Our current global pandemic is something we have not seen in over 100 years. The planet has been effectively shut down as we attempt to rein in the spread of a novel coronavirus that can kill people. It might seem that such a long, rolling crisis like that caused by COVID-19 has no real comparisons in the world of natural disasters (and, really, a pandemic is a natural disaster). However, we can draw comparisons and learn lessons from geologic disasters.
Probably the geologic disaster most similar to COVID-19 is a volcanic eruption. Earthquakes can cause significant damage and death, yet they are events that come without warning. Volcanic eruptions tend to produce warning signs before an eruption, allowing for some planning and preparation if the warnings are heeded.
Yet the uncertainty of exactly when and how big in forecasting volcanic activity can make convincing people to leave and stay away extremely challenging. Imagine a volcano near a metropolitan center, like Mount Rainier in Washington. If it started showing signs of activity, when would you require evacuations by people living downslope of the volcano in river valleys that could be filled by mudflows? People won’t want to stay away from their homes and livelihoods for long, so evacuating too early means people stop listening. Evacuating too late? Well, we know what that means.
A view of Mount Sinabung in Indonesia, seen on Feb. 25, 2017. Pyroclastic flow deposits are clearly seen in gray on the right side of the volcano. (Credit: Pavel Kirillov, Wikimedia Commons.)
And what happens if the unrest lasts a long time? Some volcanoes produce eruptions for years after coming back to life. Mount Sinabung in Indonesia is a chilling example of this. We’ve seen five years of dome collapse at the volcano, and these collapses produce devastating pyroclastic flows. This means people who lived near Sinabung would need to stay away from their farms and homes for years on end, with no real sense of when the crisis might end. Sometimes it works, but sometimes people get fed up and return too soon, leading to tragedies.
That is one of the hardest parts of this COVID-19 crisis: the uncertainty. We know it will end, but the guesses of how long life will be disrupted are anywhere from months to forever. With both volcanoes and earthquakes, this unknown duration can be present as well. Volcanoes can remain restless for years to decades. Earthquakes can have aftershocks for months to years. The sense of “normal life” might never return — or, at the least, take many years.
What needs to develop is resilience in the face of potential natural disasters. For places facing earthquakes, we develop “early warning” systems that give people a heads-up when an earthquake is first detected. We build earthquake-resistant homes and develop evacuation and mitigation plans. We build disaster kits with water, food and emergency supplies.
For volcanic areas, we keep people out of harm’s way by moving them permanently and closing off dangerous areas. We develop strong volcano monitoring programs to better forecast when explosions might occur or when the volcano will be most active. We provide people with dust masks and safe water so they can live with the constant intrusion of volcanic activity.
COVID-19 screening at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado. (Credit: Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Alexis Christian.)
These lessons can be applied to COVID-19 as well. We need to build testing infrastructure to identify hot spots. We need to improve our health care system to deal with an increase in potential patients. We need to construct an economic support network for our workers so they can do their jobs but also have the time to recover from illness or change their work patterns in an outbreak. We need to make sure we don’t revert back to old behaviors before it is safe to do so.
Most of all, we need to trust experts to tell us when we need to change our behavior or be most cautious as the virus waxes and wanes. Just like listening to geologists, seismologists, hazard planners and emergency managers during a natural disaster like earthquakes and eruptions, we need to listen to doctors and health experts when it comes to pandemics. It might be hard to live with the uncertainty of our current situation, but the goal is to reduce casualties and return us to a new normal as soon as it is safe. Disasters end, but we can do a lot to make sure they aren’t true catastrophes.