Understanding Today’s Worldwide Crisis and Upheaval

We just went through a year that brought all of us the most incredible adversity. It is hard for us to even make sense of what happened. 2020 was mind-boggling everywhere in the world and no other year in recent memory can compare in terms of its impact. What is clear is that it was a year of extremes. These extremes were building up in the waning days of 2019 and are ongoing in 2021, so we continue to live in an age of extremes. The 2020s is off to a stormy beginning. We have no idea what the rest of the decade will be like, but the world is, no doubt, going to be permanently different in many ways as a result of what happened in 2020.

What distinguishes 2020 is that it was a period in which the world transitioned from the normal one we were familiar with before into one rife with unprecedented crises and upheavals. We will now spend 2021 living in new and very tough circumstances. Time will tell how everything will turn out from now on. But 2020, as the period of the monumental shifts that brought us here, is giving us a lot to look back on.   

Going over and understanding everything that happened is a huge task. My preference is to focus only on what makes 2020 (and the current year) unusual, not going over all the generic developments that could have easily happened in any previous year. There were, and continue to be, extraordinary developments on a very wide variety of fronts. And most of it is not good news. It seems just about every kind of problem afflicting the world is being severely exacerbated since 2020 began.

Respect for liberal values and humans rights came under question at the highest positions, with the designated leader of the free world doing everything from rashly killing a top official of a country he was not at war with to trying to keep himself in power by any means possible, motivating his supporters to attempt a violent assault on a co-equal branch of government. Hundreds of millions of people are experiencing worsening poverty and deprivation as a result of the pandemic and other factors. For nearly a year, hospitals everywhere in the world have been periodically overflowing with coronavirus patients, burdening healthcare systems beyond their capacity. Billions of people were thrust into an unfamiliar life in which stepping outside of home, meeting other people, and seeing their faces was restricted. And the planet’s weather patterns are becoming more extreme than ever witnessed before, resulting in severe natural hazards ravaging every region of the world since late 2019, from 46 million acres burnt during Australia’s Black Summer to the 30 named storms of the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season.

As noted in this blog’s first post since the current year began, 2020 was a year of disaster, specifically humanitarian disaster. There are all kinds of serious issues the world is having to deal with, from destruction of cultural and historical heritage (the threat Trump made after killing Soleimani), to environmental destruction and endangerment of wildlife as with Australia’s mass conservation crisis after the events of Black Summer, to attacks on the foundations of democratic values exemplified by last month’s storming of the US Capitol. These issues concern me deeply. You may find me covering them on my personal blog https://jshahzebkhan.wordpress.com/. But the type of issue PPLDM is concerned with is the most serious one, humanitarian threats to people’s lives and wellbeing, and the world is rife with such since 2020. Pakistan’s share of this is no bubble. As a result of last year’s events, life for every person in the world is now much more dangerous and harsher that it ever had been in at least decades, a shift that set in really rapidly. So it is very important to determine, to put it mildly, just what on Earth is going on.

One thing I am very curious about is, when history books are written in the following decades, how historians will cover this current period. For one thing, a huge amount of text will be devoted to the early 2020s. In the future, a book devoted to world history (or the history of many individual nations like China and USA) will probably devote as much space to 2020 and 2021 (and hopefully only those two years) as to the previous three decades from 1990 to 2019. I dare say that even World War 2 could be competing with the early 2020s for the number of pages in a standard book. Certainly, 2020 will occupy a big place in history. But the real question is, just what place will that be?

The fact is that 2020 is a historic era for the entire globe, but it does not seem to be the era of anything in particular. It saw various major developments come together in a bizarre assortment that seems to have no parallel in the past. There have been many instances in history when the entire world descended into rough times. But the changes that occurred were typically of one kind or had one underlying cause. Not so for the last year we experienced. 2020 basically had the pandemic of 1919, the economic collapse of 1931, the social unrest of 1968, the growing international hostilities of 1938, and the climate disturbances of 1816. That all these things could suddenly start happening at once, when everything was relatively normal in 2019 or at least 2018, is what is extraordinary about the world at present.

Just don’t get me wrong on one thing. 2020 is a horrible year for humanity, but for almost all of humankind’s existence, most people were living in circumstances far harder than we are in right now. 2020 is only the worst year of the 21st century. But what makes it really stand out is that since 2020 began, it seems, everything that can go wrong is going wrong.

How do we make sense of this? The pandemic is the main affair, so, if anything, we are in the era of COVID-19. The virus that emerged in late 2019 spread rapidly through the world’s entire human population and the resulting health crisis has had vast knock-on effects on every aspect of life, causing economic devastation and social disruption which, in turn, can lead to rising instability, hostility, and violence. These circumstances can also lead to other disasters becoming more common because of people being knocked off their guard, such as industrial or transportation accidents occurring more frequently because of less well-maintained safety standards or cases of other diseases rising due to cancellation of public health campaigns. The enormous protests sparked by George Floyd’s death and America’s epic post-election row that climaxed with Capitol Hill’s thrashing are two events that may not have been possible, or at least would not have occurred on such a grand scale, without the unprecedented disruption and chaotic environment created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, the world was already becoming a more turbulent and abnormal place by the time the coronavirus began to have a significant impact. The bushfires in Australia were a disaster unlike any the world had seen before. Burning tens of millions of acres, it seemed like they would drive Australia’s entire population into the sea. The record-breaking positive phase of the Indian Ocean Dipole responsible for the fires also produced extreme flooding in East Africa in late 2019 that caused a locust outbreak there to blossom into a massive trans-continental upsurge by January 2020, beginning a massive food crisis. This is the first time desert locusts spread so widely in the face of robust pest control measures in place since the 1980s. Meanwhile, the United States military killed Iran’s leading general, bringing the two countries to the brink of a huge war that could have destabilized the world. The US president threatened war crimes in response. The United States was also going through the third presidential impeachment trial in its history. India was becoming more unstable, with protests and communal violence spreading widely while Jammu and Kashmir endured the longest shutdown ever imposed in a democratic country. Finally, in January 31, 2020, the United States dismayed the world by lifting the ban on its military using landmines, the reason for this move reportedly being that the nation was shifting its focus away from counter-insurgency towards preparing for conventional wars with nations like Russia and China. All this is the very picture of a world getting out of hand.

Then the coronavirus had to arrive on the scene and shoot everything through the roof. Things have been going from bad to worse ever since. So this is not just the era of the coronavirus. The world is in an era generally of crisis and change. It seems impossible to devise an underlying explanation for all of 2020’s upheavals. But there is a practical explanation. I believe that what is happening is essentially the 21st century imploding. The world has become such a dynamic and integrated place that it is very easy for everything to go haywire at once.

Previously, the challenges of the world were disconnected from each other. What people did in one continent, or one region, or one country, often even one town, typically did not affect people elsewhere very much. It took a long time for events to extend their influence across a wide area. And what humans were doing in general had little effect on the natural environment, particularly the climate. It was a slow-changing world as well, pretty stable. 

Now, the world is transforming at breakneck speed in every way. Technology is advancing. Ideas are emerging and spreading and social attitudes shift easily. Financial and commercial trends and developments are whizzing by. The human population is growing. The Earth’s natural environment is being altered in every way. That includes the very climate, due to the building-up of greenhouse gases.

This is in a world where everything is deeply interconnected. Thanks to technology and social media, a network of instant communication links the globe and ordinary people. Developments in transportation enable the fast movement of people, materials, and living things across unlimited distances. Knowledge, ideas, attitudes, and cultures are intimately exchanging influence across nations. The global economy is deeply integrated, with there being very few people whose lives and livelihoods are not shaped by commercial activity around the world. And there is hardly any part of the Earth above its rocky crust that is not being influenced and altered by this human civilization and its activities. Almost the entire biosphere is changing beyond recognition and falling under, and often out of, the control of humans. Natural environments are being reshaped all the way up to the atmosphere, where changes in climate in turn are impacting the Earth’s surface.

As already noted, the modern world is a better place in the regular scheme of things. Humans have more control over everything and are able to achieve a near-infinite amount. We have come a long way in solving all of humanity’s traditional problems. But this world we have produced is also much, much more volatile. The probability is high of something happening that is out of our hands and has a major impact. Changes out of our control are also happening all the time under the surface, pushing us towards the brink. The world built by us is very fragile, with everything being so interdependent that any major shock could cause it all to come crashing down. 

In a world like this, one event can have a ripple effect, causing a cascade of other events until enormous change has taken place. This is the case with the emergence of the novel coronavirus, which, after quickly becoming a pandemic, has caused profound social, political, economic, and environmental shifts. It is also probable for multiple disruptive changes to coincide with each other. Thus, we have seen a global build-up of sociopolitical tensions and discord within and across borders just before the coronavirus came onto the scene and, all the while, climate extremes, which have been steadily building up over the decades, are undergoing a dramatic escalation in what might be a leap forward by climate change.

So we are living in a world where the emergence of universal upheaval, crisis, and change is likely and this is exactly what is going on since late 2019. “Crisis and change”, incidentally, are the two words most apt to describe this current state of affairs. If you just want to use one, there is “upheaval”. All three words form the title of prominent geographer and anthropologist Jared Diamond’s latest book Upheaval: How Nations Cope with Crisis and Change. It was published in 2019, just in time, because it can be considered a useful text for understanding all the crisis and change happening across the world in this period of acute upheaval. Rolling out his idea that the way entire societies cope with challenges parallels how individuals or groups of people do, Diamond analyzes six cases of nations going through a period of strife in the past and surviving by transforming in a selective manner. He also deals with the current state of countries across the world like the US and what threats the future might bring. The crises covered are of various kinds, political, economic, civil, and ecological, which is the same range of crises shaking the world since 2020.

Crisis and change, as the subject of Jared’s book, comprise a noteworthy concept. Not only have they defined human history in large part, but crisis and change, while having different meanings, typically go hand in hand. A crisis, by definition, is a change, because it is when people enter a situation that is worse than before and which requires them to undertake new actions in response. But changes of nearly any kind often lead to crisis for the people who are affected (typically, but not always, when the people in question did not intend for the change to come about). Human society tends to benefit from stability. People adjust their lives to their circumstances and if the circumstances change before they have time to adapt, they are almost certain to suffer. It is a crisis also when an old, established order people don’t want to let go of is slipping away.

The past year is filled with change all over the world and nearly all these changes represent crisis for someone. The Gamestop short squeeze is just a latest example. A few weeks back, retail traders on the Reddit group wallstreetbets, a large group of amateurs involved in investing, bought stocks en masse of the failing company Gamestop, which was the most heavily shorted on Wall Street at the time, followed by other companies. They drove the price of the stock up and made a huge amount of money by squeezing the shorts. This is a landmark event in financial history. Nothing like it ever happened before and it could herald a major change in the way the financial system works.

The trading frenzy was beneficial for the innumerable Reddit investors who got rich off the stock buying. But it was a disaster for the institutional investors who bet against Gamestop and then lost billions of dollars. Some major hedge funds went bankrupt as a result of this popular action coordinated on social media. Wall Street therefore got up in arms about the mass stock buying, branding it market manipulation. The crisis then escalated as brokerages like Robinhood, which was founded to allow the masses easy access to the financial market, blocked the mass stock buying, disrupted the rise in Gamestop’s value and the profits the Redditors were gaining. This sparked even wider outrage, with the matter going to the courts and politicians on both sides of the political spectrum expressing concern over Robinhood’s action.

This is the sort of thing Jared Diamond would be proud to write about in Upheaval and it is typical of what this world is coming to in the 2020s. Crises are breaking out everywhere, in every which way, from the spread of the coronavirus threatening the lives of every human being to the social media-led Gamestop trading frenzy threatening the interests of an established order of elites. Furthermore, these are not the kind of crises that routinely happen but are by-and-large of a novel or unusual nature or frequency, so their occurrence represents global change on a fundamental level.

Another very important matter is that these changes are often coming from the smallest of places, which also makes many of them completely unexpected. This means that ordinary things can become agents of upheaval, rendering us unable to forestall the crises they cause. Notably, also, non-human factors are playing a big role in human affairs. We have a tendency to think of history as being directed by long-term political, social, and economic processes, and the case studies featured in Upheaval are of this nature. But in the 21st century, things don’t appear to be that way anymore. Since 2016, everybody expected 2020 to be an impactful year in which the biggest events would be the US presidential election race, Brexit, and (after 18 December, 2019) the US president’s impeachment trial for his alleged Ukrainian quid pro quo. But they were eclipsed by things nobody was expecting at all.

The new coronavirus was first reported in China at the end of 2019, apparently originating from a one-in-a-billion mutation in a virus circulating in animals in a wet market, and it took only a few months for a state of emergency to sweep the entire world, causing such enormous changes that even Earth’s atmosphere and oceans felt the effects. Even a single infected person traveling to a certain region could introduce the contagion there and therefore single-handedly bring disaster upon that area. A police killing in Minneapolis involving ordinary people was caught on camera and the release of the footage caused the eruption of extreme unrest and strife in every urban area in the United States while a monumental shift in attitudes swept the Western world.

The George Floyd protests are the biggest example of how ordinary people organizing in large numbers through social media are demonstrating a huge impact. In America since 2021 began, they rocked the financial world with their Gamestop buying frenzy and they rocked the political world, too, by swarming into the US Capitol to disrupt the certification of Joe Biden’s presidency. In the past, attempted coups would be conducted by big players, like military officers, but it seems to have become a casual grassroots activity in the one country which has always been extremely stable at the federal level.

The weather-related events making their mark also represent events unforeseen to human agency or that aren’t taken into account in our normal outlook. We may not pay attention to their impact all that much, but it is still very much real. The 2019 temperature swing in the Indian Ocean nearly wiped Australia, one of the world’s wealthiest nations, off the map and left behind a food crisis for a huge chunk of the developing world by getting some grasshoppers hopped up on steroids.

The locusts can be considered a player coming out of the blue for the world. Those knowing the science and history are fully aware that locust outbreaks are major hazards, so the recent desert locust outbreaks are no surprise to the relevant experts. But most of us weren’t really concerned when the upsurge was in the making. In the regions exposed to the locust threat, things like the building of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and Iran’s nuclear program were what were on people’s minds over the past few years. Now the locusts may end up being a bigger game-changer, whether we recognize it or not.

Weather is generally hard to predict (which means expecting what will happen), but the worsening weather events brought on by climate change are also getting to be hard to anticipate (which means expecting what can happen). In the past, weather followed well-established patterns that humans could be familiarized with. The more an event deviated from the schedule, the rarer it was. But because the climate is changing so rapidly, weather phenomena that deviate from the old patterns are becoming the norm. That means that the weather is behaving in ways that we have never observed before and which even scientists find difficult to foresee. Consider the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season, which smashed a large number of records and produced 30 named storms. At the end, Central America was devastated by two Category 5 hurricanes that formed in November, by which time tropical activity is supposed to be waning. In the Arabian Sea, Cyclone Gati pounded Somalia late last November, which is historic because it was the first time on record that a hurricane-strength cyclone made landfall in Somalia. It must have been assumed before that the risk of this for Somalia was very low. The level to which weather processes are behaving erratically nullifies our traditional planning.

Unpredictability is a defining feature of the recent upheavals. Most of the major crises of the last year caught everybody by surprise, such as the emergence of COVID-19, numerous extreme weather events, certain outbreaks of civil unrest, and the specific time and place that new COVID-19 variants appeared. This means that what happens from now on will likely also elude prediction. If we try to forecast what will happen next, our attempts will turn out in vain. The only way to be prepared for further problems down the line is to brace ourselves for any change and expect things to get much worse than they already have been. We have to maintain ourselves in crisis mode, basically. Right now, in February 2021, the planning of most of us is largely taking into account only current crises and trends. We hope new problems don’t spring up in 2021 like they did in 2020. But as we can tell from experience, we must expect the unexpected. In the rest of 2021 and also 2022, perhaps afterwards as well, we have no choice but to expect the world has more surprises in store for us and catastrophes could happen that we can’t imagine. For this, mental preparation is needed.

While prediction may be a futile activity, anticipation is what can work. In the prologue of Upheaval, Jared Diamond, in describing the content of Chapter 11 which concerns global challenges, writes, “While one could assemble an infinite list of problems facing the world, I focus on four for which it seems to me that trends already underway will, if they continue, undermine living standards worldwide within the next several decades.” In the two years since he wrote that, it certainly seems like worldwide living standards have instead been undermined by events that suddenly arrived without warning. But, in fact, they all are part of long-running trends that scholars like Diamond could identify. That includes climate change for most of 2020’s natural disasters. It is the case with the coronavirus pandemic, too. In recent times, diseases new to mankind are emerging at an ever-quickening pace, such as HIV, Ebola, Zika, and two coronaviruses, SARS and MERS, making it clear that a pandemic of whatever kind was hanging over us. So while we could not predict that a new coronavirus would appear in China in 2019 and ravage the world the way it did, we could anticipate the basic nature of the pandemic.

And anticipation is what we need in order to weather 2021. We have to get a full grasp of everything that could happen from now on. That will be very challenging, because the modern world is extremely complex and so are its problems. The world has to be studied thoroughly and all the knowledge we have about it must be integrated together. Only then can we minimize the chance that the world’s future trajectory catches us by surprise, because we can watch out for every possibility. With anticipation, we may not be able to forecast the chance of a new development, but once it starts, we can forecast where it leads to. Even that can be a hard task, though, because of how anomalous events are interacting with each other to produce very complicated effects. If many things out of place happen together, they can produce a result out of this world, like the US Capitol storming likely made possible by years of Trumpian rhetoric, social strife and distrust caused by George Floyd’s death and lockdowns, and the way the pandemic disrupted the conduct of the election. Chaos theory is applicable to current global events. But just as weather can be forecasted a few days in advance, the ability to stay just ahead of whatever 2021 throws at us should be within our reach.

