Researcher explains responding to a pandemic is the same as a natural disaster

Aug 18, 2020

Prof. Davia Downey, Rearcher of natural disaster in Public, Nonprofit and Health Administration at Grand Valley State University
Credit gvsu.edu

The coronavirus pandemic is considered a public health crisis. To better understand the impacts, we talk with Davia Downey who’s a researcher of natural disaster as associate professor of public, nonprofit and health administration at Grand Valley State University.

Davia Downey: "My dissertation was on economic development or new job development post-hurricane Katrina and I looked at the state of Louisiana as well as the state of Mississippi, both of which were inundated you know during hurricane Katrina. Although most people sort of think about New Orleans as the main focus of economic development or recovery after Katrina, but I look at actually all the counties and parishes. Parishes is the nomenclature for counties in Louisiana old French law, but anyway, so in Louisiana, I look at all of the parishes that were affected by Hurricane Katrina. Meaning that those were the counties that receive federal dollars from FEMA to assist in recovery. And also look at all of the counties in Mississippi that were declared disaster areas after Hurricane Katrina. And then essentially in my dissertation I trace new job development in all of those parishes and counties in both states for about 3 years. Initially in my dissertation and then after that I've done some work looking at job recovery in both states since then. And most recently I have actually expanded this work to look at the impact of Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey and I'm also adding, I’m writing a book right now actually looking at international economic development post disaster adding in cases from Christchurch New Zealand which was impacted by a series of earthquakes over in late 2011 and then also in Japan. Which was inundated by both a nuclear disaster as well as a Tsunami in 2011 and 2012, I'm not sure of the date just talking off the top of my head. It's an interesting aspect of job development thinking about natural disasters and how national or state policy can impact whether or not jobs come back quickly. Whether or not certain industry’s come back in that and, you know it's all policy design you know if you want something to come back quicker you may focus federal dollars or state dollars or state policy or federal policy at certain industry so yeah, that's what my work is."

Patrick Center: "OK, so natural disasters..."

Davia Downey: "Yep!"

Patrick Center: "And we could consider a pandemic to fall into that category it's a public health disaster."

Davia Downey: "Yes."

Patrick Center: "So how does everything that you've learned in the past, how does that translate into what we're seeing now what are the similarities, what are the differences?"

Davia Downey: "So, in terms of similarities right there is the emergency management literature really talked about like four, five  stages of disasters right, so you've got your pre planning stage, you've got the active disaster stage, you've got the recovery stage and, then you have sort of like you know the lessons learned stage. So, you know when we think about how natural disasters play out we do know that most disasters kind of have this pre planning you know the recovery stage, the resilience stage meaning that you want to go to build in your response and recover in a way where you can mitigate future disasters right. So, these are the things that we all know about or how we think about emergencies and how they sort of cycle through you know you've got your pre planning you've got your you’re preparedness stage, a response stage, your recovery stage and your mitigation stage where you basically are trying to make sure that when something else happens in the future you do a better job responding to it. So that's where we break away when we talk about a pandemic right, so Corona viruses are not abnormal. So, we do know that we've had several kinds of public Health disasters that is related to Corona viruses specifically. Right, we have SARS a few years ago and we've had other kinds of Corona based viruses. That have actually spread fairly rapidly and had fairly high death rate right so in terms of how we think about how to respond to a Corona based virus is pretty similar. We know that we've got to do the research the medical research the testing to develop a vaccine. But the thing that is different here is that the spread of this particular Corona virus has been very rapid it has a pretty high mortality rate and. has a really high infection rate and, the one of the things that is unlike previous disasters that we were not able to really localize this in one place right. So, you know we've seen a lot of the different models about how we've seen increases in infection and then with that increase in infections we have also seen increases in death. And all of that is related to the health care system itself right so there's 2 things the government has to do in the response age they have to lock down the disease, so it doesn't spread and they also need to sort of inform the public about the kinds of things that are useful to mitigate further spread right. So, we're mitigating right now in the absence of a cure, in absence of a vaccine and we do those two things from the state level, the national level. I say state and national they sort of are used interchangeably for me, but we do the things at the national level in order to give the public health expert, the people who are developing vaccines, time to develop those vaccines pass those safely and deploy them right. So, one of the things that's really different in this particular event is that we're trying to mitigate something that doesn't actually have a cure as of yet and so while we understand the process that we need to use in order to respond to this particular kind of disaster. The mitigation stage is very difficult because we don't have something in place that will actually eliminate and or reduce the spread of the virus absent wearing mask, social distancing all of the things that we've been hearing from our state and national government."

