29 June 2020

Earthquake evacuation during COVID-19

This is an account by one of our analysts who recently experienced an earthquake evacuation in Mexico City in the midst of the pandemic. She raises some interesting concerns, particularly on the challenge of implementing social distancing during a natural disaster.

It's so easy to forget about COVID-19 when the earthquake warning sounds.

It's a cloudy Tuesday morning in Mexico City. I'm yearning for a second morning coffee when the earthquake warning signal starts to sound at 10:29. At the same time, a 7.4-magnitude earthquake struck near El Coyul in southern Oaxaca state.

We almost stepped out of our apartment as I remembered to take our face masks with us. The coronavirus (COVID-19) is still spreading in Mexico City as of late June. I quickly realised that our neighbours were not as mindful - we were the only ones from our building wearing face masks while evacuating the stairs en masse, with limited room for social distancing, to the street.

When the jolting hit the city two minutes later, we were all standing on the elevated green median between the lanes of our avenue. All our neighbours huddled together holding on to their children or mobile phones, expressing their concerns to each other. How well did we all remember the: "No running, no screaming, no pushing" instruction when the earthquake hit. And how little did we pay attention to physical distancing and wearing face masks, possibly risking another wave of COVID-19 in the neighbourhood.

Preparations for and in response to natural disasters are complicated by the COVID-19 outbreak. Those affected by evacuation orders or forced to seek communal shelter following a disaster may be at higher risk of contracting the virus as some distancing measures – such as 'stay at home' orders – may not be possible at all. These risks are amplified in developing countries with limited resources and large populations, such as Mexico. Once the what-to-do-during-an-earthquake instructions are renewed, the authorities must update plans and respond in ways that reduce the risk of transmission, like adding "carry a face mask in your evacuation gear".