For now, we must be busy dealing with all the problems that are happening right now or are expected to happen. We have gone through the worst phase of the coronavirus pandemic, the spread now declining for probably only seasonal reasons, and the battle between humanity and COVID-19 is just beginning to heat up further with the development of the vaccines and the emergence of the mutated virus variants. Nations have yet to work out all their strategies for how to deliver the vaccines to all who need it and the more the virus is allowed to be widespread worldwide for a prolonged period, the more likely further dangerous mutations will appear. The economic fallout of the pandemic remains as bad as ever. Billions of people are desperately in need of help due to heightened impoverishment. Many parts of the world have their own particular problems to deal with. America has to sort out its socio-political tensions, which remain strong even after the transition to the new president was completed. Various geopolitical hostilities must be defused or else they will grow. The continuing threat posed by the desert locusts to the food security of as much as a tenth (perhaps more) of the world’s population needs to be overcome.

In these circumstances, PPLDM suggested the Year of Survival as a challenge to motivate us, in which, by the time 2021 ends, we make great strides in tackling the challenges present at the beginning of the year (barring the arrival of new, unforeseen crises, of course!). 2021 can then be made into a reverse 2020. Remember, though, that, even if we do overcome the current level of adversity by the year’s end, we may still be left with a new normal. Also, what is happening now is most likely only a taste of the future. The 21st century world will continue to be a volatile and unpredictable place and where it is ultimately headed is the most unpredictable thing of all. If we succeed in turning 2021 into a year of survival and resilience, we will make the world better equipped to tackle the challenges that the decades ahead will bring. The shocks of 2020 may turn out to be merely wake-up calls. For example, the risk of a pandemic far worse than COVID-19 exists on the horizon, if there happens to emerge a pathogen that spreads faster, is more virulent, or infects more persistently.

It is an understatement to say that overcoming the current pandemic and other crises will take a lot. Humanity is up for an uphill struggle and if the bulk of that struggle is to be finished within a year, we need more than just hard work and perseverance. We need ingenuity and brainpower. We are dealing with what will go down as typical 21st century problems, but the paths to tackling them are pretty clear. Just as the potential for the emergence of new problems in the world is rising, so is humanity’s potential for solving problems. As mentioned, mankind’s capabilities nowadays are vast. We have used them to make the world a better place to live, and while we have made the world more volatile at the same time, any problem coming out of that should meet its match in us.

People today are extremely creative. Many of us are able to transform our behavior, our customs, and our outlook rapidly. The level of technological advancement is vast and is rising at breakneck speed. And our capacity for gathering knowledge is unlimited, as is the ability of that knowledge to spread from people to people. We have all the tools we need at our disposal to tackle the challenges of 2021. Now let’s use them wisely and responsibly.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that, as explained already, we need to be ready for everything we cannot imagine. When you look back at the last year, you can see how much happened that most people would have considered inconceivable. The same might turn out to be true for 2021, and maybe the year after that, and the next year, too, etc. So be on guard. It gives Pakistan reason to be wary. This country seems to be one of the relatively luckier ones so far, but that could easily change, and in ways we might not expect. PPLDM’s duty is to participate in managing the nation’s ailments and making it more resilient. Disaster management and disaster risk reduction alike are the need of the hour in ways they never have been before. We don’t just need to engage in them on a bigger scale. We need to transform the way we do so in order to adapt to the new global circumstances.

PPLDM will do whatever it can to play its part, helping guide Pakistan through today’s challenges with a knowledge-based and people-centered approach. Everybody has a part to play in helping themselves and their society to persevere. And truth is needed above all else. PPLDM’s priority is learning all about the crises around us, gathering as much information as we can and using the power of analysis to draw inferences and conclusions from them. The power of prediction is needed to assess the likelihood of hazards and crises about to come. And perhaps the biggest task of all is finding the solutions to the problems. This always requires a whole lot of research, because if you want to know the problem, you just look at the problem, where it is coming from, and how it is affecting people, but if you want to figure out the solutions, you literally have to look everywhere, because the possibilities are practically endless. To simplify the endeavor, understanding the problem and its fundamentals may lead us on the path towards finding the right solutions. But surviving 2021 will also require a lot of thinking outside the box.

So research and development (R&D) on a grand scale is badly needed. Pakistan should participate in it as much as it can. PPLDM will promote this national capability and will, from now on, be fully engaged in studying the COVID-19 pandemic and other crises and risks and developing ideas for how we can cope. PPLDM hopes to guide the entire world in addition to Pakistan. You can find much of that work here on this blog. Regular info will hopefully appear on PPLDM’s official Facebook account https://www.facebook.com/Pakistans-People-Led-Disaster-Management-PPLDM-1189813241092698/. And an announcement: in 2020, PPLDM launched its official YouTube channel Disaster Management, https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC3_vsqGckhCgB7WjdIGMoew, which will keep you up-to-date on the latest in the field of disasters and risks and deliver innovative ideas with concise videos by PPLDM’s directors.

This article has hopefully given you the ability to understand how the world has become filled with the crises and change we experience today. I know many of you are living much harder lives than you used to and when you hear about what is happening in the world, it may instill in you a sense of hopelessness and despondency about where humanity is coming to. But knowing why and how things are happening the way they are will enable you to have a clearer outlook on life and will be a source of encouragement. My aim in writing this article is to ensure that this world we find ourselves in, terrible as it is, no longer bewilders you. Now that we are equipped with the knowledge we need, we can begin our journey to ensure the world survives 2021 and that every nation including Pakistan proves itself capable of coping with this round of upheaval.

Earthquake Felt in Islamabad. Beware of Aftershocks.

Some time before 10:20 PM tonight, February 12, 2021, I was in my trailer in the middle of Islamabad with my mother when we felt moderate shaking. We rushed out the door and a second after stepping outside, an even stronger tremor began and lasted for a few seconds. I never felt quaking as strong as this in Islamabad before. Now, the news reports are saying it was a widespread earthquake felt in various parts of Pakistan as well as surrounding countries of Tajikistan, China, Afghanistan, and India.

For now, I can only be sure of what I felt. It very much appears to be two earthquakes striking in rapid succession, which is not something I have heard of a lot. After the first shaking in the cabin broke out, I felt it die down so there was a clear gap with the second tremor. What could have happened therefore was an earthquake preceded seconds earlier by a foreshock. Foreshocks usually happen a long time before the bigger tremors they portend, including the mainshock which is the largest earthquake in a sequence.

Whether or not it is a mainshock, the earthquake I felt outside the cabin was powerful. I felt the ground move violently, though whether from side to side or up and down I am not sure, perhaps both, and a thunderous rumbling filled the air as a result of all the buildings around shaking. A commotion followed in the neighborhood as lights turned on and people rushed outside. Islamabad is believed to be far away from any active fault line. So it is assumed that any tremor felt in Islamabad came from far away. This means that if an earthquake is strong in Islamabad, it is likely much stronger closer to the epicenter.

This is worrying for me right now given the strength of what I felt. I immediately realized the impact is likely much worse to the west or north, in Pakistan’s vulnerable mountainous areas. These places are very earthquake-prone. Because this earthquake struck early at night, Pakistan’s ability to mount an immediate rescue and relief response and even to quickly assess the total impact is compromised. We need to keep ourselves glued to the news reports coming out right now.








Pakistan’s news agencies and geological agencies within and beyond are responding fast and what they have reported already is revealing major insights in what is seemingly an unusual seismic event. The epicenter of the earthquake is placed in Tajikistan. Its Richter magnitude is measured at 6.4 and depth at 80 kilometers. According to reports, the quake jolted Khyber-Paktunkwha, Gilgit-Balitistan, Azad Kashmir, and parts of Punjab. It was apparently very strong in Azad Kashmir, such as Bagh and Mirpur. It was felt in cities from Peshawar to Islamabad to Lahore to Multan. So too in Afghanistan, Xingjiang, and parts of northern India including Delhi.

Thee earthquake is so strong and widespread that a wave of solidarity and concern is sweeping Pakistan. Social media is abuzz when we are supposed to be going to bed. We hope it is not a severe disaster. That is the last thing we need at a time like this. We are already in a difficult time with the coronavirus pandemic. Imagine if an earthquake displaces people and forces them into crowded shelters or if the movement of aid workers spreads the virus. And we won’t be able to receive the level of international help that we did with the 2005 Kashmir earthquake that killed more than 70,000 Pakistanis and left 3.5 homeless, because the entire world is struggling. This tremor is a reminder to us of how much we remain at risk of disaster and this pandemic is our most vulnerable time.

When the Sun rises over Pakistan, we will know the full extent of what the quake has wrought within our nation. Let us ready for what may be a significant national emergency tomorrow. Watch out for landslides, avalanches, and glacial lake outburst floods in the northern areas. And Pakistanis should know that they have to remain wary. The authorities are warning of aftershocks following tonight’s quake. Any further tremors could bring down structures weakened by the previous earthquake. There is a more alarming possibility to take into account. What if instead of aftershocks after this, the tremor that just happened is a foreshock to a bigger earthquake that is coming? People should take precautions in the event of further quakes. They can spend all their time in certain locations that provide them safety, such as outside their homes or near the doorway. Just know that we cannot do things the way we used to be able to, such as moving into shelters with other people. PPLDM will be back with more coverage.

Stay safe, Pakistan. And let’s stand together.

PPLDM’s Message for the World in 2021

Welcome back, for all my readers not only in Pakistan but all over the world. This is the first post of 2021 on this blog and there isn’t much to do right now except take stock of everything. It is now an incredibly tough time for everybody all over the world and when we look back at how we got here, it seems our minds cannot comprehend it, because the year that just ended was one that did not keep itself within any bounds. It feels like eons ago, but I think we all look back with nostalgia at New Year’s Day, 2020, which was the last New Year we celebrated in a normal world. The beginning not only of a new year but also a new decade, it was an occasion of hope and optimism. There was so much to look forward to, including for me. Then, a year later, we have just spent a New Year’s in a world that changed beyond recognition. And it did so in the most unexpected of ways.

It was really the beginning of 2019 that was the world’s last normal New Year’s. By the time 2019 ended, the world was already becoming a more troubled place. Most notably, as we celebrated New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, we watched the populated areas of Australia endure wildfires that were the most extreme in the known history of the continent, a grim indicator of the mounting climate crisis. They were so terrible that Australia scaled-back its celebrations and cancelled fireworks, while polluted air forced millions of Australians to stay home or wear facemasks, experiences now familiar to the entire world. Another crisis of unusual extremes dampening the New Year, one scarcely noticed at all in the international media, was the shutdown of Jammu and Kashmir by the Indian government, the most prolonged ever in a democracy. Since August 5, 2019, Kashmiris were placed under lockdown, restricted from leaving their homes, gathering together, and traveling on the roads, experiences which, again, billions of people are now familiar with.

Regardless of these and other problems bubbling up, we all carried on with our jubilation for the new decade. And then, just as soon as the New Year festivities died down, we got our first sign that the world we used to know was slipping away. It was on the morning of January 3 (here in Pakistan) that I went onto the BBC News website and saw the headline across the screen, “US kills Iran’s top general”. This was certainly not a sentence I would have ever expected to read, especially when the two countries are not at war. But it happened anyway, in response to a mob besieging the US Embassy in Iraq while 2019 was giving way to 2020, and as one would expect, the Middle East was brought to the brink of a war that could easily have been the worst since 1945. A further shock came when the US President threatened to destroy “52 sites very important to the Iranian culture”, which presumably included the world-renowned ruins of thousands of years of Persian civilization. These were all very strange and terrifying things to hear. The new developments worried practically the entire world. Americans began to fear being drafted, something not seen since the Vietnam War, and there were even widespread fears of “World War 3” breaking out (a plausible scenario, since a major full-scale war in the modern world can easily proliferate).

In the end, no new violence came to pass, save for a rocket barrage that gave more than a hundred American troops concussions and tragically downed a passenger airliner with the loss of all 176 onboard. But the world would proceed to transform in a dizzying way. Many of those who tweeted the hashtag “#WW3” probably did not think it could literally come true. But what none of us could have ever imagined was that something very much akin to a world war was actually heading our way at lightning speed. A new virus was breaking out in China at that time, believed to originate from something as mundane as a horseshoe bat interacting with a scaly anteater, and it was about to change the world a hundred times more than Trump and his generals could. Being declared a pandemic by the WHO within two months on March 11, the COVID-19 pandemic is, from the beginning, considered the biggest global crisis since World War 2.

The ravages of WW2 were nowhere near as widespread, though, with only a few major regions touched by war, while much of the world was mostly unscathed save for significant economic shifts and regular-sized deployment of troops abroad. But infections with COVID-19, extreme restrictions on human activity to forestall them, and the resulting economic devastation swept every corner of the globe and it has remained that way since. This is a world event that has personally impacted almost every single human being, perhaps a first in human history (well, maybe except for titanic volcanic eruptions).

What followed since the shocks at the beginning of 2020 was the globe going through the most dramatic of cataclysms. In the first two decades of the 21st century, we have gotten ourselves accustomed to living in a stable world where, basically, barely any history is made. It is only when picking up a history book and flipping through the pages did we get to observe the world transforming itself from one state to another, civilizations being reshaped, and massive upheavals rocking humanity. And these developments usually took place over several years to centuries. Since 2019 ended, the pace of change and the scale of challenges that we used to only hear of while studying history, we are witnessing every day on the news channels and in our own lives.

History was made on a grand scale throughout 2020 and continues to be so in 2021, as the storming of the US Capitol showed from the start. It was an event that shattered the world even after that world was already left in pieces by 2020. If an uprising of that kind took place in practically any other nation, it would have meant little to the rest of the world. But American democracy has been a pillar of the modern world for centuries and never in the entire history of the USA was an uprising ever attempted in the nation’s capital to determine by force who would be in power. The 2020s surpassed the history books in this way. The events that transpired on Capitol Hill on January 6 and afterwards are a powerful measure of how different things became in the 12 months since the United States assassinated the military head of a nation it was not at war with, the leader of the free world threatened to destroy cultural and historical heritage as a means of conducting war, and the only US government building being invaded was the embassy in Iraq.

2020 was the age of change, a time of historic developments, but it was also, almost entirely, a time of adversity. When you read through history, you will notice that it is typically defined by human suffering and hardship. The same is true for the developments of the past year. Since 2020 began, crises and extreme challenges have been prolific. Countless disasters and tragedies have occurred. Many new risks emerged and people everywhere are living under perilous circumstances. Many of the events that have happened are situations that are difficult for people to cope with or which people were dismayed by, striking a blow at their most deeply-held conceptions of how the world should be.

The losses and the hardships so many people are enduring are very real, as is the grief and fear and dismay and even anger they are feeling. The world has always been rife with problems, but things have suddenly become much worse now, and that makes it all the harder for us to cope compared to people in previous ages who lived in much worse circumstances than we still do right now. So this is a difficult subject to touch upon for way too many people and it just seems so surreal that this subject is everything going on in the world. One result is an added layer of confusion on top of everything we are feeling. It can seem hard to understand why the world is becoming like this, which may add to the sense of terror. But my job here is simply to help you understand how things are happening. And right now, the world, which is a dynamic place that always has its ups and downs, is in a time of elevated suffering and danger for the people living in it.  

It is with a view to this that 2020 was PPLDM’s busiest year ever. Every country suffered greatly in some way and Pakistan is no exception. We started this blog and wrote the first post in 2017 in response to a terrible mass tragedy that happened in Pakistan on June 25 when, in one of the worst accidents in Pakistan’s history, oil spilt from a crashed tanker caught fire and burnt hundreds of villagers gathered around to collect it, killing 219 people (https://pldmsite.wordpress.com/2017/07/20/first-blog-post/). We then spent all of 2018 and 2019 mostly writing about the standard disaster risks that exist in Pakistan and working to prepare people for various events expected to occur. But 2020 was an altogether different experience. We spent the entire year dealing with crises presently affecting Pakistan, imminent risks, and disasters that just occurred. We ourselves were affected and had to completely adjust our lives, like everyone else, to new circumstances and work from there, doing what we could to help the nation. And the nation’s humanitarian needs were truly extraordinary.

The spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, what scientists call SARS-CoV-2, was the dominant event in Pakistan since February. Pakistan proceeded to be one of the regions where the virus was spreading the most, though the impact of the pandemic was relatively moderate in its severity compared to many other countries. At the same time, a severe desert locust invasion, originating from Arabia and East Africa, pushed Pakistan towards an alarming food crisis throughout most of 2020, only waning in the latter months but never completely going away. A plane crash with the loss of nearly all onboard also occurred on May 22, 98 people dying after Flight PK8303 went down. Various extreme weather events occurred, the worst of which was the monsoon season’s rainfall, which devastated various areas in the country, particularly in Sindh. Floods affected 2.5 million rural Sindhis. Intense monsoon rainfall wreaked havoc in urban centers, especially Karachi, where record-breaking spells in August stranded several million people. Pakistan managed to flatten the coronavirus curve in the summer, but the pandemic returned with a vengeance in the winter and became a full-blown calamity, while worrisome emergent strains of COVID-19 arrived within our borders. All the while, major economic and political troubles increased Pakistan’s vulnerability to the hazards washing over it, as did the extraordinary crises overcoming all the other nations that could have provided Pakistan with aid.

Such is the world we are left with at the beginning of 2021. The question for all of us now, in Pakistan and in the rest of the world, is if we will overcome the crises still going on and get things back to normal this year. I don’t think a return to normal is possible in terms of things going back to the way they were before 2020 began. Events like the coronavirus pandemic have very likely changed the world irreversibly, so we have to say goodbye to the world we used to know and love. But we must find solutions to our challenges and stop these disasters in order to save as many people as possible and get them back on their feet. And we need to embrace a new normal, particularly with a view to achieving greater resiliency towards the challenges the 21st century is now throwing at us.

There is a lot to look back at in 2020, even though we may prefer to forget most of it. It is truly an extraordinary year that will occupy a prominent and special place in the history books, although historians may be busy working out what exactly it was the era of. For now, as 2020 has just ended, we just need to remember how it impacted us and changed the world we live in. And as it was such a catastrophic year, with the entire world suffering humanitarian crisis on a massive scale throughout, PPLDM formally designates 2020 as the Year of Disaster.  

