Disaster preparedness would improve HE pandemic response
July 18, 2020

Original post in University World News

Universities can better prepare themselves for future pandemics and become more resilient with a planning approach that encompasses other natural disasters, says Hideo Ohno, president of Japan’s Tohoku University in Sendai, which was badly affected by the 2011 East Japan Earthquake.

Many Pacific Rim universities that were best prepared for campus closures at very short notice in response to the COVID-19 pandemic already had emergency disaster response procedures in place.

These included university plans in the event of bushfires in Australia and California in the United States just before the pandemic and partly overlapping it; typhoons in the Philippines, earthquakes and tsunamis in Japan; and previous epidemics such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS in East Asia and MERS in South Korea.



“Universities need to take a multi-hazard approach in their planning” to prepare for natural disasters and other hazards like the pandemic, Ohno told University World News.

Sendai, where Tohoku University is situated, suffered a devastating earthquake and tsunami in 2011 in which 20,000 people lost their lives, compared to 982 deaths from COVID-19 to date.

Fumihiko Imamura, professor of tsunami engineering and director of the International Research Institute of Disaster Science (IRIDeS), established at Tohoku University a year after the 2011 earthquake, devised a number of principles derived from disaster science for universities and societies to respond to such events.

Ohno cites these, among them “that disasters have evolved together with our lifestyle, which was very true in the pandemic situation as well”. In the case of tsunamis, people are reluctant to move away from the coast, he notes.

“Second, humans cannot do more than prepare. The third point is that crisis management and response planning should be based on the worst scenario, which is also true in the current case.”

“Another point is that it is necessary to judge a response under uncertain conditions. So we do not have full information why we are in the pandemic and the disaster response.”

“The final point is that to create new lifestyles is important. We call it ‘build back better’,” said Ohno. “These are the lessons that we learn from earthquakes, tsunamis, volcano eruptions, heavy rain and landslides. But these principles are surprisingly apt for the COVID-19 situation and to counter future pandemics.

“We had many unknowns [with COVID-19] but the only thing that we know is that we have to be prepared for [another] highly toxic influenza virus pandemic in the future,” Ohno emphasised.

Emergency team

Tohoku University’s own in-house emergency advisory team for COVID-19 was first set up as an informal group providing advice from late January and then regular input in the university administration’s emergency planning.

The team included Hitoshi Oshitani, professor of virology at Tohoku’s Graduate School of Medicine who was also on the Japanese government’s expert advisory team on the pandemic, which was providing advice from late February.

“We were very fortunate that this expertise that we tapped over that time overlapped partly with the national response team,” Ohno noted.

“We locked down the entire university in April so there was plenty of lead time,” he says.

During this time, the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Yokohama Bay turned out to be an important ‘laboratory’. In February the cruise ship was declared by the World Health Organization to have more than half the known cases of COVID-19 outside China at that time. Some 700 COVID-19 cases were on the ship which had 3,710 passengers, as well as crew.

“The country and specialists learned quite a lot from this,” said Ohno, particularly about transmission. The experts “informed us very early, late March or early April, that 80% of people who contracted coronavirus do not transmit coronavirus to others. The 20% is important and they tend to be young and active and most likely asymptomatic,” Ohno said. “So we asked our students not to travel back to their homes.”

He said the level of seriousness went up in March “when we had the first case within our student body and we didn’t want to spread it to other students and other city residents and the community”.

This was in contrast with universities in many other countries which sent most students home when they began to lock down campuses.

University preparedness

Lessons for higher education was one of the topics at a 17 June webinar organised by the Association of Pacific Rim Universities (APRU) multi-hazards programme hosted by Tohoku University’s IRIDeS.

Takako Izumi, associate professor at IRIDeS and programme director for the APRU-Tohoku multi-hazard programme, said lack of preparedness by higher education institutions was clear from a recent survey conducted by Tohoku.

Of 150 responses from 65 Pacific Rim universities in 29 countries, two-thirds of them in Asia, “almost 50% of the universities are not ready” for such emergencies, “especially for a pandemic”, Izumi said.

According to the survey, 53% of Pacific Rim higher education institutions had an emergency management office. But 47% lacked a permanent or dedicated emergency management office, Izumi said.

Some 41% of institutions lacked a general business continuity plan to prepare for an emergency. Even for institutions that had such plans, “33% of the plans do not cover biological hazards in pandemic risk management. Sixty per cent of the business continuity plans did not include conducting simulation exercises in advance based on the plans,” which meant the effectiveness of such plans could not be assessed, Izumi said.

From the survey carried out in April, when many of the universities had shut down, the top two issues in preparing for emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic cited by respondents were “lack of organisational preparedness for a pandemic” and “lack of pandemic-specific advance simulation exercises”, she said.

