Disaster Vulnerability in 3D

51 Pages Posted: 21 Mar 2021

See all articles by Lisa Grow Sun

Lisa Grow Sun

Brigham Young University - J. Reuben Clark Law School

Brigham Daniels

Brigham Young University - J. Reuben Clark Law School

Douglas M. Spencer

University of Connecticut, School of Law

Chantel Sloan

Brigham Young University - Department of Public Health

Natalie Blades

Brigham Young University

Teresa Gomez

BYU Harold B. Lee Library

Date Written: March 19, 2021

Abstract

From the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been told that different people face different risks from the virus. This laser focus on disaster vulnerability is, given the history of disasters, quite unusual. Usually vulnerability is the “silent killer”—something we notice only after the disaster is over and the body count and other impacts become clear. This focus on vulnerability, along with the scope and timescale of the pandemic, provides a unique vantage point from which to view disaster vulnerability.

This Article leverages this unique vantage point to consider vulnerability in a more nuanced way and to illuminate how a data-driven approach to vulnerability could improve disaster policy during the pandemic and other disasters. Drawing on new empirical data, as well as experience in past disasters, we explore three dimensions of vulnerability and their implications for policymakers. First, using statistical analysis and GIS mapping, our team of public health, statistics, and legal experts develops and presents an empirical tool, a COVID-19 Vulnerability Index, to look at the geography of vulnerability—the physical distribution of people across the United States who are particularly vulnerable to the novel coronavirus, including the elderly, racial minorities, frontline workers, and those with underlying health conditions. We then demonstrate how this vulnerability index could have been used to inform two critical and contentious policy decisions that occupied decision-makers from the onset of the pandemic: mask mandates and voter accommodations during the 2020 elections.

Incorporating insights from our exploration of the geographic dimension of vulnerability and lessons of past disasters, we then explore a second dimension of disaster vulnerability: competing or conflicting vulnerabilities, or situations in which policymakers must navigate choices that require prioritizing one aspect of a group’s vulnerability over another or one vulnerable group over another. To do this we consider two other important problems that have faced policymakers during the pandemic: school closures and vaccine distribution.

Finally, we explore a third dimension of vulnerability: political vulnerability. This dimension of vulnerability encompasses a variety of ways that disasters make already vulnerable groups even more vulnerable to certain kinds of harms, including political neglect, stigmatization, disenfranchisement, displacement, and other forms of exploitation. In particular, we consider how vulnerability data may be both an unintended roadmap for exploitation and an important check on disaster inequity.

Throughout, we make the case that we cannot truly see—and address—disaster vulnerability if we focus only on geographic vulnerability; seeing vulnerability in three dimensions requires accounting for competing and conflicting vulnerabilities and political vulnerabilities, as well.

Keywords: disaster, vulnerability, social vulnerability, COVID-19

Suggested Citation

Sun, Lisa Grow and Daniels, Brigham and Spencer, Douglas M. and Sloan, Chantel and Blades, Natalie and Gomez, Teresa, Disaster Vulnerability in 3D (March 19, 2021). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3807674 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3807674

Lisa Grow Sun (Contact Author)

Brigham Young University - J. Reuben Clark Law School ( email )

430 JRCB
Brigham Young University
Provo, UT 84602
United States
801-422-7434 (Phone)
801-422-0390 (Fax)

HOME PAGE: http://www.law2.byu.edu/faculty/profile.php?id=31

Brigham Daniels

Brigham Young University - J. Reuben Clark Law School ( email )

410 JRCB
Brigham Young University
Provo, UT 84602
United States

Douglas M. Spencer

University of Connecticut, School of Law ( email )

65 Elizabeth Street
Hartford, CT 06105
United States

Chantel Sloan

Brigham Young University - Department of Public Health

Public Health
2048 LSB
Provo, UT 84602
United States

Natalie Blades

Brigham Young University

Department of Statistics
WVB
Provo, UT 84602
United States

Teresa Gomez

BYU Harold B. Lee Library ( email )

Provo, UT 84602
United States

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