Those disasters are far from over. 2020 can be more precisely known as the year in which great crises and elevated risks emerged. And they will have a bearing on the longer-term future. For now, we have to cope. That, more than anything else, means that we need to adapt. First, we have to let go of any misperception that things are the way they used to be. We cannot rely upon anything working in a normal manner. For instance, foreign aid for any particular country in need, including Pakistan, is now hard to come by since every nation is in severe crisis, including the powerful, high-income nations that are always relied upon to provide assistance for the rest of the world. We must get our minds attuned to this new world. And we must recognize how problems are coming in on every front.

Second, the world has been in this state of crisis for a long period of time by now, long enough for us to change our ways and develop better responses that can serve us on a more permanent basis. But PPLDM is observing that this is not being done as much as it could be. We should be availing this time to move beyond costly short-term measures quickly adopted as crises set in, such as economically destructive and psychologically impacting lockdowns to suppress the spread of the virus until herd immunity can be achieved with vaccination or using environmentally harmful pesticides to control the locust outbreaks. The world has changed. We need to change as well and there is so much we can do.

The biggest takeaway from the Year of Disaster is that everything in the world nowadays is deeply interconnected and the crises and challenges 2020 brought are no exception. Disaster management is a greater necessity than ever before in the early 2020s and for PPLDM, it is not just about what is happening within the borders of Pakistan. Many of the crises affecting Pakistan are widespread across the world, with hazards like the coronavirus and its variants and the desert locusts crossing borders. The recent global developments and trends are creating a riskier environment for every nation. And international cooperation, which is vital for disaster risk reduction and humanitarian relief, is being tested more than ever. PPLDM’s new role in the new decade’s turbulent beginning is to keep a vigilant eye on everything that is happening around the world and help navigate Pakistan through the new and unprecedented global circumstances, as well as plan for what’s next after this in the foreseeable future.

If 2020 was a year of disasters, what will 2021 turn out to be? Will it be the same story? It better not. We all must be determined to solve the tremendous problems the world has become engulfed in so that the world is brought into a much better shape in 2021. Pakistan must join, hand in hand, with the rest of the world and we all need to utilize the capacity we spent 2020 building up. Scientists developed vaccines for COVID-19 within one year, a record-smashing pace. Now, it is up to all the rest of us to distribute and obtain these vaccines in what is likely to be the largest-scale endeavor in human history, all the while we are battling so many other prodigious problems. Innovation is required to get back on our feet in 2021, as is the involvement and cooperation of all the people of the world. And the world needs to act in a spirit of unity, which is gravely lacking right now. Conflict and hostility was one of the issues 2020 was rife with, as was the fact that people were often at odds with each other and divided on so many fronts. It is very important to get people to stop making problems for each other and work together. But where that does not manage to happen, people have to find a way around disagreements and just do whatever they can to solve the problems they are dealing with. Being able to manage on one’s own is another value necessary in 2021.  

Our aim, if 2020 was the Year of Disaster, should be to make 2021 the Year of Survival. Now that 2020 has ended, it will always be remembered as a year in which the world slid into catastrophe after catastrophe. Let us be determined that, by the time 2021 ends, it will be forever be known as the year humanity successfully tackled these catastrophes and brought the world back on its feet. Achieving this goal will be a monumental challenge, but let us give it everything we have got. The struggle has just begun. PPLDM will be playing its part in 2021, doing everything it can to find the right solutions for Pakistan and for the wider world as well. An epic journey awaits us.

My message to all of you is to be strong and to achieve a clear vision of what needs to be done. Remember the year end goal. History is being made in this day and age. We need to take charge and make history the way we want it to be. It will give us the resilience we will need from now on, because the challenges of the past year are a preview of what the future has in store.  

Now let’s see if we can do this.

America’s Crisis Election

I first became politically engaged at the age of 11 as a result of the historic 2008 US presidential election and have taken a keen interest in every subsequent US presidential election. In 2012, an article I wrote and submitted to a newspaper about presidential candidate Mitt Romney (https://dailytimes.com.pk/90359/romney-and-the-earth/) earned me the title of “Pakistan’s youngest Op-Ed columnist”. And then came 2016. The election race due that year was extraordinary, or so it felt to us back then. A candidate unlike any other was running for president, Donald Trump, and it plunged America into the deepest and most vicious polarization in recent memory. The election was contested bitterly, but its integrity was also at the center of controversy. Allegations of voter fraud and Russian interference were circulating. I was busy writing about all this on my personal blog https://jshahzebkhan.wordpress.com/. When Trump was elected president, the troubles did not end there. Widespread protests amidst allegations of an improper election followed. Since then, Trump’s entire first term has been a troubled time for America.

Now, Election Day 2020 has finally arrived. The United States of America is about to finish conducting the 59th Presidential Election of its history, the contest that will decide whether Trump goes on to serve a second term or if power goes to a reoriented Democrat Party, and I just have to say one thing.

This is all absolutely beyond belief.

What is mind-boggling about this election is not that it far exceeds the previous election in 2016 in terms of how viciously contested it is. We all expected that. It is instead the fact that, throughout this year, this election was pushed to the sidelines by other developments nobody could ever have imagined. In 2016, the presidential election was the earthshattering event consuming America and sending ripples across the world. In 2020, America is being buried by an avalanche of earthshattering events, in a world being overtaken by monumental events, making the election’s relevance mostly pale in comparison.

I have myself felt this unexpected turn of events. The interest I took in the 2016 election and its importance for the world was so much that I probably would have dedicated this year to studying and writing about the 2020 election. Instead, as director at Pakistan’s People-Led Disaster Management (PPLDM), I spent my time on PPLDM’s blog https://pldmsite.wordpress.com/ and YouTube channel https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC3_vsqGckhCgB7WjdIGMoew reporting on the humanitarian crises taking place in Pakistan, as well as on various noteworthy world events besides the US election, of which there are no shortages. Now that the election is about to wrap up, it’s worth my while to say something about it and I might as well use this platform. The story of 2020 America has countless lessons for disaster management.

As for the American people, this election has been unlike any other for one simple reason. Previously, during any race for Presidential election, it was all they heard about on the news. It consumed the attention of the nation. This time, that has been far from the case. 2020 is probably the first time in modern history that America’s people, media, and even politicians have spent most of a presidential race without it being their primary focus. Candidates themselves held off campaign rallies for months. Several events that came out of the blue have been top priority for several months now and the role of the US election has been mainly to be influenced by them, rather than influencing what is happening in the country.

First, when 2020 was beginning, there was the impeachment and subsequent trial of Donald Trump, as well as Qasem Soleimani’s death in a drone strike bringing the US and Iran to the brink of war. It is only faintly alleged these events were related to the election race. Things really kicked off when the new strain of coronavirus emerged in China and shut part of the country down. COVID-19 proceeded to spread around the world, with countries like the US scrambling to forestall it, but turned into a pandemic and America quickly became its epicenter. A quarter of a million Americans have already died. Much of the country has been subjected to unheard-of lockdowns and the economy plunged into a severe recession with vast unemployment and both supply and demand plummeting. In the midst of all this, George Floyd’s death ignited the nation’s racial fault lines and plunged the whole nation into chaos, with millions of protestors immediately taking to the streets, and unrest has continued since, stoked by further cases of police violence against black people. Among various examples of anomalously extreme weather, the West’s wildfire season has been devastating, burning four million acres in California and spreading toxic air across the country. A hyperactive hurricane season has seen tropical storms forming at the fastest rate ever and a record-breaking 11 of them hit the US. The US has not been severely impacted yet, but this is still an extremely perilous season for the country. And just a month before Nov. 3, a COVID-19 outbreak overtook the White House and sent the president to the hospital.

Now that the US presidential election itself is underway, it is finally at the forefront of the nation’s attention. It is all well, because the importance of this election for America and for the rest of the world cannot be overstated. Very, very unfortunately, it is also all set to become yet another one of America’s catastrophic upheavals. Businesses across the country are preparing themselves for post-election violence, boarding up storefronts. Law enforcement agencies and social media companies are also straining to prepare themselves for this scenario. No matter who wins, a lot of Americans will be very upset amidst conditions volatile enough for them to be easily driven to the streets and even to all-out violence. Trump has also not guaranteed that he will accept the results if he loses. The same could be possible for Joe Biden. Right now, Trump is suggesting that mail-in-ballots should not be counted after November 3 and that the winner should be declared on Election night. A battle over the election outcome is very likely to happen and this could aggravate any social unrest taking place during that time. It may be that America’s most dangerous time is round the corner, as the election completely unravels the nation’s political and social divisions.

The election could also prove a health disaster for America. People are supposed to be physically distant to ward off the coronavirus, but this cannot happen with in-person voting. The option of absentee voting is available to many and people are taking advantage of it while casting their ballots early. So far, most of these people have voted Democrat and some analysts think that many Republican voters have heeded Trump’s warning of mail-in-voting (the main way to vote early) being susceptible to fraud and are instead waiting to head to the polls in person on Election Day. If so, then turnout could spike on November 3 and this could possibly end up being America’s biggest super-spreader event yet. So many people could catch COVID-19 at once that hospitals will not be able to treat them all. The situation is especially dangerous since winter is predicted to be peak season for COVID-19, and it certainly is for other viruses such as the flu. So you have millions of voters at the polls at winter’s beginning and millions of people could contract COVID-19, along with other pathogens, and the nation’s healthcare system would then get catastrophically overwhelmed.

On a brighter note, early turnout for this election has been record-breaking. Nearly 100 million people voted early. This is a strong sign overall voter turnout will be much higher than in 2016. Besides the fact that not gathering at the polls in one day minimizes the risk of coronavirus infection, it is a good idea for Americans to vote in the weeks before Election Day because there was always a good chance that when November 3 rolls around, circumstances would compromise the ability to vote. 2020 is an unpredictable year. You never know what new trouble could break out in the country or in an individual voter’s life. It should be a big concern for elections.

The most likely threat to worry about was a hurricane, or hurricanes. This is an unusual season in terms of how many major cyclones (what are called “named storms”) have formed. But America’s saving grace is that a relatively small proportion of them turned into dangerous hurricanes. However, nothing can be guaranteed in such a season as this. The Atlantic has already had Laura, one of America’s biggest hurricanes ever. It has had tropical storms intensify with breakneck speed. It had multiple storms at the same time. America had a potentially election-disrupting storm before with Hurricane Sandy in 2012, proving a major hurricane can occur this late in the year. If another one like it was to happen right now, it could prevent many Americans from voting, which would be a tragedy. It could also throw the counting of votes into disarray, making a disputed election more likely. A natural disaster could even prompt the election to be postponed, as Trump had suggested before because of coronavirus, thereby setting off a firestorm of controversy. Plus, think of how the nation’s preoccupation with this election could distract from its handling of a sudden disaster.

Thankfully, America has passed this danger by. Now, if a threatening storm forms and is heading towards the US, the preparations that people in areas in the storm’s track have to take may conflict with voting. But the only hurricane in the Atlantic right now, Eta, has a track that points entirely towards Central America. For America’s election, the only tropical concern now is that it may take days or weeks for ballots to be counted after the polls close on November 3 and any number of hurricanes could arrive to disrupt that, thereby making it easier for the results to be contested.

Whether the US election will be conducted in a fair, effective, and safe manner has been one of America’s biggest concerns this year. Even if it does, there is no doubt the election race holds dire ramifications for America. It has divided the country more than ever while it was going on and its conclusion may unleash chaos. While that may be insignificant compared to the chaos America has been dealing with for months already, post-election conflict may exacerbate all of the nation’s troubles and hamstring its crisis management.

It will go down as a remarkable fact in American history that such astonishing upheavals overtook the election race while it was taking place; the worst pandemic since the Spanish Flu, the biggest economic crash since the Great Depression, and civil unrest and racial protests of a level not seen since the ‘60s and ‘70s. That the election is the culmination of extreme Trump-era divisiveness means that all those cataclysms come at a highly volatile time for America. Everything is coming together to make 2020 a very turbulent year for that country. And let us not forget that we are in the most intense period of climate change since the end of the Last Ice Age. The mounting climate crisis may not come across to people on a day-to-day basis as an urgent issue, but 2020 is delivering the strongest wake-up calls yet. In the months before Election Day, Americans across the country have been going out and seeing a Martian sky above, turned red by wildfire smoke, and have choked on toxic air polluted by the same. They turn on the TV and hear, day after day, of cyclonic storms popping up in the Atlantic with bizarre, unfamiliar names like Gamma, Epsilon, and Zeta. The weather has been campaigning to push climate change as an election issue, even if people are not doing so.

It is a complicated matter figuring out how all these developments of 2020 have affected the election. I would say that in most presidential elections, Americans base their votes on the issues that concerned them for the last four years, but now, they have to be primarily concerned with issues that they would never have been able to imagine just several months ago. It is fitting, because 2020 is a time in which things have changed profoundly for America, so the country now must choose a government that is best able to lead a nation in crisis. It therefore could be considered a good thing that all these crises started taking place shortly before the election, instead of afterwards, because now Americans can pick a government ready-made for changing times. This may be the start of a new period in America’s history and its people have the opportunity at the very beginning to remake the nation in response.

On the other hand, there are downsides to an election taking place while the country suddenly has so many pressing issues to deal with. Because America is occupied with the burden of a major civic process, this could interfere with the management of its crises. Just the fact that 14 billion dollars have been spent on the 2020 presidential and congressional election, a record-breaking amount for America, is enough to raise serious eyebrows. Shouldn’t that money have been better spent elsewhere, like on saving people from COVID-19? Plus, political factions may mold their handling of serious issues in pursuit of their election goals. For such people, winning the election becomes top priority, not helping the people. It seems to be happening in the extreme, as indicated by Trump threatening to fire Anthony Fauci and accusing doctors of conflating COVID-19 cases for monetary gain. Speaking of President Trump, the fact that he is running for re-election means that he has two occupations together, being president and campaigning for being president. And given that this is Trump, he might sidestep the former priority for the latter. Trump has received a lot of flak for mismanaging America’s 2020 crises. Is it not possible that he, and the rest of the government, would have done a better job if this was not an election year?

2020 may push the United States of America towards a reckoning of its political system. A democratic government has to be structured in such a way as to make the country the best it can be. But since it appears the current round of a quadrennial election is hampering the country’s handling of national crises, this may be the time that Americans need to reconsider elections and what they mean for the country. Perhaps reform in the electoral system is needed. But maybe just the attitude of the people and the politicians towards elections should be reoriented. America’s problems could be better fixed if properly doing your job as a government official becomes the best way of campaigning in an election. President Trump, for instance, could have been very afraid of failing to tackle his nation’s crises if it was clear to him that this would obliterate his election chances. But Trump remained fixated with holding big rallies where his face was visible even when doing so was very much not a good idea for all those involved, indicating instead that he thinks running for election depends on the visuals. And it may be because a lot of people in America are actually swayed by visuals. Trump should certainly know all about what the people want. He was a businessman all his life.

The divisions inherent in the election are the worst thing. Elections are, by nature, a time when people are feuding with each other and these feuds can be particularly intense at some times, like now in America. But serious problems and crises depend upon unity in order to fix. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union once agreed to halt their rivalry if the Earth suffers an alien invasion. But Democrats and Republicans have done no such thing during the pandemic. Election Day on November 3, 2020 is one thing that cannot be scrapped, so they might as well keep themselves oriented towards it no matter what. 2020’s biggest lesson for America is that something needs to be done about this fact of life.

This year has been one in which change is being imposed on America. America needs to change in response. Hopefully, the government it has after January 20 will effectively lead the way in that. Its leadership is important, but so is the involvement of everybody. The American people must rise up to meet the challenges which have plagued them throughout 2020 and which will certainly continue into 2021. Voting is just part of what they can do. This election will play a big role in determining what kind of a year 2021 will turn out to be for America. And it will help decide what future America has in the long-run.

American voters now have a final day of voting ahead for them. This will be America’s most important day in an immensely historic year. Nobody can say what its outcome will be. It could escalate America’s tensions or it could finally calm things down. The result might be contested all the way up to the Supreme Court or not at all. There are strong indications that Joe Biden will win, based upon polling and early turnout. But, as stated before, there could be a Republican surge on Nov. 3, so it may be a close race (though my bet is on Joe Biden, if the whole process goes smoothly). It will certainly be a crossroads for America. It is vital for that nation and for the world that Americans make the right choice at the voting booths.

And so Election Day begins as the world watches closely. It will be quite a riveting story to watch, though we may have to be patient for the ending. Today, on November 3, 2020, I went onto CNN and watched Trump say at a rally “You have the power to vote. So go out and vote, unless you’re gonna vote for somebody other than me, in which case, sit it out”. Wow. That’s quite something to hear a president say. Then I logged onto Yahoo News to get a rundown of all the news. I could not wait to see what crazy and mind-blowing election story must be flashing at the top of the page. As soon as I did, I saw that the front story displayed prominently on top was headlined “Hurricane Eta could reach Category 5 status.” The sub-heading said “Maximum sustained winds of 150 mph”. A Category 5 hurricane in the Caribbean, one of the most powerful ever, while winter is just around the corner. I guess that’s 2020 for you. The outcome of the US election is an event that will be looming large on everyone’s mind, but it will be just one of many events to do so. All we can do is hope for the best and be prepared for the worst.

October 16 World Food Day

October 16 is World Food Day, observed by all United Nations member states for raising awareness of issues regarding human nutrition. It was established in 1979 to honor the founding of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) on October 16, 1945. This is the 75th anniversary of that event, which took place when the world was left devastated by the Second World War, with millions of people suffering from dire food shortages. Horrific starvation and deficient food supplies were very common during the Great Depression, the war, and its aftermath. The FAO was thus quickly instituted and has been very busy ever since.

Within the last three-quarters of a century, humanity has made enormous strides in ending hunger and improving nutrition. After 1990, there was a huge decline in poverty and malnutrition across the world, with the number of people living in extreme poverty falling by more than a billion. Catastrophic famines had become a thing of the past. Unfortunately, food insecurity started to be inflamed across the world in 2008 due to biofuel mandates, conflicts, weather disturbances, and economic downturns. Progress in ending poverty began to stall in 2015 and world hunger became a particularly big danger in 2019. And now, 2020 has brought absolute catastrophe.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been called the greatest global crisis since World War 2 by the UN chief (https://www.bloombergquint.com/coronavirus-outbreak/covid19-pandemic-most-challenging-crisis-since-world-war-ii-un-chief) and, as is often the case with crises, one of its main impacts is on food security. Most countries are attempting to fight the virus by locking down, restricting the movement and interaction of people and thereby economic activity. As a result, food is often failing to reach its destination. Resources for food production have been restricted. Even in the absence of these harsh responses, extensive spread of the virus itself can drive hunger by knocking people out of the workforce in huge numbers through illness and subjecting them to costly medical care. A severe global economic downturn has been caused by the pandemic, greatly exacerbating the risk of food shortages everywhere, even where the virus itself is not yet a big issue. It is clear that, during this pandemic, hunger is as big a threat to human lives as the disease COVID-19 itself.

