The pandemic is intensifying the difficulty of preparing for the storm. India has more than 100,000 confirmed coronavirus cases while Bangladesh has 25,000. Both countries have imposed crippling lockdowns that have left tens of millions of people with no income.
Now those vulnerable to the storm are facing the unprecedented combination of a natural disaster together with a pandemic. Some evacuees say they’re frightened of catching the virus in emergency shelters, where they may face hours in enclosed spaces with little ability to maintain distance from other people.
Authorities are attempting to reduce crowding. In coastal areas, Bangladesh has turned schools and colleges into makeshift shelters, increasing the total available capacity from 4,000 to more than 12,000, said Mohammad Mohsin, director general of country’s disaster management department. “We did this to maintain social distancing,” he said.
In India, two states will bear the brunt of the cyclone’s impact: West Bengal and Odisha. In some shelters in Odisha, people are being required to use hand sanitizers before entering and to wear masks for the duration of their stay.
Pradeep Jena, a senior government official overseeing the disaster relief effort in Odisha, described the current evacuation as a “great challenge” since people are already under “psychological stress” from the spread of covid-19. He urged authorities to explain to people that the immediate danger from the storm is greater than the threat of infection.
But some people living in the state’s coastal areas are not persuaded, particularly in places where cyclone shelters were previously being used as quarantine centers.
Bholanath Behera, 41, who lives in an area expected to be hit hard by the storm, said that his village’s regular shelter was used to quarantine 38 workers who had returned to the area from a state on the other side of the country. The workers were shifted elsewhere, but villagers still refused to use the shelter despite promises that it would be sanitized.
“People are still scared,” he said. “In fact, no one goes close to the cyclone shelter anymore.” The village got permission from the authorities to use a school as a shelter during the cyclone instead.
In the neighboring state of West Bengal, there is also some resistance to using shelters out of fear of the virus. “We are ready to die at home,” said Dilu Seikh, who lives with seven members of his family on an island in the district of South 24 Parganas. “We’re not going to a cyclone shelter at any cost, no matter what the government says.”
The chief minister of West Bengal said that nearly 300,000 people have been evacuated. In Odisha, more than 60,000 have already been evacuated but as many as 1.1 million may be shifted to shelters. In Bangladesh, the figure could reach 2 million, said Mohsin, the disaster management official.
Among those at risk is one of the world’s most vulnerable refugee populations. About 1 million Rohingya refugees live in crowded camps in Bangladesh in Cox’s Bazar. The first two coronavirus cases were reported in the camps last week. The latest forecast shows that the camps are not in the direct path of the cyclone, said Francesca Fontanini, a spokeswoman for international aid groups. But they are preparing emergency supplies of food, tarpaulins and water purification tablets.
In the Satkhira district of Bangladesh, which is expected to bear the brunt of the cyclone, officials started using loudspeakers to tell people to evacuate on Monday.
On Tuesday, they began going door-to-door to urge them to shift to shelters.
Unlike in prior cyclones, authorities are also using schools and mosques with more than one floor as shelters, said Bhabtosh Kumar Mandal, a local official in the village of Burigoalini. The goal is to avoid crowds, he said. People have been asked to arrive at shelter with masks, Mandal added. He was racing to collect even more masks to distribute before the cyclone hit..
Niha Masih in New Delhi, Tazeen Qureshy in Bhubaneswar, Azad Majumder in Dhaka, and Kalpana Prodhan in Kolkata contributed reporting.