of saving them.
As a small island state, our activities are unlikely to have any impact at global scale on the environment, but definitely even locally there is a correlation between geographies and human security. Amongst other things, for example, we are ‘betonising’ our soil coverage with almost wild abandon, and the future generations will bear the consequences. Let us think about their future at least.
We talk a lot about Singapore. They are light years ahead of us, and we can never be the Singapore of the Indian Ocean as we often boast. But let us learn from them and apply at least some lessons, and be thus better prepared for our future security.
* Published in print edition on 10 December 2021
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