Published On: January 31, 2024

David E. Alexander is Professor of Emergency Planning and Management at University College London and Visiting Professor at Universities in Japan, Portugal, Sweden and the UK. His most recent books are How to Write an Emergency Plan (Dunedin, 2016) and Recovery From Disaster (with Ian Davis, Routledge, 2015). In this article for NPC, David E Alexander explores how the UK Government Resilience Framework (UKGRF) is praised for practicality but criticised for neglecting gender, minorities, and disabilities. Levels of vulnerability are crucial in assessing disaster risk, with certain groups disproportionately affected. Research shows people with disabilities face heightened risk and exclusion. The Covid-19 pandemic exposed inequalities, particularly affecting ethnic minorities and people with disabilities.  This article advocates for a more inclusive resilience strategy based on past research and disaster lessons.

The UK Government published the UK Government Resilience Framework (UKGRF) in December 2022. This document was eagerly awaited and is appreciated for its practical focus and its commitment to achieve defined targets for developing resilience among the country’s institutions, people and businesses. However, surprisingly the document makes no mention of gender, minorities or people with disabilities. So, is it fit for purpose?

In 1983 the British-Canadian geographer Kenneth Hewitt and his colleagues published  a book, Interpretations of Calamity, which argued convincingly that the core of disaster risk is vulnerability. These authors noted that threats and hazards trigger impacts, but vulnerability defines them. In the 40 years that have elapsed since Hewitt’s “radical critique” (as it became known), there have been many studies of disaster vulnerability, although they still amount to fewer than those on natural and technological hazards. We know that some groups in society are disproportionately vulnerable  disproportionately across. This, of course, poses the question of why some people and organisations are more vulnerable than others and what should be done to address this.

Research on disability and disaster only began to gain traction over the last couple of decades, and slowly at that. It has shown that people with disabilities are routinely disadvantaged in risk and disaster situations (as they often are in everyday life). Nevertheless, there are ways to improve the situation and make both disaster mitigation and emergency response more inclusive. In short, when designing emergency plans, people with disabilities need individual care. They need to be protagonists of their own safety wherever possible, and to have the combined support of social and health services, the civil protection system, and carers and their organisations. Examples of excellent practice around the world demonstrate that it can be achieved. Logic and ethics tell us that it should be done.

Shortly before I sat down to write this piece, a newsflash came through to inform us that UNICEF has found that 90 per cent of the casualties in the Herat, Afghanistan, earthquake of 7th October 2023, were women and children.  Approximately  2,900 people were killed by this earthquake. This may be an extreme example, but it illustrates a very general point that women and girls suffer a greater level of risk and bear a greater burden in disasters than do men and boys. Researchers have found this is consistent in most societies around the world. For example, in the L’Aquila earthquake in central Italy in 2009, 13 per cent more women were killed than models predicted. The discrepancy was greatest among the over-70s, even when allowing for the greater number of elderly women alive than elderly men. The explanation lay in the way that women treated the house as a refuge more than men did. This proved to be lethal when houses collapsed. Elsewhere in the world, where women’s movement is restricted, they tend to be more at risk, for example when Purdah confines them to a house at risk of collapse in an earthquake. For tsunamis, women and girls are more at risk in countries where they are less likely to be able to swim than are men and boys.

A further example is the aftermath of the Tōhoku earthquake, tsunami and nuclear release of 11th March 2011. The Japan Women’s Network on Disaster Reduction produced a document (in Japanese and English) that castigated the Japanese authorities for completely ignoring women’s needs and their perspectives on the disaster. Unfortunately, this was hardly a novel situation.

The Covid-19 pandemic brought inequality in societies  into sharp relief. The first 12 medical doctors to die of Covid-19 in Britain were all from ethnic minorities. The risk of succumbing to the disease was about two and a half times higher for ethnic minority  citizens than the average for the whole population. There are several possible reasons for this. Many Black, Asian and minority ethnic people worked in front-line jobs, e.g., as delivery drivers and nurses, to the extent that their chances of coming into contact with the virus were higher than average. In some parts of Britain, for example Bolton and Oldham, Greater Manchester, many ethnic minority citizens lived in high-density accommodation where physical closeness exacerbated transmission of the disease. There were clear indications that poverty and poor diet had a significant effect on people’s chances of catching and dying from the coronavirus.

Meanwhile, in hospitals around the world people with disabilities were assessed using frailty scores and given low or extremely low priorities for treatment when medical resources had to be rationed. Experts in medical ethics condemned this practice but it appears to have been widespread. Similarly, ageism was rife in some quarters – often merely due to lack of thought and consideration, rather than any bad intentions. It proved difficult to balance the special needs of many disabled people to maintain their routines, such as outdoor walks for people with cognitive disabilities, and the demands of a blanket policy of lockdown. Moreover, rationing of medical resources and restrictions on care had a serious effect on many disabled people. If carers could not reach their clients because lockdown had been imposed the result may have been profoundly serious. As a generalisation, the disruption, uncertainty and risk associated with Covid-19 tended to affect the mental health of people with disabilities more profoundly than it did for the non-disabled population.

In mentioning these issues and citing these examples I do not want to combine gender, disabilities and minorities into a single category. In disasters, disadvantage can take many forms and they should not be equated with one another. However, if classes or groups of people are particularly disadvantaged by disasters and major incidents, simple humanity tells us that they should receive enhanced consideration in our efforts to make life safer. The UK National Risk Register 2023 does at least include the briefest mention of disability, minorities and women (but not gender). However, like all previous editions, it focusses strongly on hazards and threats and very little on vulnerabilities. In this, the British Red Cross is more up to date as it has sponsored a major exercise to identify vulnerabilities around Britain (including the formulation of a vulnerability index) and it intends to concentrate its resources and initiatives among the people who most need them. In the meantime, I believe that the Government should reconsider its resilience strategy to better consider the resilience needs of a broader and more inclusive spectrum of society, based on what we have learned about disaster risk and responses, over the last 40 years or more. Some members of our society are  in need of greater resilience than others.

Further reading

Alexander, D. and S. Sagramola 2014. Major Hazards and People with Disabilities: Their Involvement in Disaster Preparedness and Response. Council of Europe, Strasbourg, 65 pp. (in English, French and Russian)

Alexander, D.E. 2021. Disabled Persons in Viral Pandemics: The Example of Covid-19. Working Paper, Eur-Opa Major Hazards Agreement, Council of Europe, Strasbourg, 31 pp.

British Red Cross 2023. Identifying vulnerabilities and people at risk in an emergency. British Red Cross, London, 10 pp.

Domoto, A., M. Ohara, R. Aoki, H. Hara and K. Amano 2011. Disaster Risk Reduction: A Japanese Women’s Perspective on 3/11. Japan Women’s Network for Disaster Risk Reduction, Tokyo, 30 pp.

Hewitt, K. (ed.) 1983. Interpretations of Calamity from the Viewpoint of Human Ecology. Unwin-Hyman, London: 304 pp.

HM Government 2022. The UK Government Resilience Framework. Cabinet Office, London, 79 pp.

HM Government 2023. National Risk Register 2023 Edition. Government of the United Kingdom, London, 191 pp.

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