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In the news: Vanuatu cyclone tests disaster response amid a pandemic

It’s the first Category-5 storm to hit the Pacific Islands since the WHO declared a coronavirus pandemic.

A satellite image of Cyclone Harold on 3 April, as it neared San Cristobal Island, South Solomons Islands. (MODIS Land Rapid Response Team, NASA GSFC)

A powerful tropical cyclone barrelled into the Pacific nation of Vanuatu Monday, lashing its northern islands with wind speeds topping 200 kilometres an hour.

Cyclone Harold reached Vanuatu as a Category-5 storm – the highest level. It’s unclear if there were any injuries, but a Vanuatu Red Cross official told Reuters that the storm damaged several buildings. On Monday evening, Vanuatu’s meteorology department was projecting destructive “hurricane-force winds” exceeding 215 km/h to continue overnight, warning of heavy rains and flash flooding.

Cyclone Harold – the first Category-5 storm to make landfall in the Pacific since the World Health Organisation declared the coronavirus to be a pandemic last month – casts a spotlight on how humanitarian groups will respond during major emergencies.

Vanuatu had earlier declared a state of emergency for the coronavirus. There were no recorded COVID-19 cases in Vanuatu, but many Pacific nations have already sealed their borders to prepare for a pandemic that has sickened more than 1.2 million people worldwide.

With international travel severely restricted and the risk of spreading the virus a top concern, the pandemic has forced the broader aid sector to rethink how it responds to disasters.

But Vanuatu’s disaster response system is relatively well prepared among Pacific countries – particularly after 2015’s Cyclone Pam, which destroyed the equivalent of two thirds of Vanuatu’s GDP but fuelled efforts to scale up preparedness.

Many Pacific countries, including Vanuatu, have also pushed back against large international disaster responses, asking instead for help building local capabilities.

The South Pacific cyclone season usually starts in November and ends in April. Elsewhere, however, another high-risk period is just beginning: cyclone season typically peaks in November and in May along South Asia’s Bay of Bengal, including parts of eastern India and Bangladesh.

- Irwin Loy

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