Disaster v crisis? How the nature of the Covid-19 crisis affects our response.

How should we respond to a disaster or crisis such as Covid-19, the Australian bushfires or the floods in Indonesia? Is there a best way to respond to different types of incident? How are we, and our community’s response, shaped by our local experience? Jo da Silva, Resilience Shift Board member, reflects on what we mean by disaster and crisis, and how our understanding of the type of event should inform our response. This article was first published in the Diplomatic Courier.


The continual stream of news about the current Covid-19 crisis can seem overwhelming, and it is worth us taking time to think about its nature. What do we mean by ‘crisis’ and how can that inform and shape our response – whether as individuals, communities, companies or government?

In the field of emergency management, a disaster is typically triggered by a specific event in time and place, such as an earthquake or industrial explosion.

I witnessed the catastrophic and wide-ranging impact of a major disaster on people’s lives, working in Sri Lanka and Indonesia after the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 where over 220,000 people were killed in 14 countries. Many more lost their livelihoods or were displaced as their homes had been destroyed. But, as a survivor of the tsunami in Jaffna told me ‘the tsunami came and was gone. We will recover. The conflict between the government and Tamil Tigers goes on and we don’t know how it will end’.

He was describing a crisis – a period where there is disruption, confusion, and suffering that can go on for many months as the situation evolves.

My first experience of a crisis was the Rwanda refugee crisis in 1994, when more than quarter of a million people fled the country and crossed over into Tanzania, and later into the Democratic Republic of the Congo, over a period of several months. No-one knew how many people would arrive each day – a few hundred, or thousands – or when they would be able to return home. My role included repairing and maintaining dirt roads to enable food and medicine to reach the camps, building distribution centres, warehouses and latrines. I realised how important infrastructure – water, energy, roads, buildings, toilets – are to meeting our most basic needs. When cholera broke out in Goma, containing it to prevent its spread became the number one priority, just as with the coronavirus now.

The Covid-19 pandemic classifies as a ‘slow onset, extensive crisis’. This reflects the gradual escalation in the number of infected people and the widespread footprint. The nature of response differs from a terrorist attack or an earthquake, or other sudden event in a specific location which is a ‘rapid onset, intensive disaster’.

Slow onset crises include drought, conflict and pandemic. The early signs of a crisis can be hard to spot, or their importance may be overlooked. Cape Town’s Day Zero forecast made global headlines in 2018 when a city of 4 million people almost ran out of water, but water stress has been a growing problem for decades due to a growing population, and a changing climate. Today, among cities with more than 3 million people, the World Resources Institute concluded that 33 of them, with a combined population of over 255 million, face extremely high-water stress.

If recognised early enough, there is a window of opportunity to step in, manage and terminate a slow onset crisis. Reflections from those in charge of Cape Town’s response to Day Zero tell the story of how they seized the moment decisively to avert the crisis.

Sudden onset disasters are characterised by loss of life, injury or damage to property, often leading to displacement. But, the real impact of a disaster on people’s lives and a country’s economy needs to be understood in context. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 remains the costliest tropical cyclone on record causing $125 billion of damage and 1,883 deaths, leaving millions homeless due to flooding. In Haiti the earthquake in 2010 killed hundreds of thousands, left over 5 million homeless, and the damage – including 4,000 schools – exceeded the country’s GDP making recovery a significant challenge.

The response is to immediately prevent further loss of life by ensuring everyone can access water, food, shelter, sanitation and medical care, then to prioritise early recovery so that normal life can resume in terms of schools, work, markets, and so on. It is the poor, vulnerable and marginalised individuals, communities and countries that are worst affected and need most help to recover.

This is equally true for slow onset crises that tend to affect a much larger number of people as their impacts are wide ranging and complex. Whether livelihoods, nutrition, mental health, production or social cohesion, among other aspects, they have a profound effect on the economy and society. An effective response in a slow onset crisis relies on the ability to monitor the situation and respond to current challenges, as well as to anticipate what might happen next based on learning from previous crises.

A slow onset crisis can complicate decision making about when to act, and when it is safe to move into a recovery phase, especially if impacts are ongoing or slow to dissipate. Natural disasters will often hit the headlines quickly, but interest may fade rapidly. In a slow onset crisis, sustained public and political engagement is vital and the media plays a key role.

Leadership is vital. Leaders in government or companies, and in communities and households, must provide clarity on priorities for action, avoid confusion, and provide reassurance. Messages need to be clear, consistent and informative, and appropriate support provided that empowers individuals to do their bit to limit the impact of the crisis and adapt their daily lives as necessary.

The impact of a crisis depends on the resilience of society and the economy, and the infrastructure that supports both. We think about resilience as our ability to withstand, adapt to and recover from disruption due to a sudden shock, rapidly changing circumstances or chronic stress. It relies on everyone being able to meet their basic needs, informed decision making at every level, and social cohesion that determines our ability to live peacefully and act collectively.

We will only truly understand our long-term resilience to the current crisis when we are able to look back from a new, stable position. However, from disaster and crises, we know that resilience must come from many different angles. Governments, businesses and communities must work together to support both the immediate response and the long-term recovery. The public and private companies who own and operate our critical services and infrastructure, from healthcare and food supply, to the roads, power, water and communications that support society, are all part of a bigger system.

This crisis is an opportunity to consider our resilience. Not just to Covid-19 and the wider impact it is having on the economy, but also to an uncertain future, and to climate change – another ‘slow-onset extensive’ crisis that requires transformational change. Every aspect of society needs to transform to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees, or to manage the consequences if we don’t and remain on track for 3 degrees or more by end of the century.  Neither climate change nor Covid-19 respect national boundaries and nations must work together and learn from each other to accelerate action.

There are lessons to be learned from how we all respond to Covid-19, including the possibilities for global change, signalled by how the health of the planet improves in the short term, as human activity is forced to slow down.


Jo da Silva, OBE, FREng FICE FIStructE, is renowned for her humanitarian work as an engineer, recognised by her peers through the awarding of The Institution of Structural Engineers prestigious Gold Medal in 2017 and has an honorary Doctorate in humanitarian engineering from Coventry University in the United Kingdom. She is on the Board of The Resilience Shift, the global initiative to improve infrastructure resilience, and leads sustainable development for Arup, the engineering and design consultancy.

This article was first published in the Diplomatic Courier. With thanks to Jo da Silva and Ana Rold.

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