A whole slew of other troubles doesn’t help either. Due to heavy rainfall in East Africa in late 2019, an outbreak of desert locusts (one of civilization’s oldest threats to food security) intensified into the worst upsurge since the late 1980s and ongoing swarms have inflicted major agricultural losses in dozens of countries in Africa and Asia. There are also major locust outbreaks in other parts of the world right now, such as a severe outbreak of African Migratory Locusts in southern Africa. Plus, the world is seeing a spike in extreme weather events this year, with negative ramifications for food production. Southern Africa itself is recovering from unprecedented drought in 2019 and early 2020. There is the devastation inflicted on Australia by its Black Summer, monsoon floods devastating India and submerging a third of Bangladesh, record-breaking floods in Sudan, the worst ever western US fire season and severe drought emerging across the country, China’s flooding, and severe drought and wildfires in Argentina. In addition, military tensions and conflicts are rising across the world, which has great potential to jeopardize food security.

Poverty is now rising dramatically all over the world for the first time in decades. Just a few days ago, the World Bank released a report predicting that, because of the pandemic, as many as 150 million people could fall into severe poverty by next year (https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2020/10/07/covid-19-to-add-as-many-as-150-million-extreme-poor-by-2021). Those who are already in extreme poverty will find their situation worse. Countless millions have started to face grave food insecurity this year. Back in April, the UN warned of “famines of biblical proportion” breaking out across the world, saying that a quarter of a billion people could be driven to starvation by the end of 2020 (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/21/global-hunger-could-be-next-big-impact-of-coronavirus-pandemic). Because the world heeded the warning and took extraordinary measures to prevent this, forecasts are now much more optimistic. But crisis-level hunger has increased significantly and there is no doubt that food security has an imperiled future. (https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/09/1072712).

This year’s World Food Day is thus observed at a grave time. Celebration of declining hunger is no longer possible. While social distancing measures prevented World Food Day from being commemorated in the usual manner, participants had a whole lot to talk about. One of the biggest tasks was simply sounding the alarm on the food crisis. Food-related issues such as the locust invasion are attracting too little attention in the international media. And many people may not understand the problems affecting the supply of food at its foundation. So it is important to raise awareness of how hunger and famine are among the main crises of 2020.

Yesterday’s commemorations were worldwide but were centered on the FAO’s Rome headquarters and the UN’s New York Head Quarters (covered here https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/10/1075502). People from all over the world tuned in to give their message about food and how the UN is working in this area. Topics discussed included the specific situations affecting people right now, especially regarding the coronavirus pandemic, and longstanding issues, such as the relationship between food and climate change. Every World Food Day has a theme to highlight an important area in which action is needed and this year’s theme is “Grow, nourish, sustain, together. Our actions are our future”, which emphasizes the need for the people of the world to cooperate with each other to ensure a future of adequate food for all.

This seems a rather broad and farsighted theme for current circumstances. Right now, we are in a rapidly escalating food crisis caused largely by an unusual event, the coronavirus pandemic, which calls for a theme that more reflects current pressing issues, such as something akin to 2009’s theme “Achieving food security in times of crisis”. 

One of the most noteworthy instances of this World Food Day, for instance, was the video message of UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, in which he declared “In a world of plenty, it is a grave affront that hundreds of millions go to bed hungry each night” and called for building a sustainable future. He was referring to how enough food is regularly produced in the world to feed every person but that food fails to reach many people. But “world of plenty” better describes the world before COVID. Now, much more food is becoming unavailable to people due to nobody’s fault. All the shutdowns for protecting everyone from coronavirus is causing a collapse of food supply lines and resolving this conundrum is the need of the hour. So maybe the UN chief should keep himself more up-to-date on his appeals.

However, longstanding deficiencies in global supply chains greatly increased vulnerability to the shock of COVID-19. And that is the point we all need to be aware of. The impacts of the pandemic have not come out of the blue along with the virus but are the culmination of circumstances that have long challenged the well-being of people. Plus, what is happening now has a great bearing on the long-term future, with the chance that we can achieve a world with zero hunger soon now much more unlikely. Fixing common problems and achieving pandemic-era relief go hand in hand.

You can listen to Guterres’s full message here, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IR5evGJsS4c, which succinctly describes the world’s situation.

Some of the spotlight this World Food Day has been on food wastage (https://www.foodnavigator.com/Article/2020/10/16/Food-waste-spotlighted-for-World-Food-Day-It-has-never-been-a-greater-time-to-invest-in-a-robust-wastage-strategy). Wasting food is responsible for great problems during normal times and becomes much more dangerous during this time of crisis. With so much hunger around, we need to efficiently use every morsel of food we have. Curbing wastage is one way to respond to our current crisis.

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic jeopardizes a sustainable future and many of our troubles right now are just the beginning. In order for the world to weather the pandemic and all crises borne of it, we have to become more resilient. That is what this World Food Day is all about.

Pakistan’s Latest Crisis: Another Monsoon out of Bounds

This monsoon season has, once again, left Pakistan disaster-stricken. Millions of lives have been upended by the effects of catastrophic torrential rain across the country and hundreds have died. As September comes to an end, countless Pakistanis are still coping with the devastation left behind by the summer monsoon. In that way, the crisis still continues and it is likely going to be a long time before people impacted by severe weather this summer get their lives back to normal.

Much of that is because this is a time when Pakistan is suffering from two other major crises, the coronavirus pandemic and the locust upsurge, pushing us towards a health crisis and a food crisis. The ways monsoon weather could play out with these hazards has been explored in detail back in mid-July in The Catastrophes Looming Ahead (https://pldmsite.wordpress.com/2020/07/16/the-catastrophes-looming-ahead/). While it may look like things have not turned out very bad, keep in mind that heavy rainfall and flooding could enable locust breeding to breed abundantly within the country and COVID-19 may spread more easily among the displaced people and with lockdowns probably harder to implement in areas affected by severe weather. Because of such factors, it is entirely possible that the main consequences of Pakistan’s 2020 monsoon season are only going to materialize in the months ahead.

This year’s monsoon is relatively mild compared to the massive deluges Pakistan endured in past years, such as 2010, 2011, and 2012, or the devastating floods that have befallen India and Bangladesh to the east this year. And almost every year, monsoon weather is so intense that Pakistan struggles to cope. But Pakistan’s 2020 summer monsoon has still been exceptional in its severity and its impact on the nation has been extreme.

According to reports released by Pakistan’s Meteorological Department in early September, Pakistan received 35 percent more monsoon rain than normal by the end of August and, in southern Pakistan, rainfall was 159 percent above normal until the end of August. Incessant torrential rains and strong thunderstorms produced severe flash floods, urban floods, riverine flooding, and landslides across Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan, KPK, Gilgit-Baltistan, and Azad Kashmir for months. Sindh was where the monsoon flooding was the most severe, with 19 inches of rainfall in the month of August, the highest since records began 90 years ago and 362 percent higher than normal, and the province was struck by major flooding in late August and early September. Usually in the monsoon season, 80 percent of rainfall occurs in northern Pakistan and 20 percent in the south, but this year, it has been split 50-50. Sindh’s historic rainfall reached its peak on 24 August, when 9 inches of rain fell on the megacity of Karachi in just 12 hours, also a record, exacerbating urban flooding to unprecedented levels.

The consequences are devastating. More than 400 Pakistanis, including many children, are believed to have died since June due to monsoon rainfall. Two and a half million have been affected by floods and extensive economic damage has been wreaked. Sindh is the worst-affected area, with 22 of its districts being declared “disaster zones” by the government. Khyber-Pakhtunkwha is the next-worst affected, with dozens killed and many houses destroyed. Urban flooding is one of the main impacts of this monsoon. Many cities were inundated, but none more than Karachi, a sprawling megacity with tens of millions of people. More than 100 of them died and millions went through massive disruption and suffering due to the downpours and deluges. Major devastation has also been inflicted on rural areas, especially in Sindh, and looks to be the longest-lasting there. One million acres of crops have been destroyed and hundreds of thousands were displaced. 68,000 people in Sindh are still in refugee camps and, according to reports, 300,000 are in need of food aid.

These events have tragically taken the lives of hundreds of people. They have destroyed property on a vast scale. And they have plunged millions into extreme misery at a time when Pakistanis already have so many hardships to deal with. We now face the challenge of recovery from 2020’s severe monsoon weather and the very wide variety of ways it has wreaked havoc on the nation.

Heavy rainfall has had such severe impacts on Pakistan’s cities that urban flooding can count as one of the nation’s major disasters in 2020. Significant inundation, other major problems like power outages, and a spate of rain-related accidents occurred in many cities such as Hyderabad, Lahore, and especially Karachi, which suffered badly starting with its first monsoon spell on July 6 and was largely submerged in late August. Pakistan’s economic powerhouse was brought to a standstill for days on end. The shutdown and the damages resulted in huge economic losses for Pakistan. Added to this is the life-threatening situations countless people caught up in the havoc were exposed to. Cities like Karachi are places where a whole lot of all sorts of things are jumbled together, so when floodwaters pour in to stir up all this, the resulting hazards are endless.

Of the many dozens of people who died (already) in Karachi and other cities, the main causes of death were drowning in floodwaters, electrocution, and building collapse. Many millions in Karachi also endured great suffering. Movement became impossible due to roads turning into rivers and many city-dwellers were trapped where they were, needing rescue. In some cases, rescue was impossible as rescue boats could not move through the fast-moving floodwaters filled with everything from furniture to shipping crates. Many people were evacuated and had to go live with relatives. The city’s sewage system was overwhelmed and sewage mixed freely with the floodwaters that many people were surrounded by. Power outages gripped the city for days on end, either because the electric stations fell victim to water or because power was deliberately cut to protect people from electrocution. The destruction of cell towers meant that many people were cut off from all telecommunication. Some streets remained flooded for up to a week after rainfall.

One of the most distressing things about the urban turmoil is how people in need of medical help were deprived of access to it. Many weren’t able to get to hospital because the streets were underwater, preventing all movement or just wheeled traffic. Hospitals themselves suffered due to power outages and inability of staff and supplies to move to there. And there were a lot of people who needed hospitalization, including for ailments brought on by the rainstorms and, of course, for COVID-19.

Karachi’s unprecedented rainfall was by itself enough to create huge problems, but what made everything far worse were the conditions in the city and the poor response to the crisis. Cities are generally vulnerable to flooding because solid paving prevents rainwater from being absorbed into the ground, so a well-maintained drainage system is needed to get rid of excess water. But the drainage system in Karachi utterly failed. The drains were not expansive enough, a result of illegal encroachment by developers, and they were clogged with debris, a result of Karachi’s poor waste management. No serious effort was made to clear Karachi’s drains before the monsoon. When the flooding of July 6 alerted people to the problem, unclogging of drains proceeded at a very slow pace until Karachi’s month of severe flooding set in. A desperate effort was then launched to clear the drains, involving NDMA and the army, but it was too late. Preparation is the best course of action.

Building collapse was very common across Pakistan in rural and urban areas alike. Many of these, of course, were victims of fast-moving floodwaters but numerous buildings also caved-in after exposure only to torrential rain. Reasons attributed for this include water accumulation weakening building foundations, buildings being so old and dilapidated that they could not handle rain, and also many of the buildings were made of mud-brick. Many casualties resulted from these falling buildings. What must have made the toll worse were people being kept indoors by severe weather (and maybe by the COVID-19 lockdowns, also).  

Floods were common everywhere, not just in the cities. The damage they wreaked was wide-ranging. Balochistan mostly suffered from raging flash floods. Extensive damage was caused to the province’s transportation infrastructure. Many roads and bridges were destroyed and highways were blocked. As a result, large rural areas and many villages were isolated by land from the outside. This even happened to the emerging city of Gwadar (https://reliefweb.int/report/pakistan/gwadar-cut-flash-floods-hit-parts-balochistan). The devastation that rural areas of Balochistan suffered has received relatively little attention from the media and authorities.

In Pakistan’s mountainous areas, monsoon downpours were particularly destructive, as they always are. Fast-moving floodwaters caused extensive infrastructure damage and killed dozens of people. Landslides were another big problem. Extensive damage befell transportation routes in the mountains, resulting in many communities being isolated. Some of the worst flooding came to Swat Valley on 28 August due to a cloudburst (https://www.dawn.com/news/1577826/devastation-in-kp). There were even two very damaging glacial lake outburst floods in Chitral.

Punjab is used to heavy rains and flooding, but even here, the effects of this year’s monsoon were hard to cope with. There were building collapses everywhere, of course. The rivers also swelled up in many places.  Pakistan’s main reservoirs filled to peak capacity, an alarming situation, and water was released from some of them, causing flooding downstream. In late August and early September, Chenab and Jhelum rivers burst their banks and flooded wide areas. The main effects of the riverine floods were agricultural damage and mass displacement of people. Hundreds of villagers were even evacuated just due to predictions of imminent flooding.

And then there is Sindh, where the destruction was unrelenting from the province’s biggest metropolis to remote villages. The first severe floods in the province were in early July, when heavy rainfall nearby in Balochistan caused the Gaj river to flood, inundating hundreds of villages. The worst of the rainfall was an enormous spell from 22 to 29 August, including the record-breaking rains in Karachi. A major disaster then began to befall Sindh as massive flooding overtook the province. The Indus River overflowed its banks and submerged large areas. The floods and the rains continued well into September, displacing hundreds of thousands of people, most of whom already lived in abject poverty and had to set up makeshift camps by themselves wherever the land was high enough. It is estimated that more than 77,000 houses were destroyed and more than 137,000 sustained damages.

Now, the rainfall is mostly over, but it has left behind a country in need of emergency response, especially in Sindh. Some areas in Sindh remain flooded, as that land has poor topographical drainage. With the destruction of homes and villages, most flood victims are yet to be rehabilitated. People in refugee camps have often languished in appalling conditions. Many were without food and sources of clean water. One particularly large refugee camp is a “tent city” on the outskirts of Umerkot where 5,000 families moved in. Many flood affectees are deciding to migrate to far-away areas, such as Tharparkar, many because they fear their farmlands will remain flooded by November or because they are moving their livestock to better places while pests like mosquitoes abound in the flood zones.

Starvation is a big issue, not only now but also for the near future as agricultural losses have been huge. About a million acres of cropland in Sindh were destroyed. Many livestock have died from the floods and afterwards from mosquitoes. The World Food Program sent a mission to Sindh that estimated that 300,000 people need food aid (https://reliefweb.int/report/pakistan/wfp-pakistan-sindh-flood-response-situation-report-1-10-september-2020).

The spread of disease is one of the most serious issues to emerge in the wake of the rainstorms. In the cities, sewage freely mixed with floodwaters, so people exposed to floodwaters have been at high risk of infection. Now there is risk that waterborne and other diseases will break out in cities like Karachi. Lack of clean drinking water is also putting people in danger of disease, especially in rural Sindh. Not only do many of the flood-displaced have only floodwaters and rainwater to drink, but they mostly have no access to sanitary facilities and have to defecate out in the open, potentially contaminating water. The biggest problem of all are huge outbreaks of flies and mosquitoes in Sindh after the monsoon rains and floods. The swarms of mosquitoes have been reported as being “unprecedented” in the news.

Pakistan, especially Sindh, is now under significant risk that there will soon emerge epidemics of cholera, typhoid, malaria, dengue, hepatitis, and various other diseases. If this happens, it could be hugely disastrous in conjunction with the current pandemic, as it increases the chance of Pakistan’s healthcare system being overwhelmed, thereby putting the lives of patients all across Pakistan at risk whatever their ailments are.

What is eyebrow-raising about the flood crisis in Sindh and other places is how meager the response is. When disaster strikes an area, the government of the country must do everything within its means to manage it and NGOs and the international community often come in to help out. But that is not happening with the current situation in Pakistan as would be expected. For instance, the 2011 Sindh floods, while of a similar nature, were on a far larger scale than this year’s flooding in Sindh, yet some flood victims interviewed by the media have said that help swiftly came from the government and from NGOs in 2011 while now, they have been waiting weeks for anything to be done. Pakistan’s disaster response is curiously turning out to be far worse than it usually is and that is probably why the impact of the 2020 monsoon is turning out to be such a huge disaster. One would expect that this year’s rainfall would at least be something Pakistan is used to. It is mild compared to some of Pakistan’s major floods.

One way that 2011 was different was that Karachi was relatively unscathed by floods and many philanthropists from the city came to rural Sindh to help. But now, with the bustling megacity hit by monsoon rains just as hard as rural areas, a lot of attention has been focused on it and it has also consumed a lot of the country’s emergency management efforts. Karachi’s devastation is also a hard blow to the whole nation itself, given that it is the seat of the economy. But that’s not the elephant in the room here. Pakistan, and the rest of the world, has not been in a normal situation in any way at all for the past several months. We are in the throes of the worst pandemic in a century and it has turned absolutely everything upside down. It has killed thousands and sickened tens of thousands and has run Pakistan’s economic and social life into the ground.

Combine this with the locust invasion and Pakistan was a battered country by the time the monsoon rains arrived. This explains everything. Not only is there so much disaster for Pakistan to deal with, but to fight the virus hazard, we have had to cut back on all the typical human activities that keep a nation running and thereby keep its disaster management capacity afloat. Because the rest of the world also is being hit-hard by the pandemic and various other troubles, international assistance has also been made less likely. COVID-19 must have compromised not only Pakistan’s response to natural disasters but also its preparation. The nation is always supposed to ready itself for every summer monsoon season, but coronavirus overtook the nation in March and lockdowns were constantly implemented everywhere. One example of an effect of this is in a news report in late May of the dredging of Leh Nullah being delayed (https://www.dawn.com/news/1559582/leh-nullah-dredging-delayed-due-to-lockdown). Leh Nullah is one of Islamabad’s most important drainage channels. It is supposed to be cleared of debris and mud every year from April to end of June but, under the lockdown, the Water and Sanitation Agency had still not begun work on this even amidst fears the upcoming monsoon would be severe.

