16 June 2014

Averting a Cascade of Sorrows

The Disaster and disadvantage: Social vulnerability in emergency management report [PDF] from the Victorian Council of Social Service notes that
Disasters and emergencies such as bushfires, floods and heatwaves can affect all Australians, no matter what their background or status. But they don’t affect us all equally. Experience and research tells us that disasters are in fact “profoundly discriminatory”, both in where they strike, and in the way they affect people.
While they can be devastating for all affected individuals and communities and cause great physical, financial and psychological hardship, for people who are already facing disadvantage, the impacts can be overwhelming, leading – in the words of one mother – to a “cascade of sorrows”.
People facing disadvantage, such as those in poverty, migrants, refugees, children, older people, people with disabilities, people who are homeless or transient, and people living in poor quality housing, are more vulnerable at all stages of a disaster – before, during, and after it strikes. These people are considered ‘socially vulnerable’ in the face of a disaster.
Whether it is their capacity to evacuate in time or to recover in the long term from trauma and financial devastation, socially vulnerable people are hit hardest and longest by disasters and emergencies. These people often have fewer resources and less social support, mobility and housing options at their disposal, and so are less able to prepare for, respond to and recover from a disaster or emergency.
As one report put it, socially vulnerable are “more likely to die...and less likely to recover.”
Victorians have witnessed and experienced this in recent years, with the devastation of the 2009 Victorian bushfires, enduring drought, the 2009 and 2014 heatwaves, the 2010–11 floods and the impact on Morwell residents of the Hazelwood coal mine fire; as well as hundreds of smaller emergencies and disasters across the state.
In the 2009 bushfires – one of Australia’s worst natural disasters, in which 173 people died – children, older people, people with physical or cognitive disabilities and their carers made up nearly half the death toll. The 2009 and 2014 heatwaves exacted their worst toll on older people and those in poor health, those confined to poor quality rental ‘hot boxes’, those who were homeless, and those with mental health issues who may not have understood or acted on warnings and taken precautions.
Elsewhere, the risks are similar. In the 2011 Queensland floods, a family in their home were unable to save their grandmother because they could not lift her up onto the roof to safety. During Hurricane Katrina in the United States, older people, those in poor health and people on low incomes were most at risk: the first reported deaths were three nursing home patients who died during evacuation, most likely from dehydration.
These and other case studies outlined in this report tell us it is not just the event, but pre-existing structural disadvantages that can deliver devastating blows to vulnerable people and communities in disasters.
These socially vulnerable people frequently have little choice in deciding where they live, and are often disproportionately concentrated in areas at high risk of negative environmental impacts. They often have fewer economic resources to assist with preparing for and managing extreme weather, including being able to take out insurance against loss. They may have chronic physical and mental health conditions that affect their mobility and resilience, or lack access to mainstream sources of information about impending danger because of language barriers, remoteness, and poverty. They often require greater support in evacuation and recovery, including mobilising wheelchairs and maintaining ongoing access to care and medication in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. They may also have less of a public voice and less ability to influence decision-makers such as governments.
Much has been done in Australia and particularly Victoria in recent years to improve disaster prevention, preparation, response and recovery arrangements. However there remain significant policy gaps around effectively building the resilience and meeting the needs of socially vulnerable people.
This report describes who is most at risk of being socially vulnerable in an emergency or disaster and what needs to be done to better protect them and improve their recovery. After assessing the causes of social vulnerability and the needs of socially vulnerable people, the report also puts forward a set of recommendations aimed at assisting the emergency management sector to better incorporate the needs of socially vulnerable people in its planning processes
The report offers the following recommendations

That the emergency management sector seeks to better understand the diversity of communities, including the needs of socially vulnerable people. This can be achieved by:
  • acknowledging the diversity of communities 
  • improving cultural competency within the sector 
  • ensuring the sector understands the unique strengths and needs of socially vulnerable people and communities 
  • establishing trusted and respected networks with socially vulnerable communities
  • establishing networks with organisations that represent socially vulnerable people, such as community sector organisations. 
That the emergency management sector plans effectively for socially vulnerable people and communities, in partnership with the community sector. This process should include efforts to:
  • formally identify, consult with and incorporate local community organisations in emergency management planning 
  • identify socially vulnerable groups and people within communities in consultation with community organisations 
  • support links and partnerships between community sector organisations and the emergency management sector to improve emergency preparedness, response and recovery for socially vulnerable people 
  • develop clearer mechanisms in Victoria’s emergency management arrangements to enable community organisations to expediently recover costs incurred through supporting socially vulnerable people in emergencies 
  • further consider how whole-of-government and whole-of-sector approaches to supporting socially vulnerable people can be improved through formal and informal collaborative arrangements. 
That the emergency management sector deliver enhanced emergency response, relief and recovery measures that specifically support socially vulnerable people by:
  • • ensuring emergency warning systems are accessible for culturally and linguistically diverse people, older people, people with cognitive, visual and hearing impairments and those without IT access 
  • developing strategies for those who may require assistance to evacuate, such as people with disabilities or older people 
  • providing specific facilities and support for children, older people and people with disabilities at emergency relief centres 
  • providing emergency housing for high-risk groups including children under protection, women and children who have fled family violence, and people who have previously experienced trauma 
  • ensuring all organisations who play a role in relief and recovery efforts clearly understand their roles and responsibilities and are resourced to fulfil them 
  • providing financial support, trauma counselling, medical and pharmaceutical access and other additional support services for socially vulnerable people 
  • supporting the longer-term work of organisations supporting socially vulnerable individuals, families and communities. 
That the emergency management sector develops targeted, effective communication methods for reaching socially vulnerable people with information and messages that are:
  • • expressed in all relevant community languages 
  • delivered in formats that are accessible for those with vision and hearing impairments 
  • accessible to those with cognitive impairments
  • accessible to those who have limited IT access 
  • delivered through a range of mediums including newspaper, radio, social media and word-of-mouth through trusted community leaders 
  • delivered to community sector organisations that can quickly pass these on to socially vulnerable people. 
That the Victorian government works to address the causes of disadvantage to reduce the prevalence of social vulnerability and build resilience before emergencies occur by:
  • developing integrated early childhood services that support vulnerable children 
  • improving child protection services 
  • reducing the cost and improving the quality of housing for people on low incomes 
  • reducing violence against women and children 
  • improving workforce participation 
  • assisting people on low incomes to improve the energy efficiency of their homes 
  •  reducing crime through justice reinvestment 
  • delivering funding fairness for community services 
  • developing a whole-of-government plan for social policy change.