Patrick Center: "So now we venture into the unknown."

Davia Downey: "Yes."

Patrick Center: "Is that how you how you look at this at this point."

Davia Downey: "Yeah, I mean you know this is the one thing that's also interesting about emergency management in general is that we are learning from other countries from other states. We're able to sort of look at time they stated to say okay well when did this governor, or when did the mayor you know implement a stay in place order. When did that public Health Department say or the CDC discussed the importance of masks and social distancing. We will be able to in 5 years and 10 years to look back at how different countries, how different states how different actors within the political system called for certain activities to begin or end, right. And then we would be able to tie those things to how rapidly infections went down, how rapidly deaths go down etc. So even though we're in a period of the unknown because we don't know when a viable vaccine or other kind of palliative solution is going to come up. We are still able to use what we know from other pandemics of the Corona virus outbreak to help us to mitigate further deaths and to mitigate further infection. That we are still working in a framework where we know what works from the past and we're still applying that in real time. And I think that's important to remember is that we're not doing this, we're not calling for these things because we think that they'll work we actually call for things like social distancing, hygiene, mask-wearing, because we know that those things have been effective in previous disasters, So I wouldn’t necessarily say that we're sort of flying by the seat of our pants, it seems that way, but in reality doctors are sort of proceeding like they would because they have knowledge from previous disasters."

Patrick Center: "We just have these conflicting forces at this time right, you have folks who want to be safe. We have family members, we look out for each other. On the other side, there's this economic pressure that's been building and just human impatience I feel, that with the social distancing. So here we are patience is running thin, people want money back in their wallets and their purses and yet we want to be safe at the same time so how do you navigate all of that?"

Davia Downey: "So I think that my research in this and as you know is a project that's ongoing, it's going to be published probably in the beginning of next year. I think that one of the biggest places to find some information about this would be looking at the Japanese tsunami example that I talked about before this was an area, you know an entire region of Japan was essentially inundated by water that had nuclear compounds in it. This is a situation where you literally cannot put people back to work because they will be exposed to nuclear waste essentially right. So, this is kind of a similar situation where the Japanese government really had to think to itself how do we make people safe, and then how do we rebuild the economy. So, we want to think about Covid 19 as nuclear waves which at the time it kind of is right, it has a very high fatality rate and a very high infection rate I think that the one thing that state governors and the National executives need to be thinking about is preaching patience because we are not able to make the environment safe going back to normalcy and I put normalcy in quote, you know a normal economy is impossible. So at the end of the day states that are sort of rushing forward to re-engage the economy are going to very quickly see that these efforts will be stymied by the disease right. They will be stymied by a new thing, using Japan as an example here, they be stymied by nuclear waves right, if you can't get it out of the water, you can't get it out of the air .you can't get it out of the land, you can't go back to work. And that's not a very satisfactory response to people who have empty pockets right. So, what we've seen in some other countries around the world and other and other communities is that the government have had to implement you know a monthly income for people who are in impacted industries that are more impacted by the Covid 19 outbreak and this is not something that we do very much in the United States and so I can't make very many predictions about what will happen here in the United States other than to say that the 50 governors are going to do what they want. And they're going to you know sort of reopen either prematurely or because of other economic forces that are important to them and I think that that is going to delay our effectiveness of recovering our economy more fully in the future. You know when we rush out into the nuclear waste to continue that example, we're going to be impacted by that nuclear wave and it's harder to repair a body, repair the land, repair the water, once it’s been exposed to the kind of compound. So we really want to think about Covid 19 as something that is pretty dangerous and that can hurt us and hurt us in the future. That's exactly what will happen if we sort of rush into making the economy perform on all cylinders when it's not ready to."

Patrick Center: "Davia Downey,  thank you so much."

Davia Downey: "Thank you."