Pakistan needs to be more mindful of its need for multi-hazard risk management. Other crises have struck or may strike the country during the pandemic and the multiple crises playing out together will have a magnified impact on Pakistan. The country cannot afford to ignore all other disaster risks during the pandemic while doing its utmost to combat the coronavirus. But, undeniably, the challenges at hand are tremendous.

One of our many current risks is that relief efforts for the floods may contribute to the spread of COVID-19. Right now, we are short on relief workers gathering supplies and going down to the food-affected people, presumably minimizing the chance that they will spread or contract the virus. But this actually may not prevent the pandemic from worsening in the flood zones. We have hundreds of thousands of people crammed together into dense refugee camps. People who are showing symptoms of COVID-19 and are ill cannot be quarantined from everyone else. There is no hygiene or sanitation there at all. They cannot wash their hands or wear masks. Lockdowns absolutely cannot be imposed on them at all. They will be working and having human-to-human contact a lot in order to survive. In these populations, SARS-CoV-2 has ample opportunity to spread like wildfire. To prevent this, we have to help the displaced Sindhis get back on their feet as soon as possible.

On the other hand, aid workers sent to them may ignite the sparks starting the wildfires. Our best course of action is to thoroughly test all relief workers for COVID-19 and make sure they strictly abide by physical distancing protocols (or get people who were infected before and are now immune). They can just arrive, sanitize supplies, and drop them off for flood victims to pick up. Best if the supplies are scattered so people do not crowd together while collecting them. But the flood victims need more than deliveries. They will need assistance in many ways. This is going to be a test of how people can help pull each other out of the monsoon devastation without the virus being able to spread between them.

Here is a piece of advice. The mosquito swarms are quite fearsome. Let us guide the people suffering from them to cover their entire bodies, including their faces, with clothing like shawls. Their faces will be masked, the prime COVID-19 safeguard, while all of their skin is shielded from the insects.

In order to find solutions to the numerous dilemmas and conundrums confronting us, we have to thoroughly analyze and comprehend the complex interplay between COVID-19 and other hazards like natural disasters. An upside is that severe weather and flooding (mild enough to ensure houses remain habitable) tend to keep people indoors, thus being a natural lockdown. Think of how the rainfall, floods, and landslides have isolated many communities from each other and from the outside and how this means the virus can’t spread. Strong winds also clear the air of infectious particles, allowing people outside to safely congregate closer, and the winds can penetrate indoor spaces and improve ventilation.

On the other hand, there are many more ways extreme weather can worsen the pandemic. Rural areas seem to be spared COVID-19 longer than urban areas because of their low population density and connectivity, but that changes when natural disasters concentrate people into refugee camps. Also, with the pandemic being primarily an urban disaster, it has occurred alongside Pakistan’s epic urban flooding. People have to deal with both crises at the same time, and the flooding breaks down the ability to manage the pandemic. Pakistan is relying heavily on smart lockdowns, a combination of quarantine and tracing, both of which can be harder to implement in the midst of monsoon chaos or in the aftermath. When people are struggling to cope with natural disasters, they are likely to give up on all the burdensome coronavirus measures and may continue to do so in the aftermath.

We now have to wait and see how the coronavirus outbreak proceeds in Karachi, rural Sindh, and other monsoon-stricken areas, but we should also predict how it does beforehand so we can take preliminary measures. Fortunately, the pandemic has been declining in Pakistan for the past three months and is at a low point even as the country is being reopened (now the WHO is praising Pakistan for its handling of the pandemic). This is very good. It has hopefully provided Pakistan some breathing space as it weathers the monsoon of the same last three months. Unfortunately, though, there are recent reports of a rise in coronavirus infections in Sindh, the most flood-ravaged province (https://www.thenews.com.pk/latest/722063-coronavirus-sindh-warns-against-rising-coronavirus-cases).

What about the locust crisis, which could end up being the longest-lasting negative effect of the monsoon? There was so much heavy rainfall across Pakistan, which is beneficial for locust outbreaks. There is especially extensive flooding in Sindh, a region that is arid in many places, that continues to linger on. Meanwhile, vegetation in the desert of Tharparkar is blooming due to the monsoon rains. This is a prime recipe for locust breeding.

There has, fortunately, been a decline in locust swarms across Pakistan to the point that it is now reported that swarms have been eradicated from most of Pakistan. Swarms are being spotted only in Lasbela district in Balochistan, which the authorities are rushing to take care of. However, there are sightings of hoppers, juvenile locusts, in many parts of Pakistan including Sindh, and Sindh is also vulnerable to locusts coming in from Rajasthan in India. It may be that extensive locust breeding is taking place under the shadows of the stagnant flood waters, the mosquito swarms, the internally displaced persons, and other havoc in the rain-stricken areas that will limit our ability to control the pests. With all the factors detailed, especially the bloom in Tharparkar, there is a strong possibility that a homegrown locust invasion will re-emerge in Pakistan within the coming months.

Pakistan’s best strategy now is to take advantage of the lull in the coronavirus epidemic and the locust invasion to devote all its effort to providing relief and rehabilitation to the people affected by monsoon disasters. Those two unusual disasters compromised our preparation for Pakistan’s most common hazard, but they need not interfere with our response now that they have retreated. Let us keep lockdowns suspended to revitalize the economic activity needed for relief and recovery, dedicate our budget and resources to the flood response, and get as many Pakistanis involved as possible in aiding their compatriots who have been upended by severe weather, while bringing the plight of the rainstorm-affected to the forefront of media attention. We just have to do all this as quickly as possible before the coronavirus and locusts come back. Time is of the essence. It is vital that we avoid fighting on many fronts at the same time. And in the meantime, we must take preemptive measures against the resurgence of coronavirus and locusts, coordinating it with our flood response, because prevention is the best course of action.

Finally, we need to continue keeping an eye on the weather. 2020’s summer monsoon has been the latest in a constant spate of extreme weather affecting the region. All around the world, in fact, the weather is going haywire, as the impact of climate change seemingly ascends. Witness the scale of California’s wildfires, Sudan’s floods, the Atlantic hurricane season, China’s floods, and on and on. The weather is connected all over the world. Severe weather now has to be brought to the forefront of our concerns. This summer’s chaotic monsoon may be over now (hopefully), but now cyclone season in the Arabian Sea has started. Cyclone impacts on Pakistan are another weather event that can exacerbate outbreaks of coronavirus and locusts. Cyclones have historically not been one of Pakistan’s biggest natural hazards, but remember how unprecedented the severity of cyclone activity in the Arabian Sea was in late 2019. Pakistan’s national priority now should be getting ready for cyclone contingencies so that we can be better able this time to tackle three major crises all together.

Innovation and Disaster Management

“If we find ways to capture and kill large number of locusts without making them toxic with pesticides, then we could make up for food losses by making the locusts available to eat, offsetting the economic damage wreaked by locusts by making use of the locusts themselves. Locusts are commonly eaten in Israel and Africa. We can derive other nutritive uses, like feeding locusts to chickens and using them as bait in fishing….”

Bakr Eid is a time of mass handling and distribution of livestock in Muslim societies. This sort of thing creates a significant risk of animal-to-human disease transmission, particularly of tick-borne diseases like Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever (or Congo fever), which are the most prevalent in summer. A Congo fever outbreak could be especially serious during the COVID-19 pandemic, as our ability to handle both crises would be limited.

In circumstances like this, the responsibility for containing hazards like Congo fever will have to fall more upon individual people, like those who are handling animals during Bakr-Eid. After all, it has become more difficult for things to be done in a coordinated manner when social interactions have to be curbed.

Furthermore, whenever a great crisis and disruption like the coronavirus pandemic descends upon people, the best way to respond is with innovation. We don’t just do what comes across as an obvious solution, like, for example, the lockdowns imposed due to coronavirus. We also have to think outside the box in developing workable solutions. Albert Einstein once said that imagination is more important than knowledge. In finding solutions to crises, especially crises of an unfamiliar kind, we must utilize our imagination in addition to knowledge.

When it comes to Congo fever (a relatively minor hazard in Pakistan), given that there is no cure or vaccine for the disease, our efforts have to focus on the tick that causes the Congo virus. Ticks are vectors that are very difficult to avoid. They are tiny and can crawl onto their hosts unnoticed, hiding beneath fur, feathers, and clothing. They infest animals most frequently, passing onto or catching the virus from their hosts, and can move from animals to people. Animal handlers try out tick control in a variety of ways, mostly by using tick-repelling or tick-killing chemicals (acaricides), but these can be expensive and have environmental or health side-effects. To prevent ticks from getting onto people, one can be clad in protective clothing, but there may always be a chance that ticks can get inside.

Ticks are like most other arthropods, being very good at getting into things and moving around. Arthropods are small and versatile. That is how they are so dominant in the world and problems they cause to humanity are often insurmountable.

But insects and other arthropods have one great enemy the world over that they are very vulnerable to; Stickiness. Any insect, except probably some of those big and strong beetles, that touches a sticky surface will be trapped and unable to free itself. And there are a lot of sticky substances out there in the world (though exposed sticky surfaces are rare in the environment). It is one of the easiest material properties humans have produced.

We could use stickiness as a weapon against ticks. If we place a sticky coating somewhere that a tick is likely to tread, that tick will be stuck there and will be no longer a problem. It may eventually die or be spotted and gotten rid of. Ticks cannot fly or jump and have to walk onto their hosts. We can apply adhesive coatings to stables and other areas where livestock are kept, but better (though very likely more bothersome) is to coat animals themselves with sticky material. Maybe we can cover the entire animal with it, but as this is likely impractical, we can place the sticky coating on certain parts of the animal where the tick is most likely to pass by, like around the feet, legs and the mouths.

More important is preventing ticks from getting onto people. People who handle animals can wear full clothing and apply sticky coating to areas around openings that ticks can get into. They can just attach some very adhesive substance on the shoes, around the ankles, at the opening of sleeves, and around the neck collar because it is closest to naked skin. It might produce some inconvenience for the person, but it will be worth it to prevent diseases like Congo fever.

There are many ways to make a surface sticky. One can use tape, wrapping something with sticky side out, or we can create a covering of glue. But it can also be extracted from certain animals in large amounts, like snails. The options are endless.

Making people sticky is very feasible, as they will know how to handle it. Less so is getting animals sticky. Doing so may come with a lot of problems. But it is very important to protect our livestock from tick infestation. Human beings can do so in countless ways courtesy of their technological prowess, but effective tick control also exists in nature for wild animals. These are tick predators, particularly birds. Some birds naturally perch on the bodies of animals and pick off parasites. If we try this phenomenon on livestock, which is known as biological pest control, it might prove effective in controlling ticks. Perhaps we can turn any insectivorous bird into a tick-eater. Life stock farmers can groom birds to sit on livestock and eat ticks off them.

There is so much that can be done for Congo fever alone, but that is a very small threat compared to Pakistan’s other hazards, particularly what it is dealing with right now. We can be imaginative even in finding solutions to the locust invasions and the coronavirus pandemic. How do we manage locust infestations, for instance? If we do find ways to capture and kill large numbers of locusts without making them toxic with pesticides, then we could make up for food losses by making the locusts available to eat. That is a strategy that we should pursue in our locust response, offsetting the economic damage wreaked by locusts by making use of the locusts themselves. Locusts are commonly eaten in Israel and Africa.

We can derive other nutritive uses, like feeding locusts to chickens. In addition, we should also explore the manufacturing potential of locust body parts, what sort of things we can make from them. Locusts have the exoskeleton that is made of the tough material called chitin. There is a lot we might be able to do with it. Another thing to take note of is resilin. It makes up the tendons of locusts, as well as all insects, and it is the stretchiest substance in the world. It also does not lose its elasticity no matter how many times it is stretched. The technological applications of this are enormous, if we can extract enough of it from locusts. Pakistan can manufacture locust products and sell it on the world market to make profit.

We will have to experiment with many different ways to kill locusts. Fishing boats suspend nets in the ocean to catch schools of fish, and locust swarms are like schools of fish, but in the air, not water. To date, nobody has tried aerial fishing, but given how much technology has advanced now, perhaps it is time to investigate the feasibility of this strategy. There are so many ways we can theoretically go about it. Maybe a net, designed so that airflow keeps it wide open, can be suspended from an airplane. Maybe nets can be suspended between balloons tethered to the ground.

It is probably more feasible to attack locust hordes when they are on the ground. For example, we can design traps to catch locusts that are laid along the crops they eat. This will require a great deal of skill and ingenuity, but we must learn to efficiently make use of what we do have in order to achieve results.

Ingenuity is especially important to manage the coronavirus pandemic. This virus spreads through social interaction, so we have been essentially shutting down many basic human activities. But we cannot keep this up forever. We should find ways to redesign society so that civilization can go on without the virus being able to spread. That includes redesigning people’s personal lives. This pandemic affects or is affected by even the smallest aspects of our lives, like us stepping outside of our homes or even touching our own faces with our hands. As a result, everything about the world has suddenly changed for us. It has become a strange world, with its disruptions reaching into every aspect of our lives. To survive, we will need both innovation and change at both individual and societal levels.

We all need to step back and take a look at our lives, both the personal and public sides of it, and we need to imagine what can be changed about both suppress the virus and allow life to continue to run as much as possible. It will be ingenuity on a grand scale. Again, the resources available to us for instituting these changes will be minimal, and we will have to make do with what we can. Public guidance will be vital, but people must be tasked with choosing how they can create changes to their lives that are tailored to their circumstances. We have focused too long on just shutting down whatever we can. Now, we have to work on changing and redesigning.

For example, one of the important priorities is to allow goods to continue flowing freely. Goods will have to pass between people, but we can easily ensure that this happens without the virus also passing between people. People just carry materials and then they deposit them at their destination, where somebody else comes and picks them up, while being careful with what they touch. Furthermore, the markets that goods are being sold in should be radically restructured. Products should not be sold indoors where people gather in dense numbers. We should create open-air markets where density is so low that people are not prodded into being near one another when they are selecting or purchasing products. A lot of outdoor spaces will have to be repurposed.

One of our most senseless COVID-19 policies is shutting down supply lines for long periods of time and, when they are restored, allowing them to continue operating as they normally did before the pandemic. Things only have to be done in a slightly different way for people to exchange material goods without breathing in each other’s air or picking up the virus from surfaces they touch.

Many things we need to do are simple. That is why we will need plenty of innovation. It can minimize the difficulties we face, as we will be able to find simple solutions to major problems, such as using adhesive coatings in strategic spots to overcome tick infestations. Ingenuous problem-solving approaches of this sort will hopefully lead us to discovering effective ways of managing a wide variety of disaster risks.

The Catastrophes Looming Ahead

We are now at the beginning of the summer monsoon season in Pakistan, the three months in which the country can expect to receive most of its rainfall. While important, the monsoon season can be a dangerous time, as monsoon precipitation in South Asia can be higher or lower than normal, causing disasters like flooding and drought. That means Pakistanis have to be prepared for natural hazards at the start of every summer. This monsoon of 2020, however, has the potential to be vastly more dangerous than any we have ever had to deal with before. It is likely going to be an experience without precedent. This is because of an extraordinary set of circumstances that could converge when the rains come in full swing.

First, there is a disaster waiting to happen even if the monsoon weather itself does not turn out to be particularly severe. Pakistan and the wider region are currently experiencing a massive locust upsurge which is going to be worsened by the arrival of heavier precipitation that the monsoon always brings. Locusts breed in a frenzy when vegetation blooms and, when the plants they eat and grow up on get depleted, they travel to other places in massive swarms in search of more vegetation.

Unusually wet weather in eastern Africa in 2018 and 2019 laid the seeds for an outbreak of desert locusts that is now running from Tanzania to India and is the worst in decades. Pakistan is one of the countries being badly affected and the locusts are also breeding within its territory and in neighboring regions in Iran and India. This pestilence is pushing Pakistan and other countries towards famine.

The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization a while back predicted a huge increase in locust populations, 400 or 500-fold, in Asia by June 2020 amidst increased rainfall (https://weather.com/news/news/2020-01-22-east-africa-locust-swarms-rain-weather). That exact forecast has not materialized and while there has been a rise in the number of locusts by June, most of these insects apparently have migrated to fresh pasture in India, sparing other countries like Pakistan (https://www.dawn.com/news/1568081/major-locust-swarms-may-reach-pakistan-later-this-month). But the arrival of the monsoon rains will likely be what supercharges the locust pestilence by creating lush conditions across South Asia, with potentially devastating consequences.

Monsoon rainfall may be a boom for farmers in the region but, during a full-blown locust plague, its benefits could be more than offset by boosting locust numbers in two ways. First, locusts from Africa and the Middle East may migrate to South Asia to take advantage of the monsoon bounty. Second, locusts will be breeding a lot more in both Pakistan and India. India may play host to a considerable reservoir of locusts which will keep pouring into Pakistan. Locusts and their offspring will eat the crops sprouting during the monsoon, depriving us of crop yields. Then, after the monsoon season subsides, enormous locust swarms could spring up and lay waste to our kharif harvests, before running rampant for months afterwards. The consequences could bear upon 2021, making it an even worse locust year. As a result, we could be in for severe agricultural losses and food insecurity beginning this summer monsoon.

In addition to rain, we also have to worry about wind patterns. The movement of locusts largely depends upon the direction winds blow near the ground and during the summer, strong monsoon winds tend to blow from the Arabian Sea and India to Pakistan. Locust populations are going strong in both the Horn of Africa and India and locusts from both these regions will be carried by monsoon winds into Pakistan. The resulting situation could become very dire as the shifting monsoon circulation could have the ability to dislocate entire locust populations. Omar Hamid Khan, of the Ministry of Food Security and Research Secretary, has himself stated that, in the next few weeks, swarms that traveled from Pakistan to India could turn back and that 400 times more locusts will come to our shores from Somalia than in 2019 (https://www.dawn.com/news/1568081/major-locust-swarms-may-reach-pakistan-later-this-month).

