• Natural Disasters

    I was struck the other day by a news report about the floods and storms in the UK. Some of those whose homes had been flooded were interviewed; they complained bitterly that the government had done nothing to prevent the disaster or to help them in its aftermath.

    What struck me about the report was the immediate assumption on the part of ordinary citizens that they were entitled to expect “the government” to “do something” about the effects of natural disasters and to complain if remedial action was not forthcoming.

    We live in an era when, because of climate change, natural disasters are likely to come thick and fast. There will be some instances, such as the Australian bushfires, when governments are justifiably put in the dock because of their failure to foresee that their policies are likely to increase the chances of damage to people, animals and property.

    But, in most cases, natural disasters come out of the blue. In New Zealand, we have had our fair share of floods, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions, and we have, on the whole, recognised that, while governments certainly have a role in helping people to recover from the worst effects, they cannot be held responsible for their occurrence.

    “Natural” disasters are, by definition, forces of nature, and governments are merely human agencies. They should certainly be expected to mitigate the consequences of natural disasters but they have no ability to wish them away.

    We now know that the category of natural disasters is not limited to weather events. The advent of the coronavirus outbreak teaches us that the definition of natural disasters now includes the spread of dangerous viruses.

    We can all sympathise with those caught up in the consequences of the outbreak. Those Kiwis who found themselves in Wuhan at the time of the outbreak, and those who were unlucky enough to find themselves on the cruise ship, the Diamond Princess, in Yokohama, quite naturally turned to their government to bail them out of their dangerous and difficult plight, and get them home to safety.

    It has to be said that our government stepped up to the plate pretty effectively. They were able to organise a flight out of Wuhan back to New Zealand, and they had the generosity and foresight to find seats for Australians and Pacific Islanders as well.

    That foresight paid off when it came to planning a rescue for those imprisoned on the Diamond Princess. The Kiwis anxious to escape their plight were able to cadge a lift on an Australian flight out of Japan when the Aussies decided to return the favour.

    Those rescued will still have to endure a further period of quarantine, but that is clearly needed, and justified in the public interest, given the level of infection that had arisen on board the cruise ship. On the whole, the issue has so far been handled by the government with good sense and to good effect.

    The economic effects of the crisis are less easily counteracted. Particular areas of economic activity, such as tertiary education, forestry and tourism, will clearly take a hit, but the government is already considering special measures to help them – and there is little to be done to withstand the overall impact on the economy of the blow delivered by the virus to international trade and movement.

    We can, however, and sadly, still expect to hear voices raised to echo the complaints of the victims of the UK floods. The government, we will be told, “has not done enough” or has acted “too late”.

    A mature democracy should have learned by now, though, that – in an era when natural disasters are likely to become the norm – governments do not have a magic wand. We should adjust our expectations accordingly. We can expect them to be efficient and sympathetic in mitigating the adverse consequences, we can hope that they will usher in improved policies designed to minimise the risks of further disasters, but we have to accept that, human as – like us – they are, their power to negate natural disasters when they happen is strictly limited.

    Bryan Gould
    18 February 2020