Skip to main content

Expert Opinion

Lessons learned: Responding to disaster displacement in the time of COVID-19


Governments, first-responders and humanitarian organisations responding to displacement triggered by disasters during the COVID-19 pandemic are faced with a complex challenge: to evacuate people safely into shelters and camps, while maintaining social distancing measures in settings which are usually overcrowded and where the risk of contagion is far higher. 

These simultaneous crises require immediate but somewhat conflicting responses. What would normally constitute an efficient and safe response to a disaster could now pose a serious health risk, if not performed with caution. As traditional best practices are being put into question, responders must find creative ways to protect people from disasters without risking further spread of the disease. New trends are emerging, as outlined below, some of which could become the new normal even after the pandemic ends.

Increase the number of emergency shelters to prevent overcrowding 

When disasters require the evacuation of people, it is important to increase the number of evacuation centres available to prevent overcrowding which could facilitate the spread of COVID-19.  

On May 20th, “super-cyclonic storm” Amphan hit India, triggering 2.4 million displacements, of which 818,000 were pre-emptive evacuations. In order to avoid overcrowding at evacuation centres, the government increased the number of shelters available, encouraged everyone to practice social distancing to the extent possible and made the use of face masks mandatory in many shelters. Some states went even further. In the state of Assam, for example, authorities issued a set of guidelines for relief camps, including limiting the distance between all occupants to a minimum of seven metres, making masks and hand sanitisers available and having no-smoking areas.  

In Bangladesh, more than 2.4 million people were pre-emptively evacuated before the cyclone made landfall and public authorities began using mosques and schools as additional evacuation centres to prevent overcrowding. 

Further, it can be helpful to prioritise pre-emptive evacuations when disasters are imminent, as social distancing can be more easily enforced and the movement of people better planned. 

Test for COVID-19 upon arrival and departure 

In some countries, including India and the United States, officials are carrying out COVID-19 screening of evacuees upon arrival to evacuation centres and before their return home. 

Cyclone Nisarga led to 170,000 displacements in India in June, most of which were pre-emptive evacuations. In order to curb the spread of the virus, authorities not only took measures to enforce social distancing in evacuation centres, but they also tested people for COVID-19 after they were permitted to return home. In Mumbai, 10,000 evacuees were screened for temperature, oxygen levels and other symptoms before they were able to leave the shelters.  

Provide isolation rooms and treatment for positive cases 

Testing evacuees for COVID-19 can be helpful in containing the spread of the disease, but evacuees suspected or confirmed of being infected should not be discriminated against in their receipt of aid. Separating these cases in a non-discriminatory way, with the support of health care professionals, can help prevent the spread of the virus, and treat it quickly, among displaced populations. 

In Costa Rica, after heavy rain caused severe flooding and landslides in Parrita and Quepos in June, the National Emergency Commission set up special shelters for the elderly and people considered at high risk, as well as separate shelters for confirmed cases of COVID-19. In these shelters, strict sanitation measures were observed and additional medical assistance was provided when needed.

Provide evacuees with essential, sanitised supplies

Evacuees should be provided with enough water, medicine and other sanitation supplies to ensure their health, hygiene and safety for the duration of their displacement. Any items brought into the shelter should be cleaned thoroughly. Food and other assistance should be served in ways which prevent contamination and minimise crowding. 

Since the beginning of the outbreak, the United States, the country with the highest number of COVID-19 cases, has experienced severe flooding, hurricanes, and most recently the worst wildfires in the country in 18 years, all of which have displaced thousands of people across the country. 

The American Red Cross, which operates disaster shelters across the country, has put in place new guidelines to shelter people in emergency situations during the pandemic. They sanitise items before having them brought to evacuation centres and eliminated self-serve food items to avoid lines and minimise contagion. 

Use hotels and other existing infrastructure for additional shelters

Certain countries have successfully begun the use of “COVID-19 hotels” through existing travel and hospitality infrastructure to facilitate social distancing and quarantines. In the Netherlands, the 4,000 residents of the village of Herkenbosch had to be evacuated on April 22nd due to wildfires in a national park. Many people were evacuated into “COVID-hotels” set up to evacuate people in a safe manner consistent with social distancing measures. 

In the United States too, the American Red Cross is now partnering with local authorities to find shelter alternatives, including prioritising the use of hotels, to avoid overcrowding displaced populations. 


COVID-19 is challenging communities, governments and international organisations in an unprecedented way. Added to humanitarian emergencies and the double-crisis becomes even more complex. Officials, first-responders and humanitarian aid workers must take into consideration the unique needs and challenges posed by different, and sometimes conflicting, crises to develop a comprehensive and coherent response to both. Addressing these multiple ongoing crises is incredibly difficult, but some best practices have emerged in this regard which are worth replicating in other contexts.