Any severe weather the monsoon brings could hamper our efforts to fight the locust swarms. The main method most affected countries are employing to control locusts is to spray large amounts of pesticides from airplanes, ground vehicles, and on foot. All three types of movement become difficult or impossible if we have to contend with flooding, landslides, muddy conditions, and, for flying, severe storms. Water from heavy rainfall, especially in the event of flooding, is likely to wash pesticides away. If major weather disasters strike Pakistan, our need to respond to them will divert our efforts from the campaign against locusts. For example, we may need to use our aircraft only for evacuating people and delivering supplies to flood-hit areas, leaving no room for the spraying of locust pesticides.

Because of these circumstances, there is a high risk that famine will occur in Pakistan, a risk also made much worse by the other great calamity that our country is currently in the grip of.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which began its global spread just five months ago, has already infected ten million people and killed half a million across the world, and these are just the cases we can verify. In many developed countries, it appears that the virus outbreak abated for some time and is now resurging, while the pandemic is only just beginning in the developing world. In Pakistan, more than 250,000 people have already been infected, of which more than 5,000 died, and the WHO says that the country right now has one of the world’s fastest-spreading coronavirus outbreaks. Hospitals across the nation are starting to get overwhelmed with the flood of cases (https://apnews.com/3f6a3069cc788ce41f32a42bdf2d6c96).

The ways in which weather can affect the coronavirus pandemic have been dealt with at length on this blog a few months back on “An Age of Storms: COVID-19 Pandemic and the Weather” (https://pldmsite.wordpress.com/2020/04/04/an-era-of-storms-covid-19-pandemic-and-the-weather/). Now, with the onset of the summer monsoon season, it is more important than ever to be aware of this subject, which is a highly complicated one.

If this year’s monsoon is a mild one in Pakistan, it might not significantly worsen the outcome of the pandemic. However, if we have a severe monsoon coming our way, the consequences could be extremely serious. Flooding is what we have to fear the most. Many severe floods affecting wide swathes of Pakistan have occurred in the last decade. Human societies caught up in flooding experience massive disruption and havoc, which can completely upend our efforts to fight COVID-19. Floods foster conditions conducive to the spread of the virus.

Containment of COVID-19 hinges upon physical distancing, but floods in Pakistan can remove distancing from their priorities. Mild flooding can prevent spread of virus by keeping people inside their homes, but more severe flooding has the tendency to displace people on a large scale, and cause people to congregate. People who are stranded in or escaping floodwaters may all find themselves in certain narrow spots, such as a building or a small piece of land providing them some refuge. When people are moving away from flood-affected areas, they may travel together in dense numbers, such as on buses, trains, or caravans. They are likely to end up in densely populated refugee camps. This is true for societies with limited capacity to cope with flooding, which agrarian communities in Pakistan mostly are. Even when a strong flood management capacity exists, the usual policy is moving lots of people into a small number of storm shelters. Preventing crowded conditions can be next to impossible.

Whether it is a proper shelter or a makeshift camp, the virus causing COVID-19 finds an ideal setting to quickly spread to as many people as possible. People end up sharing the same food and using the same utilities and materials. It does not matter if people are displaying symptoms and are ill or have health conditions and are very vulnerable, in a disaster-induced displacement, keeping their distance from others is usually not an option. Flood-affected people in Pakistan may not have access to the amenities required to protect against the spread of the virus, such as soap, clean water and masks.

Furthermore, when Pakistanis become ill with COVID-19 at the same time they are impacted by flooding, vital medical care often becomes inaccessible. The functioning of hospitals and healthcare is one of the basic human activities floods are good at interrupting, and those stranded in flood zones can lose contact with the outside world. Sure, vital supplies like food and medicine often can be delivered by means such as helicopters, but sending medical professionals to do all that is needed to fight COVID-19, testing, contact tracing, and providing the range of care needed for sick people, including putting them on ventilators, is going to be out of the question. Even when flood victims are easily accessible by being in proper refugee camps, it can be hard to care for all those people when floods strike the nation.

All of Pakistan’s efforts to fight COVID-19, not just within its flood-affected areas but beyond, can be disrupted by severe flooding. The coronavirus is already persisting as an overwhelming crisis that we can barely handle. Floods will just pile up on the burden. The floods themselves can directly halt our virus management efforts, especially if they block transportation routes. We will not be able to do testing as much or move much-needed supplies around. Even production of materials such as medicines and masks can decline if floods affect the sites or the people involved and block the supply of materials needed for manufacturing. We want to keep tab of things and monitor where the virus is spreading so we can implement the right strategies for fighting it? When the entire area we are dealing with goes underwater, all those plans are going to go out the window. In flooding, there is chaos and where there is chaos, the virus thrives.

Traditional coronavirus countermeasures, such as lockdowns and physical distancing, are proving to be very troublesome for Pakistan and its common folks, mostly by preventing people from working and decreasing economic productivity. If they are affected by flooding, they will be forced to simply throw those policies out the window. Floods tend to destroy and disrupt livelihoods, so people affected by them are compelled to work as much as they can during and after flooding in order to make up for their losses and preserve their livelihoods. Plus, the new hardships they face can compromise their access to other coronavirus countermeasures such as face masks and medicine.

Floods tend to be the biggest problem for the rural areas of Pakistan. These same areas also may be less vulnerable to the spread of the coronavirus because of their low population density. However, flooding could turn this situation around by displacing rural populations and pushing them into refugee camps. When the virus then spreads freely among them, a huge disaster could be in the making as rural people tend to have less access to medical care.

Although urban flooding tends not to be a very serious disaster in Pakistan, the interplay between it and the coronavirus pandemic, which primarily affects cities, could result in very serious consequences. Urban flooding can shut down cities. It can therefore shut down our fight against COVID-19, including, ironically, our own shutdown efforts. We are trying to carry out smart lockdowns, which relies upon testing and monitoring, but this will be much harder when cities are underwater. People ill with COVID-19 will also be unable to go to hospitals easily or have access to doctors and medical supplies when the streets are submerged.

Severe monsoon floods in Pakistan usually start around the end of July and the rains tend to end in early or mid-September, so we may see around a month of active flooding in 2020. Flooding that occurs in Pakistan sometimes remains in areas it submerges for months on end. When floodwaters do recede, the damage they leave behind can last for even longer. So if severe flooding occurs in the summer of 2020, it may continue to impact us for a long time, which is very bad news given the fast pace of the coronavirus pandemic. The first wave might run its course before we finish coping with disastrous effects of flooding.

Besides floods, another major hazard often brought by the monsoon season is outbreaks or epidemics of various diseases (besides COVID-19), mostly water-borne and vector-borne diseases. Epidemics tend to be the worst in the event of flooding and can be of a very wide variety of diseases, such as cholera, typhoid, malaria, dengue, diarrhea, and gastroenteritis. However, major mosquito-borne epidemics can occur even in a mild monsoon season. Dengue is the most dangerous mosquito-borne disease in Pakistan. It may be our main threat of another major epidemic occurring alongside COVID-19.

Other diseases breaking out at the same time COVID-19 is doing so, even to a mild extent, is a very serious danger. The coronavirus pandemic, by making so many people sick at the same time, is heavily burdening Pakistan’s medical sector, potentially causing people to die of a disease they could have been treated for. Other diseases remain a part of this burden on healthcare and if their cases also rise in number, these outbreaks in combination with COVID-19 could catastrophically exceed the capacity of our healthcare system.

We should also look out for how all the other effects of the monsoon may interact with the course of the coronavirus pandemic. For instance, landslides are very common in the mountainous and hilly areas during monsoon rainfall. If transportation routes are blocked by them during this time, the cutting of supply lines can be especially consequential. Medical workers, medicines, and testing kits can be prevented from going to communities suffering from coronavirus infections. When communities are suffering from lockdown measures as well, their access to food and other necessities from other places can be denied. People prevented from working become less self-sufficient and more reliant on the delivery of aid, making open roads more important. Dust storms are another common effect of the summer monsoon. They cause a variety of problems at any time, but the irritation they cause to the human respiratory system can worsen COVID-19 infections. Generally, any routine problem created by the monsoon can have a magnified impact when the country is being ravaged by a severe pandemic.

The ways in which the different hazards Pakistan faces in the coming months can interact with each other are immensely complex. There are a variety of possibilities in what may happen. But generally, having many crises occurring at the same time can just be too much for the nation to cope with, giving the finite quantity of resources, manpower, and time we have. If three immense threats, pandemic, locust invasion, and severe flooding, strike our nation together, our ability to mitigate them and to survive their effects will likely be very low. Even worse is how each hazard can enhance the other, making the combined impact of the hazards bigger than the impacts of each hazard occurring separately.

Another big issue for the perilous months ahead is that protecting Pakistanis from the coronavirus pandemic depends largely on most people literally staying home and doing nothing (until we can work up a different viable strategy, that is). They have to keep their distance from each other and this decreases the productivity of society, because civilization runs upon human interactions. But when there are events such as locust attacks and floods to cope with, society has to become more productive and people have to get together to handle these crises. Lockdowns harm Pakistan’s fragile economy and lower-income people, but so do floods and locust. We still are trying to implement quarantine restrictions as much as we can afford, but if the monsoon produces flooding and a surge in locust numbers, this whole strategy may become completely impossible. People will have a choice between continuing with coronavirus restrictions and suffering deprivations even more or working more to repair their losses from floods and locusts and making themselves vulnerable to COVID-19 infections even more, if they do not end up suffering both ways.

Our concerns are likely to revolve around food security. Starvation has become a major risk for the people of Pakistan, and the choice between starvation and illness has become a widespread dilemma. Coronavirus lockdowns are a potent driver of food shortages, but locusts are also in the mix and, probably, so will flooding soon. Floods and locusts both destroy agricultural harvests. The impact of both happening may be huge. Flooding could destroy food supplies and block access to food and, when it subsides, what little food people have left may be lost to locusts. When food shortages caused by events like these happen, people will have to work a lot to restore agricultural production or to earn money so they can continue to eke out a living, all the while supply lines have to continue to freely operate. But this is the very opposite of going into lockdown. We have not yet managed to make vital productivity and coronavirus sanitation compatible with each other. It seems people will either starve or suffer catastrophic COVID-19 casualties, and there is also a strong chance they will do both.

The pandemic itself may directly enable this to happen, in fact. While COVID-19 casualties are, of course, a tragedy that we have to avoid, the measures we take to do so seem to be the source of insurmountable troubles for us, gagging economic productivity. But suppose we forego containment policies and allow the coronavirus to spread freely among the population. A large number of people who get infected will need medical care provided to them, which in itself will be so expensive that the economy could suffer a catastrophic blow. But suppose that we leave medical care out of the picture as well, letting the virus spread and letting victims fare however they will. COVID-19 doesn’t just kill. It makes people ill and bed-ridden, often for weeks on end. If a large proportion of Pakistan’s population is infected or recovering at the same time, which is a scenario that might very well come true soon, millions upon millions of people will be unable to work or find it difficult to work. Then imagine if the other disasters are raging during this time. Locust attacks will rob people of their sustenance and floods will rob them of their very living space and all necessities and, to compound their misery, many of them will be struck down with illness. It is coronavirus infections, not lockdowns, which in the end may turn out to be the bigger threat to people’s livelihoods.

As we can clearly see, our annual summer monsoon season has arrived at the most dangerous time possible in Pakistan, due to a pandemic and locust upsurge also happening. But how much danger, if any, will the monsoon itself bring? Monsoon weather can be normal at times and can be severe enough at times to cause weather-related disasters, so it is vital for us to know how it will play out in 2020. Predicting monsoon weather well in advance has never been a very accurate endeavor, but we can have a good sense of how strong the season will be overall.

Our concerns are mostly set on the monsoon being too wet. But it can be too dry as well. A below-average monsoon, causing dry spells, and the possibility of drought would be disastrous as well when Pakistan is being ravaged by a respiratory virus and swarms of locusts. The kharif crops are the most important harvest of the year and if they yield little bounty, the livelihoods of Pakistanis can be dealt a severe blow. This can compound the miseries people are already suffering because of the coronavirus, locusts, and economic downturns and may be enough to throw lockdowns out of the question for many. The effect on the locust situation could be grave. Locusts may not explode in numbers as much but what little kharif harvest is left will be extremely precious to Pakistanis and locusts could devour them all. If monsoon rains fail to deliver in India, leading to declining vegetation, it will increase the chance that locusts there will move to Pakistan. Nevertheless, a dry monsoon does not seem to be a concern for us right now. Only a wetter-than-usual monsoon is a likely possibility in the coming months and all indications we already have point towards this.

In early June, the Pakistan Meteorological Department, based upon “regional and global circulation models”, announced that the upcoming monsoon season would likely bring ten percent more rainfall than normal to Pakistan. Sindh and Kashmir would see 20 percent higher rainfall (https://www.dawn.com/news/1562687). The effects of this amount of precipitation may only turn out to be urban flooding, hill torrents in Punjab, and minor riverine flooding, but it also produces a higher risk of major flooding. The Met department’s prediction has stuck so far, but it is far from certain, given how unpredictable the weather tends to be.

Looking more broadly at the global situation, there are indications that a La Nina is on the way. La Nina is the part of the ENSO climate cycle in which the western Pacific warms up and the eastern part of the ocean cools down. When a La Nina is happening, the monsoon in Asia usually becomes wetter than normal and floods in Pakistan are most likely to happen. For some months now, meteorologists were weighing the possibility of a La Nina arriving by the summer of 2020. Now, they are suggesting it is likely to happen (https://www.discovermagazine.com/planet-earth/watching-for-la-nina). Sea surface temperatures in the Pacific are already being observed to shift towards La Nina conditions and some forecasts say the chance of a La Nina has doubled and that it could arrive by the fall or winter, though that may be a little late to significantly affect the monsoon in Pakistan.

The intricate details of weather forecasting aside, what we are already seeing is a good sign of what is in store for us. The summer monsoon season has just begun in South Asia but it is already severe. It has reportedly covered all of India two weeks earlier than usual. Since then, flooding from torrential rainfall has broken out in northeastern India since late June and has displaced more than a million people. There has also already been heavy rainfall in Pakistan, especially in Sindh, causing severe problems in many cities, including scores of deaths and injuries.

It is also possible that we may be able to gauge our weather prospects by observing the way that weather has been behaving recently all across the world. By looking at weather phenomena since 2019, it becomes clear that the global incidence of extreme weather is at an all-time high. In late 2019, for instance, we had an extremely strong positive Indian Ocean Dipole. It produced record-breaking October-December flooding in East Africa, which boosted the locust upsurge to the extreme levels we have to contend with now, and the driest and hottest conditions ever observed in Australia, causing the devastating bushfires that shocked the world, as well as an overcharged Indian Ocean cyclone season (https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/climate-change/india-climate-2019-arabian-sea-saw-400-more-cyclones-68690). Since then, we have had a constant stream of weather events all across the world that break records or are without parallel in recent memory. The long list of such anomalies includes, but are not limited to:

1. At the beginning of 2020, severe flooding in Jakarta that was the worst since 2007. Local authorities said it was caused by the heaviest one-day rainfall ever recorded in the area.
2. The driest January and February on record for the western United States. No rain fell in San Francisco throughout February for the first time since 1864 (https://sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com/2020/03/01/dry-february-no-rain-san-francisco-civil-war/).
3. From March to April, the largest known ozone hole to form over the Arctic and only the third known to exist, apparently caused by unusual weather phenomena in the form of a very strong polar vortex that pushed clouds into the stratosphere which released ozone-destroying chlorine (https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/146588/unusual-weather-leads-to-ozone-low-over-the-arctic).
4. Britain’s wettest February on record, followed by its sunniest and driest spring on record.
5. More severe flooding across east Africa since March, believed to be the worst in 40 years (https://reliefweb.int/report/ethiopia/eastern-africa-region-floods-and-locust-outbreak-snapshot-may-2020).
6. The Atlantic hurricane season has just began but has already been usual in many ways, including a record-early start with the earliest-forming third named storms and fourth-named storms ever known (https://weather.com/safety/hurricane/news/2020-06-10-2020-hurricane-season-unusual-start).
7. Cyclone Amphan in late May, one of the biggest Bay of Bengal cyclones on record, biggest in two decades.
8. Some of the biggest wildfires in Arizona’s history which are currently raging, caused by heat and drought.
9. In late June, the biggest Saharan dust cloud in 50 years to cross the Atlantic Ocean from North Africa to the Americas, where it blocked out skies over the Caribbean and the US east coast with dust.
10. Ongoing severe floods in China due to heavy rainfall. Some areas saw their highest flood levels since 1940 and flood alerts in China have been issued at the highest level. The flooding is being blamed on an unusual amount of moisture coming from the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-weather-floods/china-raises-flood-alert-to-second-highest-level-idUSKCN24D05E).
11. Devastating floods caused by unprecedented rainfall in Japan. In some areas, flood levels were reportedly the highest in recorded history (https://www.npr.org/2020/07/04/887287712/at-least-15-feared-dead-after-torrential-rains-sweep-through-southern-japan).
12. Weather forecasters say a record-breaking heat wave will soon cover most of the United States from one end to the other in July (https://www.cbsnews.com/news/heat-wave-across-united-states-multiple-weeks/).
13. A record-breaking heat wave across Siberia, creating temperatures in the Arctic for the past few months that are sweltering even by global standards. In late June, the town of Verkhoyansk, in the Siberian Arctic, recorded a temperature of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, which is the highest temperature ever recorded above the Arctic Circle (https://www.washingtonpost.com/weather/2020/06/21/arctic-temperature-record-siberia/).

Anomalies like these can be expected to happen from time to time, especially in this age of climate change, but so many in a span of a few months? It is quite clear that 2020 is standing out as a year of extreme weather. If the entire global climate is running wild and unleashing a deluge of disasters, then it is entirely likely that the Asian summer monsoon, usually one of the world’s wildest weather patterns, will be part of the trend and have a big surprise in store for us. The rest of the world is being ravaged. There is no reason to expect that we will be spared.