The shift from classroom learning to online learning and internet access, an issue highlighted by many university leaders around the world in recent months, was only the third most important concern, according to the survey results.

“Governance issues are more strongly addressed than educational issues as key challenges. That implies that people in higher education institutions understand and already realise the importance of preparedness,” Izumi said.

Adapting emergency plans to COVID-19

Tan Eng Chye, president of the National University of Singapore (NUS), told University World News: “In 2003, SARS hit us quite badly. Since that time we have had a business continuity plan. Part of that plan is to look at possible scenarios. A pandemic is one of them.”

Others include building collapse, a major fire or terrorist attack. “For each scenario we have a rough plan,” he explained.

But every crisis is different. NUS experts in public health and infectious disease “kept reminding us that COVID-19 is not SARS. That advice has been very useful because it helps us to recalibrate our plan which was based on SARS,” Tan said. “COVID-19 changes very quickly. So as things were developing, our colleagues were very quick to learn what was happening in China and apply it.”

Cynthia Larive, chancellor of the University of California at Santa Cruz in the United States, noted: “We had an emergency management structure in place and that was very useful.”

It includes an operations centre for the university and how to manage communications, including coordination with the city and county. “We do tabletop exercises to practise,” Larive told University World News. Even so, planning for COVID-19 was challenging.

“With an earthquake or fire you get through it very rapidly. You do an assessment, then plan for how your recovery can begin. But this pandemic is a different kind of situation. We are in it for a much longer period. In some ways it is less devastating, but it is hard to anticipate all the impacts and understand when it will end.”

Larive says the university’s planning included five phases, depending on changing threat levels during the pandemic, and involving different actions for each phase so the campus could move back to a higher alert level with a second COVID-19 phase, for example.

Including the community

Tohoku’s Ohno stressed that the wider community is as important as campus-based emergency planning.

The “2011 [earthquake] impacted us, our local community and our minds as well. Our focus was sharper after 2011. We knew we had to work with society in order to solve social issues and we have to collaborate within the university; we can’t just have independent silos. And the pandemic has absolutely reinforced that,” Ohno said.

“For example, from the outset we knew that we had to take swift action to support students during the pandemic. We were one of the earliest in the country in establishing student support – financial support as well as a peer support system among students.

“We had to ask students not to engage in jobs like waitressing at restaurants and things like that because we were afraid it might spread the virus on campus. So we got together initial financial support of approximately US$4 million for students.”

Disaster recovery on campus and in research work has to involve the community, to better prepare for future disasters and increase campus resilience.

“Almost 20,000 people lost their lives during the 2011 earthquake and tsunami – 90% of people drowned. So there was this feeling of how can we as a university help society and how can we help the local community and this naturally evolved into projects and programmes,” Ohno explains, pointing out that it took three to four years for the university to recover fully, as some university buildings had to be rebuilt, though lectures were able to resume within half a year.

“More than a hundred small projects spontaneously emerged from our university after 2011,” Ohno said.

The projects ranged from support for disaster-affected children, mental healthcare for disaster-affected people, radiation monitoring in Fukushima around the nuclear power plant damaged by the earthquake, research into ecological and marine impacts of the Fukushima radiation leakage, rescue activities for affected museums, agricultural reconstruction projects, archaeological surveys for the resettlement of tsunami victims, rescue robot technology and disaster-resistant medical instruments, among many others.

“Later in 2015 we launched 30 programmes addressing broader societal issues, not just recovering from the earthquake.” This coincided with planning for the Sustainable Development Goals, the United Nations Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction and also the Paris Agreement on climate change – “2015 was when these three international agendas were set,” he pointed out.

“The university’s role is to come up with a more generic holistic picture and that is a big, big challenge because we have a collection of specialists but that doesn’t necessarily mean they can formulate a holistic view. That’s not just a challenge for our university but for the whole higher education system.”

Just as it acted swiftly to set up IRIDeS for interdisciplinary and expert disaster research a year after the 2011 quake, the university is planning a new interdisciplinary pandemic research centre. Ohno said that when he recently asked the university’s 3,000 faculty members how they would use their expertise to counter the COVID-19 situation, he received some 200 proposals.

The next stage is to secure the research funding for the new centre. “The centre will have two focuses, one will be interdisciplinary, broad, social, cultural response and understanding the history [of pandemics] to see the sort of societal response we can have. The other pillar is looking at what people are doing elsewhere as well using our expertise to directly counter the coronavirus pandemic,” Ohno said.

The centre will be important for collaboration across disciplines within the university and internationally, and with the community. “We need to consolidate [research] efforts so that we can counter what’s happening in this corona world and the ‘new normal’. That includes medical and direct research on the virus itself. But we also have to come up with a social structure that is more resilient to new pandemics if they come.”

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