Cyclone Amphan touched down in late May as one of the most powerful recorded storms in India’s history, causing devastation in the Indian states of West Bengal and Orissa, as well as parts of Bangladesh. “Thousands of electric poles were broken down, leaving most of Kolkata without power for at least a day. In some areas, I heard that power didn’t come back for weeks. My electricity was only gone for a day, but some people suffered enormously,” said Gautam Prasad Barua, resident of Kolkata, one of the biggest cities in West Bengal.
“Amphan maybe landed for only forty-five minutes to an hour here. But its devastation was wide and deadly,” Barua continued.
The cities of East India were faced with a unique challenge – responding to Amphan as well as the COVID-19 pandemic. Amphan left 14 million people without power, and another 2.5 million were evacuated.
When the cyclone hit, India had more active COVID-19 cases than any other Asian country. India also reported its largest spike in new COVID cases the Friday before Amphan landed. And the whole country had gone into complete lockdown two months before, shutting down all nonessential services, domestic and international travel, and heavily restricting transit within cities.
These restrictions left one population far more vulnerable than the rest – informal workers, or workers who lack formal job contracts, job security, and are often from rural areas. Largely made up of agricultural, service, and migrant workers, who travelled hundreds of miles from their home states to find work in a city like Kolkata, the sudden lockdown left most informal workers unemployed. Living paycheck to paycheck, migrant workers have had no way to reach their home states where they might still find security from the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving many homeless and at a higher risk of exposure to COVID-19.
As the effort to combat the pandemic ramped up, Amphan began to approach West Bengal and Orissa, and the government switched gears to evacuate agrarian and migrant populations, who live in low-lying farms, partially concrete homes in the city, or simply on the streets. Yet, one crisis doesn’t simply pause for the rest – in order to keep the villagers safe from the long-term issue of COVID infection, evacuation teams tried to maintain social distancing norms as they evacuated door to door, slowing down their response rate.
Limited evacuation efforts
“It is for the first time that we are having to face two disasters simultaneously. We are facing a dual challenge of cyclone in the time of coronavirus,” said the head of India’s National Disaster Response Force.
Authorities in West Bengal reported that some rural residents had to be forcefully evacuated from their homes, with many of them citing fears of contracting COVID-19 in the storm shelters. Unfortunately, those fears were justified.
Many of West Bengal and Orissa’s storm shelters were being used to quarantine migrant workers returning from their areas of work to their hometowns. A multi-purpose cyclone shelter in Panchayat, one of West Bengal’s worst-hit cyclone areas, is just one example of a previous cyclone shelter turned quarantine center. As Amphan approached, evacuees had to be crammed into the Panchayat shelter along with the quarantined migrant workers, and social distancing norms were ignored.
In the state of Orissa, there was a similar situation – with 250 of the 800 existing shelters used up to house the quarantined. Instead of housing the evacuees with potential COVID-19 carriers, villagers were crammed into the remaining empty storm shelters. Officials told Reuters that they feared the crowded shelters could be breeding grounds for the virus, but there was no other option. Most evacuated villagers in both Bengal and Orissa returned home after the storm, untested, and perhaps bringing COVID-19 back with them.
After the storm
Bapi Ghosh, a doorman for a residential building in Kolkata, says he hasn’t seen his family, who lives on their family farm in the West Bengal village of Murshad, since the start of the COVID-19 lockdown.
“We have three farm dwellings, and then a month ago my family called and said the main one had been completely destroyed by Amphan. The crops are very sickly after the cyclone, and we probably will not get any money from farming this season.”
As a migrant worker, Ghosh says he is sustaining his family by sending his wages to them. Fortunately, he still has a job, as the apartment building has not completely shut down.
“We were very lucky that at least some walls in our family house are still upright. In Murshad, a lot of homes have been damaged and farming is the only way of living [the villagers] have, which is gone too,” he continues.
Many farmers hoped to sell more produce after the government loosened COVID-19 related restrictions, but Amphan has left them devastated to an even greater degree than Ghosh’s family. Around 1.5 million sharecroppers in West Bengal lost their entire produce for the season. With no money to rebuild what they have lost, the only other option after such a natural disaster is to become migrant worker and find a job in the city – which isn’t feasible anymore due to the nationwide shutdown.
Where do they go from here? The economic impact of these two disasters compounded has left informal workers reeling – they remain at high risk of poverty with many of their jobs in the cities lost due to COVID-19, and their family’s houses and farms destroyed in their villages due to Amphan. And the evacuated populations, again mostly agrarian, were at a higher risk for COVID-19 exposure during Amphan.
Ghosh says he applied for government aid under both the COVID-19 and Amphan crises, but hasn’t heard back for either. It’s been over a month since Amphan struck. He continues to remain the only breadwinner for his family. It seems the overlap of the two disasters made it impossible for the government to adequately address either.
Edited by Harnoor Mann