It is uncommon for a year to be as meteorologically tumultuous as 2020. One other year which was that way was 2010. It was a year of many weather extremes around the world and, as it happens, one of them was the cataclysmic monsoon flooding in Pakistan, in which a fifth of the country was submerged. 2010 was also a La Nina year, just like 2020 is expected to be, so the two years have much in common. In fact, they may be very similar, as we are about to see.

Some of our worst risks may materialize if one remark by an eminent meteorologist turns out to be true. Back in late March, when weather models were already depicting the formation of La Nina later in 2020, one Dr. Michael Ventrice, who is a weather forecaster with a PhD in tropical meteorology, had this to tweet on March 29.

“In terms of the ENSO3.4 index, the CFSv2 climate model is predicting a robust -1C to -1.5C value by Fall 2020… firmly in the “La Nina” spectrum. This would be the strongest La Nina event since 2010 if this forecast verifies.
All ENSO events are unique, as are the impacts.” https://twitter.com/MJVentrice/status/1244220916269223936 — Michael Ventrice (@MJVentrice) March 29, 2020

That is a very worrisome prediction. The La Nina that lasted from 2010-2012 was one of the strongest on record and coincided not only with the massive flooding that struck Pakistan in 2010 but also in 2011 and 2012. So if this year’s La Nina ends up having comparable strength to that one, we might see a repeat of these devastating floods. Those floods were severe calamities for Pakistan by themselves. If similar events happen right now during these other epic disasters our nation is in the throes of, the coronavirus pandemic and the locust upsurge, then the consequences could be unthinkable.

I haven’t seen Michael Ventrice’s claim followed up by anyone else then or now. But if a climate model did really predict this, we should pay heed. Nevertheless, current forecasts say La Nina will materialize by fall or winter, which may be too late to significantly influence the summer monsoon. Our biggest danger could actually be something else, something that 2010 and 2020 also have in common with each other.

Besides La Nina, the main cause of the 2010 Pakistan floods was a “blocking event” in the Jetstream over western Russia. This was an interruption in the movement of Jetstream winds that caused an area of high pressure, a “heat dome”, to stay over Russia for a long time, causing historic heat waves there. It also drew monsoon air currents over Pakistan on the way towards Russia, resulting in the floods (https://journals.ametsoc.org/jhm/article/13/1/392/70376/The-2010-Pakistan-Flood-and-Russian-Heat-Wave).

Now, we have high temperatures of epic proportions to the north in Russia again. The current Siberian heat wave is much greater than what happened in 2010. Reports are saying that this is also being caused by a heat dome, a ridge of high pressure, over Siberia. No doubt, the cause of it is the same as in 2010.

That should be cause for alarm. On the other hand, the 2010 high pressure system was over European Russia, whereas the current one is to the east in Siberia. It may not be easy for air currents to travel from South Asia to that region due to the Himalayas standing in the way. But the situation is still dangerously similar to 2010. The heat dome seems to cover western Siberia, which is right next to European Russia. And while there have been severe summer Siberian heat domes since 2016 without Pakistan seeing major floods, the sheer scale of the current phenomenon in Siberia may be enough to influence the Asian summer monsoon, especially during what is likely to become a La Nina year. The danger may not be very big, but we should not discount the possibility that the extreme weather events being seen in Russia could have dangerous implications for Pakistan.

Earlier this year, there were two predictions that were made about June. One was that the locust populations in and around Pakistan would expand 500 times. The other was that 20 million people in Pakistan could become infected by SARS-CoV-2 in the absence of strict containment measures. Both of these predictions have thankfully not come to pass. But imagine if they did, if the region was overflowing with so many locusts and such a large chunk of Pakistan’s population was infected with many being ill (or, alternatively, that stringent containment measures were maintained, severely weakening the county), and then imagine that in the monsoon season right afterwards, a repeat of the titanic deluge of 2010 occurred. This, our very worst-case scenario, would be unimaginable. It would likely be an apocalypse. Pakistan might just collapse.

That is not a big concern now (although it is chilling to think that such a thing is possible). But a repeat of the 2010 floods could still be within the realm of possibility. If such a natural disaster, made possible by climate change, happened once, it could happen again and climate change has had a whole decade to progress further. Those floods were one of the worst humanitarian and economic calamities in Pakistan’s history. To this day, the trauma they caused loom large in the nation’s collective memory. Now imagine if such an event happened now, during the coronavirus pandemic and locust upsurge, just imagine how vastly greater the disaster would be.

We have to stay on our guard for the possibility of this, although this bad a scenario will very likely not end up materializing. A very specific set of circumstances were behind the 2010 floods and we are just not seeing that now. Nonetheless, the danger of a strong monsoon with major flooding is big. There is such a chance every year and it should be particularly high this year given the meteorological circumstances at present. We could see very violent floods causing immense damage in areas like the northwest. We could see floods covering large areas and persisting for long periods of times. We could see flash floods in various places. The major rivers may overflow. There could be outburst floods, particularly glacial lake outburst floods, which could cause extreme devastation in the mountain areas and even far downstream across Pakistan.

I would say a good chance exists this year of monsoon flooding like that which Pakistan experienced in 2012. This is enough to bring the nation to its knees. By the time the monsoon season is over, we perhaps will have locust numbers hundreds of times greater and several million coronavirus infections. Whatever the case, the state of crisis will continue afterwards. Typically, a monsoon season brings natural disasters which wreak havoc and leave Pakistan reeling for some time, but when the season ends, the recovery beings and we start picking up the pieces. But now, whatever the monsoon brings, we will be in for a long road of hardship as the pandemic and the locust invasions continue their course. No recovery from monsoon disasters will be accorded us.

So this is how perilous the times are for Pakistan now. We don’t want to be pessimistic and engage in fear-mongering, but it is a duty inherent in disaster risk management to consider every possible scenario and assess their probabilities and then devise measures to be employed in case they become real. Anything bad that could happen, we have to be warned about it, so this is what this article has done for the upcoming months. Things may very well not go nearly as bad as suggested, but we have to hope for the best and expect the worst. We then have to prepare for every contingency.

So what can we do about the unprecedented risks we face? That will be very difficult to answer. We should avail what time we have to make preparations, although there is not much, and we have to devise strategies for how to respond to the disasters that are imminent. But the challenges are immense.

In times of humanitarian crisis, Pakistan often finds relief to some extent from aid coming from abroad. But as the coronavirus pandemic is a disaster affecting the entire world, particularly rich countries, and as there are also various other disasters, as well as social, political, and international tensions and upheavals, that many countries have to deal with, we can rely on that no longer. Humanitarian assistance largely depends upon the less fortunate being helped by the more fortunate, but it will now be every country for itself in the days ahead.

Given the extremely complex dynamics inherent in the intersection between the coronavirus pandemic, locust upsurge, and standard monsoon hazards such as flooding, we will have to be very sophisticated in our analytical techniques in order to understand how our imminent disaster risks may play out and how we can respond to them. It may also be useful to look to East Africa as an example, since that region is already experiencing the triple-crisis of coronavirus, locusts, and extreme flooding (https://blog.ucsusa.org/rachel-cleetus/flooding-locusts-and-covid-19-a-triple-disaster-for-eastern-africa), though their experiences up to now may not compare to what is possible for Pakistan (and other countries) in the coming months. Useful lessons can also be draw from many other examples, particularly flood events striking societies where COVID-19 is spreading, as this article explains, https://www.dawn.com/news/1568505/flood-management.

It also explains some mitigation strategies for the unique hazards of the 2020 monsoon season. Going into detail about how to manage our imminent disaster risks will take too much space here, but here is one need of ours that is particularly crucial. Pakistan will need to create flood shelters in which physical distancing can be enabled. That will likely mean repurposing a lot of buildings as flood shelters, using spacious shelters, or compartmentalizing buildings, such as by setting up cardboard walls. And we absolutely must mobilize resources so we can have enough masks, soaps, hand sanitizers, medicines, and ventilators to provide to everyone who is in need.

Different strategies are in existence for managing the coronavirus pandemic, locust invasions, and Pakistan’s typical monsoon flooding, but when these dangers are all combined, we have to integrate our response strategies and modify them to suit this situation. They are not three disasters occurring at the same time in the same place. They together make up one disaster. That is how we are to treat it. There are going to be many dilemmas we will have to contend with as we try to find solutions. For example, should we enforce a strict lockdown till possible disastrous floods arrive so that levels of coronavirus infections are as low as possible by then? Or if the coronavirus spreads as quickly as possible before then, would it dampen the potential for widespread illness during monsoon flooding? We can treat coronavirus patients better now than we probably will be able during outbreaks of extreme weather.

Most importantly, the authorities in Pakistan have to turn their attitude around. The response we are showing to the current crises so far are less than satisfactory. We are yet to find a clear-cut strategy to handling the spread of the coronavirus. Meanwhile, many different areas of the government are bickering with each other. Our lack of preparedness for the monsoon season is already being demonstrated by the way the heavy rainfall in cities like Karachi is being handled. Widespread clogging of drains is causing the streets to fill up with water. They are still far from being cleared. There are widespread traffic jams, even preventing ambulances from quickly reaching their destinations. Widespread power outages have occurred and, where they are not happening, electrocutions are common. Some news reports describe Karachi as descending into chaos when monsoon rains arrived on July 6.

Perhaps the best we can do to overcome the various disaster risks we face is to manage the disastrous state of governance in Pakistan. It is a crisis of organization and of willpower that is holding our nation back. We need to immediately solve this situation. Not only should the government become fit, but everybody needs to get involved in disaster risk management, contributing whatever abilities and capacities they have.

We should not at all be in fear that some mega-disaster like the worst-case scenarios described above will lay waste to the nation. But we are in an unprecedented state of crisis and it is certainly going to get worse in the months ahead. There is no way to be certain how worse, so we have to expect anything. The troubles we are dealing with are not going to go away any time soon. What happens in 2020, and very likely in 2021 as the pandemic and the pestilence might still be ongoing by the time the next summer monsoon arrive, will bear long-term consequences for our nation. Pakistan is facing one of the greatest tests in its history, with the next three months being the most critical period. The future of the nation depends on how we manage this test.

There are catastrophes looming on the horizon, and our duty now is to avert them and keep the people of Pakistan safe.

Unprecedented Opportunity for the Environment and Science

April 22, 2020, marked the 50th Earth Day, half a century since the original Earth Day in 1970 that turned environmentalism into a mainstream global movement. All of us eagerly waited for this occasion, as huge commemorations were planned around the world with as many as one billion people expected to participate. Environmentalists planned to hold massive rallies akin to the ones in 1970 and prepared to launch various programs such as the Great Global Cleanup, a campaign of volunteering for cleaning up litter. In the wake of 2019’s strong climate change activism, Earth Day 2020 was supposed to be one more watershed occasion for our struggle to safeguard the health of our planet.

Then came the coronavirus pandemic. The rapid spread of SARS-CoV-2, a virus new to mankind, is a huge and completely unexpected shock to the world system. It has upended societies and turned the lives of billions upside down. Social interaction has been curbed dramatically, as people are keeping physical distance from others and staying home. Most of the activities we spent years planning for Earth Day 2020 have therefore been cancelled. Earth Day organizers have done their best to adjust by turning Earth Day commemoration into a largely digital affair, with much success.

The real challenge, however, has just started.

Earth Challenge 2020, launched last month, is one of the biggest environmental campaigns scheduled to be held in heel of Earth Day 2020. The largest citizen science program ever, it is working to mobilize millions of people around the world to collect data on environmental conditions, so the data can be analyzed and combined to provide a clearer picture on planet’s overall ecological health. Basically, the Earth Challenge campaign has been formulated with the goal of getting ordinary people to monitor threats to the environment in a coordinated manner.

The coronavirus pandemic throws a curveball in our path. Environmental monitoring is still possible while maintaining social distancing, but the fact remains that it will have to be done under very challenging circumstances.

Additionally, the pandemic and the disruptions to society it has wrought actually diminish the intended usefulness of the Earth Challenge campaign. We are supposed to be making observations about current environmental conditions so we can better understand how human activity is impacting the Earth, but those very conditions have changed momentarily as the virus brings most human activity to a halt. For instance, air pollution, generally one of the biggest environmental problems, is one of the main topics pursued by Earth Challenge but lockdowns around the world have suddenly made the air much cleaner, which is only for a short period. The problem for Earth Challenge is that if we study the environment during the pandemic, we will be presented with a picture that does not entirely reflect how the environment normally is. To put it simply, we cannot monitor threats to Planet Earth when these threats have gone into hiding for the time being. 2020 is therefore the worst time to hold this ambitious environmental science program as we planned for it.

This need not be the case if we reevaluate our goals. We have good reason to, because the spread of COVID-19 presents the world with an incredibly unique opportunity. By dramatically suppressing many human activities, the pandemic has provided Planet Earth with an enormous relief. As a result, our environmental dreams have come true for the time being. The world has struggled with air pollution. Now, much of that has vanished. Animal habitats have been constrained by human trespassers. Now animals are wandering everywhere freely in the relative absence of humans. Human activity has been pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere non-stop, while we have yet to find out how to stop ourselves. Now, carbon dioxide emissions all over the world have plummeted.

If we conduct a scientific study of the environment now, we will see something extraordinary – a world that we have been fighting to create for half a century.

It is extremely important to study this world while it lasts. It will inform us of how the environment reacts to the cessation of manmade disturbances, as well as how the strategies to mitigate these disturbances can be implemented. It will provide us with enormous insights into environmental dynamics and how the natural environment and human society interact. As we fight to create a healthier planet, observing how things are now will allow us to better know what our desired planet will be like and how we can create it.

This makes 2020 the most important time for environmental science ever. All those who spent years preparing for Earth Challenge may not have gotten what they were planning for, but instead they have something very, very special. Because of COVID-19, the world’s largest citizen science program will not be able to investigate much how the natural environment generally fares but will be able to discover more about how it works and how certain changes impact it. It is a rare opportunity that has come our way.

Of course, citizen scientists and professional scientists alike face challenges in carrying out their work because of COVID-19, but it is very important that we overcome them in order to avail our great opportunity. Now is the time for scientific endeavor to become more active, not to slow down. That shouldn’t be too difficult for environmental science. Right from the beginning, Earth Challenge 2020 is meant to largely consist of activities happening in the telecommunication sphere and in the great outdoors. Volunteers are supposed to explore and examine the natural environment, such as wildernesses and even just the air around them, which they can easily do while staying away from people. Then they are to upload the data they collect onto digital networks for others to view. Communicating with others remains vital and can be done virtually, which is how all social interactions are being done wherever the fight against the virus is in full gear. The Earth Challenge platform has created a variety of digital resources for use by citizen scientists. We have to rapidly innovate to get our work going, as the impacts on nature of our responses to the pandemic are likely to be short-lived, although, as of late June, the coronavirus pandemic seems to be just starting in the developing world and is seemingly making a comeback in developed countries.

2020 is a year of unprecedented challenges, but there is a lot of benefit we are capable of getting out of it in the field of scientific research. As a result, Earth Challenge 2020 has acquired more significance than we could ever have imagined.

Shahzeb Khan is environment journalist, writer, student of Earth sciences, and director at Pakistan’s People Led Disaster Management (https://pldmsite.wordpress.com/). He tweets at https://twitter.com/justinshahzebkh.

How did the Crash of Flight PK8303 Happen?

As Pakistan mourned the crash of flight PK8303 in Karachi that occurred before the Eid holidays and as the deceased were being identified, an investigation into the cause of the crash was speedily conducted and is ongoing. Immediately after it happened, the crash was covered here; (https://pldmsite.wordpress.com/2020/05/23/crash-of-airplane-pk8303-in-karachi/). It presented a great deal of initial speculation as to the cause of the tragedy. Since then, with the passage of weeks, a lot more information has come out and many theories have been constructed. The black box was recovered from the airplane wreckage and its data has been gathered. The government of Pakistan has promised that an initial inquiry report on the accident will be released on June 22 and a full report will arrive a few months later. But enough information, gleamed from records of communication between pilot and air traffic control, eyewitness accounts, and forensic investigation, has already been made public to provide us with a concise scenario of how the plane crashed. However, there is still much uncertainty about what exactly happened.

We know that the airplane, an Airbus A320 jet airliner that took off from Lahore on a 90-minute flight, aborted its first landing attempt at Jinnah International Airport and made a go-around (circling around to make the same landing). The pilot, Captain Sajjad Gul, reported dual engine failure and then issued a mayday alert to air traffic control. Transmission was then lost and the plane, on its final landing approach, veered off course and crashed into a residential area known as Model Colony. Only two of the 99 people onboard have survived and, at first, there were only injuries among people on the ground. However, a 12-year old girl injured in the plane crash later tragically passed away (https://www.samaa.tv/news/pakistan/2020/06/12-year-old-injured-in-pk-8303-crash-passes-away-in-karachi/).

Before going any further, we should all be aware of the fact that the pilot, Captain Sajjad Gul, appears to have steered his plane to avoid hitting homes so that the plane landed in the middle of a neighborhood road. This is truly an immensely heroic act that a person on the verge of death did to protect others. It undoubtedly saved many people, as the Model Colony neighborhood the plane crashed into was densely populated. Sources describe it as being congested. Yet, no doubt thanks to the pilot’s quick thinking and composure, casualties among people on the ground have been light.

Just as commendable is the heroism of the rescue workers, professionals and ordinary people, who worked to recover victims from the crash zone under great danger, braving high temperatures and a massive fire that broke out around the crash site, while the congested layout of the neighborhood made delivery of relief efforts challenging. Then there are the medical personnel, tirelessly working to treat the injured and getting themselves prepared to treat any injured even as the severe coronavirus outbreak in Sindh has stretched the healthcare sector thin. The agencies of Pakistan tasked with safety and relief have done a commendable job responding to the plane crash.

Also critically important is the job of those who are working to find out how it was that the plane crashed, information that will aid us in improving safety standards to prevent such an accident from happening again. I believe that this awareness is more urgently needed right now than we may think, because this plane crash has not come at an ordinary time for Pakistan and for its aviation sector. We happen to be in unprecedented circumstances, a time of enormous crisis and disruption all across the nation, indeed the world, and this current situation could be a factor in the PIA plane crashing. If so, then we are likely in imminent danger of further aviation accidents/incidents during the time we are in and we need to respond quickly.

