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In the news: Cyclone Amphan adds disaster threat on top of pandemic

In some areas, coronavirus quarantine centres are being shifted further inland.

Satellite image of Cyclone Amphan over the Indian Ocean on 18 May. (NASA Worldview)

A powerful cyclone packing wind speeds topping 165 kilometres per hour is veering toward parts of coastal India and Bangladesh, testing evacuation and response plans in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.

Tropical Cyclone Amphan is expected to make landfall on 20 May. Its exact path remains uncertain, but the storm was projected to strike India’s West Bengal state or Bangladesh’s Khulna division, while bringing heavy rains and storm surges across a wider area. 

The Rohingya camps in southern Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar were not in the storm’s direct path as of 18 May, but parts of the area are within the projected “cone of uncertainty” – the wider estimates of a cyclone’s possible track.

The coronavirus pandemic adds another volatile layer to disaster preparedness and response plans, as governments rush to evacuate hundreds of thousands into cramped cyclone shelters.

The state of Odisha in northeast India, for example, reportedly may evacuate around 1.1 million people along its coastline. Coronavirus quarantine centres are already being shifted further inland, according to the EU’s humanitarian aid arm, ECHO. Last year’s Cyclone Fani caused extensive destruction in Odisha and added new pressures to migrate.

In Bangladesh, an early analysis by aid groups and the government suggests more than 10 million people could be exposed, including some 1.4 million living in mud or straw homes.

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Even if they aren’t directly hit, a separate analysis projects that Bangladesh’s Rohingya camps could see between seven and 15 centimetres of rain – a danger in fragile, flood-prone camps.

Bay of Bengal cyclone threats typically peak around May and November each year, bookending a lengthy monsoon season that inundates a wide swathe of the region and sends humanitarian needs soaring.

Amphan will come days after Typhoon Vongfong cut through the main Philippine island of Luzon starting on 14 May, forcing more than 130,000 people to evacuate

And countries in the Pacific Islands are still responding to the aftermath of April’s Cyclone Harold, which barrelled over parts of the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, and Tonga.

Coronavirus lockdowns, border closures, and the vast distances involved continue to cause problems: a full month after the storm hit, only 13 percent of households in need had received shelter assistance in Vanuatu, one of the worst-hit countries, aid groups reported

– Irwin Loy

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