Disaster Vulnerability in 3D
51 Pages Posted: 21 Mar 2021
Date Written: March 19, 2021
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
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