First, let us look at the facts available. Sources said early on that a technical issue, most likely failure to deploy the undercarriage, or landing gear, caused the plane to abort landing. Two runways were then offered to the plane. However, instead of utilizing them, the plane made a go-around. Then, according to the air traffic control communications, another technical fault occurred, failure of both the plane’s turbofan engines, which is corroborated by a lot of evidence. Eyewitness reports suggest that the plane’s wings were on fire. The plane flew into the neighborhood while its front part was tilted upwards, which is a sign it was trying to ascend. Photos of the airplane wreckage on the ground show the blades of the turbofan engine to be undamaged, which suggest that they were not turning when the plane crashed.

Records of air traffic communications are reported to have revealed a grave pilot error that took place before the crash. Apparently, the airplane was too high in altitude when it was approaching the airport runway. ATC warned the pilot to lower the airplane but he ignored those warnings and descended too close to the runway, resulting in the plane travelling at a dangerously high speed when it was first about to land. Sajjad Gul is a senior pilot with 24 years of experience in the airline industry.

A preliminary report by the Civil Aviation Authority (detailed here https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/663140-new-questions-rise-over-plane-crash-report-on-crash-causes-in-90-days), who declared that they found skid marks on the first runway the plane attempted to land on, suggests that after the landing gear failed to deploy while the plane was landing, the plane flew so low that the jet engines, but not the belly, scraped the ground three times and were damaged. The plane climbed back into the air again. The aircrew failed to notify air traffic control of landing gear failure until the plane was making a go-around to retry the same landing. The plane ascended to 3,000 feet but could not hold the altitude, perhaps because fuel was leaking, and then tilted, upon which the crash happened.

Multiple things are being reported as having gone wrong at the end of the plane’s journey, but if they are true, they may all be connected. It is possible that when the plane was landing at a high speed, the crew was busy trying to slow it down and forgot to deploy the landing gear in the process. Then the plane engines were damaged by scraping the runway and so malfunctioned in the air, resulting in the plane coming down.

This explanation, or some variant thereof, of how the plane crashed may very well be true. But when it comes to the broader picture of what made the disaster possible, the timing of the plane crash is something that is very important to note. It happened just after airplanes like PK8303 were back in the air after a long nationwide grounding, part of an unprecedented worldwide drop in air travel due to the coronavirus pandemic. In Pakistan, all commercial flights were banned on 29 March. The ban on domestic flights was lifted on 16 May in time for the Eid holidays, which came just after the day the plane crashed. This has been a very difficult and unique time for the aviation industry in Pakistan and the entire world, one that nobody was prepared for. A two-month grounding of airplanes throughout the country is unprecedented. The pandemic and severe economic problems are also disrupting everything in Pakistan and making life for everybody very hard. This backdrop to the plane crash therefore naturally leads us to one question: did the impact of the coronavirus pandemic play a part in the plane crash?

According to a summary report by aviation authorities, PK8303, which had been flying for sixteen years, was grounded under the virus lockdown between March 22 and May 7, after which it did six flights while reporting no defects. It last underwent a routine inspection the day before 21 March and the last major check was on October 19, 2019. This long hiatus in safety inspection may have caused technical defects with the plane to go unnoticed before it resumed flight. Also, when a plane is grounded for a long period of time, it is supposed to undergo test flights before resuming normal operations to make sure its performance is fine. This seems not to have happened with PK8303.

Aviation safety relies a great deal upon the financial capacity of the aviation industry. Making sure flying is safe can be so expensive that, sometimes, airliners tarry at this job in order to save costs. It is a big problem at the best of times, especially for an airliner of a developing country like PIA, but the coronavirus pandemic is putting the aviation industry on the verge of a financial catastrophe. Because of the total grounding of flights, airline companies are making much less money while still maintaining their fleets. The government is supposed to help out, but it is very difficult for ours to do so when it has to deal with the unprecedented coronavirus crisis all over the country and with severe economic problems stemming from other causes, including a severe, long-running locust outbreak and inflation. Plus, virus restrictions impact all activities of life. Airline employees likely could not do their normal job without great risk. In this battle to fight the virus that has taken the country by storm, it must have become harder for aviation to guard against other threats. They might also be tempted to relax safety standards to preserve what little profitability is possible.

Even after the lockdown on planes was lifted, the airlines continue to operate under great strain. Far fewer people are flying than in normal times, which means that airlines continue to be short on cash. There has been a rush as Pakistanis wanted to go back to their hometown to be with their families for Eid, but social distancing measures meant that most passenger planes are occupied far below their full capacity, with every second seat being kept empty. This SOP fortunately prevented PK 8303 from being one of the deadliest plane crashes in Pakistan’s history. Also, the air travel industry has an enormous responsibility to ensure the coronavirus is not spread by air travel, whether it is by infected people traveling to other places or transmission taking place during flight, when lots of people are crammed into a tight space. Airliners now have to save the world in addition to making sure their planes land safely. It is a huge burden that may have stressed PIA’s capacity to a dangerous level.

All in all, the enormous challenges that aviation is going through as a result of the pandemic may have compromised the maintenance and inspection of airplanes, causing technical defects to build-up and go unnoticed. Whether or not this is what made the crash of PK8303 possible, it is a hazard that very likely exists. We cannot ignore this risk. We must recognize that more plane accidents could occur in the days ahead because of the impact of the pandemic on aviation and we have to take action against the threat. We need to conduct a risk assessment to investigate just how aviation safety is being affected by current circumstances. As difficult as it may be during the pandemic, we must pay extra attention to maintaining aviation safety standards, making sure that all airplanes are thoroughly inspected and well-maintained and subjecting planes to adequate testing before resumption of their normal duties. Matters will only get worse if planes start crashing in the middle of a severe pandemic.

It is widely presumed that a malfunction due to internal factors with the ill-fated plane caused it to crash. But there is also the possibility of an external factor that caused damage to the plane while it was flying. Engine failure is generally considered to be a cause of the plane crash, but as for what caused this failure, jet engines are vulnerable to spontaneous malfunction but are also vulnerable to whatever goes into the engine while it is operating. Jet engines suck in a tremendous amount of air, but we always hope that it is only air going into it, because if solid objects collide with the engines, it can cause serious damage and sometimes an accident like what happened with flight PK8303.

When a plane is in the air, such collisions are usually with birds, and indeed, several experts have already entertained the idea of a “bird strike” contributing to the plane crash in Karachi. Birds always impact with flying planes at very high speed, which means they hit with such strong force that various parts of the plane can be damaged. But jet engines are the most vulnerable. A bird being ingested in there can cause the fan blades to buckle in a domino effect that causes engine failure. If the bird’s body goes behind the blades, it can cause some deeper damage resulting in fuel leakage, which can start a fire in the engine. Birds can also strike and damage panels on the airplane wings, such as flaps and ailerons, when they are open, creating difficulty with controlling the plane’s movement at crucial moments, like landing. Bird strikes usually happen when passenger planes are taking off or landing, as airplanes usually fly at altitudes too high for birds.

The bigger a bird is, the more dangerous a strike can be. There are a lot of large birds in Karachi, including vultures, so a hit with one could definitely have taken down the Airbus plane. But if a plane runs into a flock of birds, it is also very dangerous as many birds might collide. It could explain why both engines of the PK8303 plane failed, as birds could have gone into both at the same time. We may need eyewitness and video accounts to tell us if there were birds over Jinnah International Airport at the time the airplane crashed. Also, if a bird strike indeed happened, we should be able to find the bird remains (known as “snarge” in aviation speak) in the airplane wreckage.

We should keep in mind that birds are not the only animals that fly. In fact, right now, one other type of animal is buzzing in the skies over Pakistan in great numbers, because enormous locust swarms have been invading the region for several months now. It is believed to be the biggest locust invasion in 70 years and some of the swarms are the size of major cities. Locusts began swarming in East Africa in 2018 and they very quickly reached Pakistan, where Karachi was inundated by locusts in November 2019 for the first time since 1961. The locust swarms within Pakistan have only been getting stronger since then as locusts are breeding in our farmlands. Pakistan declared a state of emergency over them in February and FAO predicted that swarms across Africa and Asia will further explode in numbers by June, a month that has just arrived.

Desert locusts, the species involved, are large insects and fly in dense formations. Any plane that flies through a swarm could potentially receive a big load of locusts. One locust may not do a lot of damage, but a large number of locusts getting splattered onto even a large passenger jet plane can possibly have a serious impact. Had PK8303 engaged in such a contact with any of the vast locust swarms overrunning Pakistan, it might have enabled the crashing of the plane.

Caution already exist in the aviation world against planes flying through locust swarms. In September 2010, Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) issued a national notice to pilots about the dangers that locusts, swarming in Australia at that time, posed to aircraft. It said that locusts could be smeared on the windscreen and reduce visibility and could block engine intakes and overheat the engines, making failure possible. The insects could also clog the pitot tubes of an airplane, therefore causing difficulty in accurately reading the plane’s airspeed. As for the current locust swarms across Africa and Asia, an official warning so far has been issued just a few days ago by India’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) that the locust swarms that recently entered India have become so big that these pose an aviation hazard. They warned of instruments and sensors being damaged by locusts, air intake inlets being clogged, and locusts being smeared on the windshield.

The engine failure the doomed PIA plane is believed to have suffered before crashing on May 22 could have happened due to both jet engines ingesting enough locusts. Locusts are not soft objects. They have an exoskeleton made out of a tough material known as chitin, so it’s definitely not good for such things to go into the engine of a flying plane. And then there is the effect locust collisions could have on the plane’s instruments and sensors, which allow the pilot to know important things like how fast the plane is going. If reports of pilot error on PK8303 are true, then they could have been caused by locust strikes. For instance, if the pitot tubes of the airplane were clogged by locusts and the pilot could not accurately read the airspeed, it could have caused him to approach the runway at too high a speed or to veer off course on the second landing attempt or when the engines failed. We can be pretty certain that locusts did not get smeared over the windshield or the pilot would certainly have reported it.

Southern Sindh is a hotbed of locust swarming in Pakistan right now. So it is possible that PK8303 encountered such a swarm as it made its ill-fated approach to Jinnah International Airport. There have been recent reports of locust swarms in proximity to Karachi, such as this news item on May 5 that said locusts were attacking Karachi suburbs (https://arynews.tv/en/locusts-swarms-attack-crops-in-suburban-areas-of-karachi/). However, Karachi is not being inundated by locusts the way it was in late 2019 and the sighting of a locust swarm over Karachi the day the PIA airplane crashed has not been reported. Nevertheless, Flight PK8303 could have been struck by locusts at any time during its last journey. It took off from Lahore and flew straight to Karachi, which placed its flight trajectory right across Punjab and Sindh, Pakistan’s breadbaskets and therefore prime territory for locust swarming.

Commercial airliners, however, spend most of their flight at an altitude too high for locusts. Locusts can only fly at very low elevations and PK8303 could not possibly have encountered any while it was cruising between Lahore and Karachi. The only times when airplanes are likely to encounter flying locusts is when they are taking off and landing. There is a strong possibility of this happening to PK8303 during these two stages in its last flight, given that Lahore and Karachi are both right in the middle of locust territory. According to statistics compiled by the FAO, while the majority of locust breeding in Pakistan is taking place in Balochistan, the rest is in southern Sindh and northeastern Punjab, exactly where those two cities are (https://tribune.com.pk/story/2230538/2-locust-attack-poses-famine-risk/). Adult locusts also have a strong presence in these areas. Even if the doomed airplane did not strike locusts while trying to land in Karachi, it could have done so shortly after taking off in Lahore, which could have ended up contributing to the crash more than an hour later. If the jet engines were what sustained the fatal damage, the reason they failed only when the plane was landing could be because plane engines are under particularly high strain during the landing phase, so PK8303’s engines would be unable to cope with this action even as they were able to carry the plane along on its 90-minute voyage. If instruments and sensors were damaged, they could have ended up being problematic only during landing.

Furthermore, there is also the possibility that PK8303 sustained damage from locust strikes at any time in its flight history since it was last checked on 21 March or thoroughly inspected on October 19 last year. It could have been struck by individual locusts several times during the locust upsurge in the region, thereby gradually sustaining damage. This damage would be unnoticed for some time but, sooner or later, it would end up triggering a major accident.

If the current locust invasions are responsible for playing a part in the crash of PK8303, it may not necessarily be strikes with the locusts themselves that the airplane experienced. Collisions with birds are much more dangerous than collisions with locusts, but a locust upsurge can raise the likelihood of both. That is because a lot of birds, including birds of large sizes, eat locusts, so wherever there are a lot more locusts in the sky, there are always going to be a lot more birds, and wherever there are a lot more birds, the danger to airplanes is a lot higher. Israel, for instance, has to deal with a very high bird-strike risk because the country lies on a migratory bird route.

Birds usually find their food on or close to the ground and therefore spend a lot of time either keeping their two feet on land or flying too low to encounter airplanes. But a locust swarm means an enormous feast right up there in the sky, a rare spectacle that any insectivorous bird will eagerly take advantage of the entire time it lasts. Also, if locusts are swarming in a particular area, birds far and wide will travel to that area, crowding in the air above it. Finally, the current locust upsurge of Africa and Asia has been going on since mid-2018 and hovering around Pakistan since mid-2019. In that amount of time, the bird populations in the affected regions could have grown. All in all, the skies over Pakistan and the wider region around it have become a lot more crowded and airplanes must now find it much more difficult to avoid running into creatures with either feathers or six legs.

The tragic crash of PK8303 in Karachi on May 22, 2020, may have come about, in part, due to the locust upsurge and the way it is filling the skies with winged objects. It could also have come about due to the coronavirus pandemic and the way it is sucking money from airlines and throwing the aviation industry into a storm of difficulties. But even if these two upheavals of our time have nothing to do with the recent plane crash that took the lives of 98 people, the dangers they pose to aviation is still there and very real. Therefore, there is a heightened chance that further airplane mishaps and disasters will occur in the times we are in.

This means we have to be extra vigilant and take into account the aviation hazards outlined above. If we continue with forbidding mass passenger air travel from occurring, as Pakistan and many other countries have done during the coronavirus lockdowns, it may be a good policy. In this time of overarching crisis, we might decide that only essential goods and people will be traveling by air. But if we continue to allow airplanes to occupy the skies and people to occupy those airplanes, we have to identify the additional risks they currently face and mitigate those risks. We need to make sure that airlines maintain their usual safety standards while handling the novel challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic. If any airline company is being tempted to cut costs, we need to be able to find out and to discipline them. Airline companies should also be provided with financial assistance from the government or from donations during the coronavirus crisis. Locust swarms have to be closely monitored so we can detect locust presence near airports or air routes. Every measure must be undertaken to keep locusts and birds away from these sensitive areas. If need be, we remove all crops and vegetation that are in proximity to urban areas, perhaps by allowing locusts to deplete them quickly, so planes can take-off and land safely.

Aviation safety and risk is, of course, a big issue at all times. A lot of work needs to be done to make aviation safe within Pakistan and, given the highly integrated nature of global aviation, we need to make sure air travel across the world is safe for Pakistanis and for people travelling on Pakistani airliners.

So as for the recent aviation disaster Pakistan has suffered just before Eid, we are waiting as the investigation proceeds. Knowing the truth is important so that the survivors, the loved ones of the victims, and the nation can have closure and so that further tragedies can be prevented. We are relying on the official investigation to come to a conclusion and we may all gravitate towards believing what seems like the most likely explanation. But we have to consider and think of every possibility in what happened. It may be said that we have to be creative, going through the information we have, not only information directly pertaining to the crash but information way beyond, coming up with any hypothesis that is possible, and see how it resonates with the facts.

For example, pilot error is being considered as a major factor in the crash. The captain apparently made a series of mistakes that could have been avoided. It makes us wonder how such an experienced pilot could have acted out this way and then we may start making judgments on him (we shouldn’t get prejudiced easily). But in relating the crash to the wider circumstances again, I thought of one possibility, which is that, what if the pilot was sick with COVID-19? The disease is spreading rapidly. People working in the airline industry are among those most likely to get infected. Serious illnesses often hamper a person’s mental and physical performance, making us sluggish or slow-witted. COVID-19, for its part, has shown signs of having a neurological impact. Many coronaviruses, also, have been known to infect the brain. As our knowledge of SARS-CoV-2 progresses, perhaps we will find out that it can impact the nervous system as well. We have to find out whether or not Sajjad Gul was suffering this way when he was in the cockpit for the last time. Was his dead body inspected for the coronavirus? Could we exhume him and find signs that he was infected?

Any possibility must be investigated.

So, what does PPLDM consider, as of this writing, to be the most likely scenario? Well, we are almost sure about three things going wrong with the flight; the plane being on an improper trajectory on its first landing attempt, the landing gear not being lowered, and the engines failing. It is unlikely for all three events to be a coincidence, so the storyline we may consider most reliable for now is that the plane’s unusual descent trajectory caused an unstable landing, which caused the cockpit crew to forget to employ the landing gear, which caused the engines to scrape the runway, which damaged them so much that they failed and caused the plane to veer off course and descend. It must be unlikely, also, that it is a coincidence the crash happened in the time of coronavirus-induced turbulence experienced by aviation and just after a long air grounding in Pakistan. If a malfunction was the primal cause of the crash, it is highly likely that technical faults were allowed to build-up in the plane during the pandemic.

However, if pilot error was the primal cause, and all malfunctions were the result of that, how can we relate this to the pandemic? Maybe the pilot was stressed by this and other circumstances affecting Pakistanis at that time. Maybe his thinking was impacted. We can also allow the possibility of human error and malfunction coinciding. So the scenario can be that the pilot steered the plane on an unstable descent path and this combined with a (possibly pandemic-induced) problem with the landing gear or the warning systems resulted in the landing gear failing, and the rest followed.

We watch as the investigation into the causes of the plane crash proceeds and we wait for the official results of the investigation to be released to the public. Hopefully, this investigation is being conducted in a fair, honest and intelligent manner so we can really know what happened.