On the night of May 20, Papia Lahiri couldn’t keep Super Cyclone Amphan out of her living room. Water poured in through the edges of closed windows into her apartment, located on the second floor of an aging duplex. With no one around to help, she grabbed a bucket and started the painful task of scooping water out of her home and onto the street.
Lahiri, 56, lives alone in Kolkata, India, after her two children moved to Europe to pursue higher education. More than 8,000 kilometres away in Munich, Germany, her 21-year-old daughter was wracked with worry.
Prerna Lahiri spent the better part of two days trying to get in touch with her mom after watching harrowing footage of the super cyclone rendering entire chunks of her hometown unrecognizable, smashing everything in its path with 100 km/h winds, including communications towers.
“Friday was when it got really bad,” Prerna told me. “I had to go into work for a meeting, but I had a feeling that something was wrong. When I got back to my phone, I had a bunch of missed calls and texts from my brother, telling me mom has no data, no WiFi, and that the electricity keeps coming and going.”
Government officials across West Bengal, Odisha, and Bangladesh record the death toll from Cyclone Amphan at 85—a number widely reported by news outlets covering this disaster. But before all is said and done, many more will die as a result of two major crises simultaneously hitting the region.
For a bystander on the other side of the world who can do nothing more than check in with her loved ones, one of the most aggravating aspects of trying to deal with the anxiety is living in a country where most people know nothing of the magnitude of what happened to my hometown.
While we know COVID-19 will complicate our response to climate-related disasters, much of the Western world seems to be unaware that the intersecting crises are already here.
There’ve been news reports, to be sure, across major international media outlets, brief clips on television, a flashing ticker reducing the loss of lives and homes to mere numbers. But one thing is clear: if a hurricane hit a large population in North America or Europe while it dealt with a pandemic, the world would unite to support and mourn and aid.
News coverage of such a major dual crisis would air on a 24-hour news cycle for at least a week instead of drying out after a day or two; world leaders would be lining up to issue messages of solidarity; and it would be difficult to find a single person who had not seen footage of the devastation or wanted to discuss the surge in coronavirus cases that will flood the region after two weeks.
The type of disaster is important to note here as well: a tropical cyclone made exponentially worse by climate change is far less likely to capture the imagination of the masses than, say, the Notre Dame in Paris catching on fire.
The Lahiris’ experience is familiar to the Bengali diaspora everywhere, including my own family. While both my parents are safely tucked away in Denmark, and I’m here in Victoria, B.C., my 85-year-old grandmother lives alone in Kolkata. Battling through spotty network connections, my father was able to verify that she and her sturdy concrete house were unharmed by the storm.
The plight of people like my grandmother and Papia Lahiri is difficult, but pale in comparison to the thousands who have lost homes and families to this disaster—particularly daily wage labourers like domestic helpers who had already lost their income when the COVID-19 lockdown went into force.
But for people here, busy with their own lockdown worries, it’s easy to dismiss this cyclone as just another crisis in a part of the world they’re accustomed to ignoring. After all, tropical storms and cyclones are nothing new for people living near the Bay of Bengal. Growing up in Kolkata, I myself harbour fond memories of blood red skies and the electric scent of an approaching thunderstorm.
But what gave Cyclone Amphan its destructive legs was clear: human-caused climate change.
“The reason people lost their farms wasn’t high winds—it was the tidal surges caused by global warming. So yes, you can say it was an unusual storm, but mostly we got hit by rising sea levels,” said Walter Mwasaa, a CARE aid worker in Bangladesh, where 2 million people are stuck in shelters after the cyclone decimated at least 35,000 homes. Overall, around 10 million people have been left homeless in the region.
Cyclone Amphan is perhaps the largest natural disaster to strike the world since the COVID-19 pandemic was declared a public health emergency on a global scale. It’s also a frightening reminder that we cannot expect a break from climate crises during a pandemic.
"Social distancing becomes secondary to the primal need for survival."
In the days leading up to the cyclone, about half a million people in West Bengal and neighbouring Odisha (also known as Orissa) were evacuated from their homes and into cyclone shelters. However, these facilities had previously been converted into quarantine wards for COVID-19 patients, which made many people reluctant to leave their homes for fear of contracting the virus.
But once the cyclone hit, coronavirus concerns took a back seat and thousands crowded into those facilities.
“I don’t know how much you can think about quarantine and social distancing during a cyclone. It becomes secondary to the primal need for survival,” said Suroraj Sen, a friend who lives adjacent to one of the arterial streets in south Kolkata, home to the city’s nightlife district.
In the region of Bengal, local residents and aid workers have a long road ahead of them as they try to rehabilitate people who no longer have a home to return to when they’re told to “shelter in place.”
“It’s frustrating because as someone sitting at home, you want to be able to go out and help, but maybe it’s not a good idea when you have people in your household who could get sick,” said south Kolkata resident Ananya Mazumder.
A thorough analysis of evacuation efforts in Bengal, and a careful look at what the region is doing next with those recently unsheltered who are at heightened risk of catching and spreading COVID-19, could provide a vital blueprint for how floods, fires, and other disasters around the world can be managed during these unprecedented times.
But for the Bengali people, a population so far removed from the collective psyche of the world’s most powerful, there has been—and there will be—no unified cry. When coronavirus sweeps through to kill those who were spared by the great storm, there will be no lighting of the Eiffel Tower in their memory.
Brishti Basu is a freelance journalist in Victoria, B.C. In recent months, she has reported on Wet'suwet'en land defenders fighting for their right to sovereignty in the face of the Coastal GasLink pipeline in the province. Follow her on Twitter.