By Amanda Kowalski
Natural disasters are not natural, and COVID-19 is no exception.
What most people consider as natural disasters — wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes, or earthquakes — are better classified as hazards. Hazards are natural. But “disasters” are manufactured by humans to describe how hazards impact us. Take, for example, the 2013 Front Range floods that wreaked havoc through much of Northern Colorado. They were declared by Gov. Hickenlooper as a “disaster emergency,” but if this flooding had occurred where nobody lived it would have been treated as the natural response of the river system to excess rain. Hazards only become disasters when they converge with people.
More importantly, these disasters are often facilitated through human actions.
The SARS-COV-2 virus is a hazard. But it could not have killed over 1 million people and infected another 33 million simply by making its way to a seafood market in Huanan. Instead, a globalized economy, incompetent government responses, and bureaucratic failures propagated the virus around the globe.
America likes to remind the world that in late 2019 the Chinese government hid the severity of the virus and silenced doctors who tried to warn others. However, the WHO followed China’s lead and did not declare COVID-19 as a public health emergency until Jan. 30, after millions had traveled through China for the lunar new year. At this point that virus had been in the United States for 10 days. However, the U.S. undermined its pandemic response long before the virus ever reached Washington State.
America’s public health sector is chronically underfunded, recently receiving only 2.5 percent (about $274 per person) of all health spending. The lack of funding resulted in the loss of a quarter of public health workers since 2017, leading to understaffed health departments that didn’t have the manpower to counter the flood of COVID-19 patients. Supplies (including 100 million respirators and masks) from the 2009 flu pandemic were never replaced, contributing to the national shortage. Hospitals, submerged in a capitalist economy that discourages empty beds, operated with thin margins for surge capacities. Most were designed for “discrete disasters” such as large traffic accidents or mass shootings, and did not stock supplies for extended disasters. When the pandemic hit, they were overrun.
Then, fragile supply chains for medical supplies and PPE dependent upon manufacturing in China and India collapsed when the virus spread globally and additional supplies could not be ordered. The federal government pushed the responsibility of securing supplies onto states. The past four decades of devolution left countless other public health decisions to the states — like shutting down restaurants or schools — which created an uncoordinated, clumsy national response.
The lack of government support to the public health sector and its bureaucratic failures greatly heightened the impacts of the pandemic. Doctors and nurses worked relentlessly, more than 80% doing so without enough PPE. Now, more than 210,000 Americans are dead: equivalent to 70 consecutive days of 9/11 attacks.
If human actions can exacerbate disasters, they can also mitigate them. While some states ignored the virus and left their frontline health workers to the trenches, some states like Colorado acted quickly. Gov. Jared Polis declared a state of emergency on March 10, three days before President Trump did. CSU, CU and DU transitioned to online learning on the 11th. Restaurants across the state closed only five days later, followed by the state stay at home order on the 25th and strong encouragement to wear masks. Now, Colorado’s death rate is below the national average and the Colorado Health Institute has cited the state’s coronavirus response as one the reasons our cases have remained relatively low compared to other states.
In reviewing how humans heightened or mitigated the hazard of coronavirus, one fact is perfectly clear: COVID-19 is no natural disaster. We did this. Assigning a “natural” title to the pandemic is a strategic maneuver to avoid taking responsibility for the disaster. It makes people believe that this was inevitable, unavoidable, natural. It wasn’t.
Amanda Kowalski is a third-year student at Colorado State University studying Anthropology, Geography, and Environment Politics and Policy.