Indians are bracing for the wrath of a powerful cyclone bearing down on the eastern part of the country, while COVID-19 continues to ravage communities with infections and deaths, and after a freak tornado killed two people and damaged homes on Tuesday. Odisha state on the country’s east coast is expected to face the most damage, and while the government there has a strong record of preparing for cyclones, a convergence of public health and climate crises make this situation especially dire.

Neema Kudva is an associate professor in the department of City and Regional Planning at Cornell University and an expert on sustainable development in small cities and their regions in South Asia. Kudva says that Cyclone Yaas threatens to down critical infrastructure for communities in Eastern India, all while exacerbating a public health nightmare — especially across rural communities where COVID is poorly understood.

Kudva says:

“It is impossible to untangle the natural and the human-made, and the ways in which potential losses pile up. Dealing with the aftermath of cyclones, of destroyed physical infrastructures—roads, water and sewerage systems, electrical grids that go down, and the resulting impact on livelihoods is just as important.”  

“But at this moment, Odisha—indeed all of India — is also struggling with the tragedy that continues to unfold in India’s second COVID wave and the ways in which India's federal government has proven unequal to the task of helping manage the pandemic. For the government of Odisha, moving one million people to safety away from Cyclone Yaas means having to move them into crowded shelters and increasing the chances of disease spread.

"News reports indicate that the government of Odisha is aware of the hazards and recommending actions like double masking to reduce risk. But it is unclear if anyone has a clear picture of the spread of COVID across rural and small-town India, in areas where the cyclone will hit hard.  It is poorly understood and, given this lack of understanding and reliable data, how will administrations in these areas put effective policies in place for what Cyclone Yaas may also be — a COVID super spreader event whose impacts will require an unprecedented public health response.   

“I wonder if we will ever fully understand the aftermath of both events coming together or what it does to people when they have to live with making choices between safety from cyclone or safety from COVID.”  

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