A Press Commentary on Community Disaster Preparedness

Why community disaster preparedness

Earlier this August, many of us in Hong Kong were shocked by the consecutive disasters in mainland China and Taiwan, including a 6.5-magnitude earthquake striking the Ludian county of Yunnan on 3 August killing more than 600 people, a car wheel factory explosion leading to a casualty of more than 200 at Kunshan city of Jiangsu the day before, and underground gas pipeline explosions before midnight of 1 August in central Kaohsiung, killing close to 30 and injuring nearly 300 people. Further afield, the worst-ever Ebola epidemic has claimed more than 1,100 lives across West Africa and threatens to spread globally via air traffic.

Areas having inadequate preparedness against disasters are particularly vulnerable. To reduce the impact of disasters, national and international frameworks have been set up in the previous decade, such as China’s National Master Plan for Responding to Public Emergencies issued in 2006 and the United Nations’ 2005 Hyogo Framework for Action. While these frameworks often take a top-down approach — overseen and enforced by governments to ensure that information and action would eventually trickle down to local communities, a bottom-up approach focusing on the opportunities for individual people and communities to take more responsibility could help save even more lives.

This bottom-up approach of preparedness building is made possible by the spread of the internet, which provides a cost-effective tool to disseminate essential knowledge about disasters and associated health risks. Local academic institutions should seize this opportunity to contribute to the enhancement of community disaster preparedness in Hong Kong and beyond. For example, the Collaborating Centre for Oxford University and CUHK for Disaster and Medical Humanitarian Response (CCOUC) has recently developed a free online course on disaster and medical humanitarian response (http://phpidccouc.conted.ox.ac.uk). Four weeks after its launch in mid-June, 749 students have enrolled, of whom 347 (46.3%) come from Hong Kong while the rest from all six continents. This shows a great demand for disaster information both locally and globally, and Hong Kong has the potential to develop into a regional hub for disseminating this knowledge. Hence, while assuming the duty as the Country Focal Point for China to promote the internationally recognized sets of minimum standards in humanitarian response developed by the Geneva-based Sphere Project recently, CCOUC is also developing another 10 online courses covering various aspects of disaster preparedness and response, with a generous donation from Hong Kong Jockey Club.

Emily Ying Yang Chan is Professor and Director of CCOUC at the JC School of Public Health and Primary Care, The Chinese University of Hong Kong. Chi Shing Wong is CCOUC Centre Manager

(Published in South China Morning Post on 19 August 2014 as More lives saved with bottom-up approach to disaster relief)