Kobe – One thing the COVID-19 pandemic has clearly demonstrated is the interdependence of the world. An epidemic in one country quickly became a regional and then worldwide pandemic. Interconnected economies, and their supply chains, eventually came to a stop, as did global and domestic commercial travel.
Schools closed, club and social activities came to grinding halt, and people's lifestyles have been greatly disrupted by the loss of employment or medical concerns. This does not even include the 800,000 whose lives have been lost after being infected with the novel coronavirus, and their family members, many of whom were unable to say goodbye in person.
While there are downsides of interdependence, there are also many positives, with people and communities helping one another in their time of need.
The positives of interdependence existed before COVID-19 as well, obviously. We have seen in past disasters, both natural and man-made, where individuals and organizations, as well as nations, have stepped up to help one another. Sometimes this assistance is the difference between life and death, or between hope and absolute despair. Timely help often means the difference, too, whether a family, community, business, association, etc., will be able to rebuild or not.
For this reason, a couple of years ago after the June 2018 northern Osaka earthquake, whose epicenter was only a couple of kilometers from my children's international school in Minoo, I proposed that such schools in Japan work on an agreement to provide support to any other international school directly affected in a local or regional disaster. Rather than scrambling after the fact to find ways to help, I believed it was better to have the framework in place so that international schools around the country would have an idea about how they can help if they were not directly affected, and what sort of assistance they might expect if they themselves were the victims in a disaster.
Eventually, in my capacity as a parent (and a disaster response specialist), I ended up drafting a "Commitment to Mutual Aid and Support in Natural Disasters and Emergencies," a version of which was subsequently adopted by the related international school association thanks to forward-looking school officials around the country. While the agreement is voluntary and based on the ability of the unaffected school(s) to assist, I know from experience there are many compassionate educators, administrators, parents, and students affiliated with these schools who wish to help. Importantly, the agreement is to be reviewed annually and updated as appropriate to add new experiences, requirements, and skill sets.
My hope is that the agreement does not stop here, but that other associations will use this principle of "mutual aid and support," whether it be local, regional, national or international, to help others in their related industry or field.
Similar organizations are at a huge advantage to assist one another as they are familiar with the needs of the others. For example, similar businesses in a larger industry can help one another as they are familiar with the products, market, supply chains, distribution channels, battle rhythm, necessary training, etc. The same goes for other areas. These collaborative efforts can also be facilitated by trade groups and business associations, or related NGOs or local municipalities.
For example, with the schools, there are many ways they can help one another based on the service they supply and the buildings and equipment that they utilize. I listed the following nine items to which unaffected schools can commit, but there are very well may be more.
1. Fundraising. Unaffected schools are encouraged to conduct fundraising at special events following a disaster to assist affected schools.
2. Donations. Donations of books, supplies, clothing and food to affected schools on an as-needed basis. Affected schools can further distribute these items to their community if they discover they have enough.
3. Volunteering. Students, faculty, staff and parents of unaffected schools are encouraged to volunteer at the affected schools or in that community. Affected schools will assist in receiving volunteers.
4. Provision of in-person services. Unaffected schools may offer in-person services provided by teachers, staff and counselors if there is a need in the affected schools.
5. Provision of online or virtual services. Unaffected schools, including students, may offer services online or virtually, to include teaching, counseling, academic advising, tutoring or peer-to-peer support.
6. Provision of space. Unaffected schools may offer classroom space, gyms and sports field on a temporary basis to affected schools.
7. Provision of school supplies. Unaffected schools may offer affected schools supplies such as books, computers, sports equipment, musical instruments, art-related items, science equipment, etc. on a temporary basis.
8. Homestays. The families of students, faculty and staff of unaffected schools may offer temporary refuge to students and/or their families from affected schools for mutually agreed upon period.
9. Other items and services not currently identified, by mutual agreement.
The above is simply a model with schools in mind. Other organizations can tweak it to fit their specific situations. And because liabilities are a concern, providers may wish to introduce a "hold harmless" principle by which they are not accountable for any injuries or damages that may occur from use of provided item.
Organizations — schools, businesses, senior citizen homes, special needs homes, hospitals, clinics, NPO/NGOs, etc. — should be looking ahead now before it's too late to see what sort of needs they may have in a future disaster, such as an earthquake directly hitting Tokyo, a Nankai Trough earthquake and tsunami, a Tokai earthquake and tsunami, a Mount Fuji eruption, a supertyphoon like the one that hit Ise Bay in 1959 and killed 5,000 people, or some other major emergency.
Unfortunately, no two disasters are similar. Each one gets more and more complex.
For example, we have seen an increasingly destructive pattern in storms and flooding in the country. Added to this is the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic is not only taxing the ability of first respondents and hospitals but is also presenting a significant hurdle to gather volunteers due to the potential risk of infections. Shelters, too, now have new restrictions on them due to the need for social distancing.
This complicated situation makes it all the more important for organizations to work out arrangements ahead of time to help one another and demonstrate our interdependence. Let's use the National Disaster Preparedness Day on Sept. 1 as a starting point for these new arrangements.
Robert D. Eldridge, co-author of "Megaquake: How Japan and the World Should Respond," served as the political adviser during Operation Tomodachi following the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011 and is currently the director for North Asia of Global Risk Mitigation Foundation.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.
Your news needs your support
Since the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis, The Japan Times has been providing free access to crucial news on the impact of the novel coronavirus as well as practical information about how to cope with the pandemic. Please consider subscribing today so we can continue offering you up-to-date, in-depth news about Japan.