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Preparing for an earthquake during a pandemic



COVID-19 infection rates will rise if a major earthquake occurs during the pandemic. The researchers say the number of new cases resulting depends on the readiness of the authorities now.

Written by Elizabeth Goldbaum, science writer

Citation from: Goldbaum, E., 2020, Preparing for azeze during a gandemic, Temblor,

Immediately after an earthquake measuring 5.3 on the Richter scale that struck Zagreb, Croatia, on March 22, 2020, Vitor Silva communicated with colleagues in the shaken city. “Has the number of COVID-19 cases increased?” He asked them.

The quake left piles of rubble in the city center, damaged nearly 250 homes and forced 59 people to seek temporary shelters. Before the event, there were 87 cases of COVID-19 in Zagreb. In the following two weeks, another 337 cases were reported in the city.

Silva, the risk coordinator at the Global Earthquake Model Foundation in Pavia, Italy, said the jump in cases after this moderate earthquake was relatively low in part because there were few pre-existing cases and the government imposed strict social distancing regulations in time.

“With that, we are likely to live with COVID-19 for another year or more, and it is important to understand and prepare for a potentially bigger earthquake,” Silva said. Silva and his colleague Nicole Ball, a disaster risk analyst at the same organization, studied the effects of Croatian and other earthquakes to determine the potential impact that seismic events could have on rates of viral infection.

They created a model to help predict future scenarios and found that for a test case focused on Portugal, if the repercussions of the earthquake were managed quickly and efficiently, there would be a slight increase in COVID-19 cases. In its recently published paper, the team said that if a major earthquake strikes and affects a large population, then a rise in COVID-19 cases may be inevitable, despite all efforts.

Study the past

Ten years before COVID-19 spread around the world, a devastating earthquake of magnitude 7.0 struck Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Eight months later, a cholera outbreak broke out. The damaged sewage system and the already overstretched healthcare system proved fertile ground for the epidemic to spread to 650,000 people and 9,000 deaths, in addition to 200,000 people who died from the damage caused by the earthquake.

Natural disasters can force people to leave their homes to relatively small and crowded shelters, allowing viruses to spread more easily. For example, in 1991, an eruption of Mount Pinatubo, a volcano 54 miles (87 kilometers) from Manila in the Republic of the Philippines, preceded an outbreak of measles that caused more than 18,000 cases among people forced from their homes.

More recently, in May 2020, a cyclone hit the western coast of India. The rate of COVID-19 infection doubled in the following two weeks. Silva said the shelters were overcrowded and may not be particularly hygienic.

Natural hazards of all kinds can exacerbate the effects of the epidemic. However, Silva said, “the geophysical risks are a shock.” You can usually anticipate storms and estimate floods, but earthquakes are sudden and unexpected.

Scenarios simulation

In addition to the Croatian earthquake, Silva and Paul studied other earthquakes that occurred during the epidemic, including in Khoy, Iran, on February 23, Elazig, Turkey, on January 23, 2020, and Salt Lake City, Utah on March 18.

The pair collected daily data on confirmed virus cases for those areas recently hit by earthquakes and determined if there was an effect on the infection rate. Then they simulated the ground shaking from two Portugal earthquake scenarios and calculated the potential damage to buildings. From these estimates, they determined how many people would be displaced in each of these earthquakes, and thus how many people would be vulnerable to the virus.

The first scenario simulates an event of medium intensity 5.7 degrees on the beach near the metropolitan area of ​​Lisbon, while the second scenario looked at a strong event of 8.7 degrees outside that could cause severe damage to Lisbon and other regions. For each earthquake scenario, the team also applied two possible situations: 1) an optimistic situation in which there was a certain level of preparedness by the emergency authorities, but the earthquake caused enough disruption to prevent residents from following all directions, and 2) a pessimistic situation in which the emergency authorities were not prepared. Residents were not able to follow safety protocols.

The team found that in the wake of the earthquake measuring 5.7 on the Richter scale, for the optimistic case, there will be a 0.1 to 4.0% increase in COVID-19 cases in Lisbon and Tagus Valley, which includes the Lisbon metropolitan area. For the pessimistic case, there will be an increase of 30 to 60%.

After the earthquake simulated with a magnitude of 8.7 on the Richter scale, there will be a 10-15% increase in COVID-19 cases in Lisbon and Tagus Valley in the optimistic case. For the pessimistic case, there will be an increase of 60%.

The estimated increase in the number of cumulative COVID-19 cases (as a percentage) for three regions in Portugal: Lisbon, Tagus Valley, Alentejo and Algarve. Case A is an optimistic case and Case B is a pessimistic case. Credit: Silva and Paul, 2020

The paper also identifies areas around the world that are at greater risk for a major seismic event and a significant increase in COVID-19 cases, such as California, Peru and Haiti. “We want to assist decision-makers in formulating emergency plans and responding to natural disasters such as earthquakes during a pandemic,” Silva said.

Prepare for the future

We might not be able to see an upcoming earthquake the same way we see a storm brewing, but we can estimate the approximate probabilities of an earthquake occurring based on underlying geology and past events. “Looking at the past 10 years in Italy, we had 46 earthquakes of magnitude 4-4.9,” said Mauro Dolce, scientific advisor to the head of the Italian Civil Protection Department who was not directly involved in the study.

This means that the probability of another earthquake of the same magnitude in the next six months is 90%, according to Dolce. Covid-19 is likely to last for six months or more. Dolce said that the probability of a larger earthquake measuring 5-5.9 on the Richter scale in the next six months is 26% based on previous events.

Dolce said that in the event of a strong earthquake, people may relax their COVID-19 social distancing protocols and abandon masks, among other protective equipment. In his role with the Civil Protection Department, Dolce must understand all the potential problems that may arise from a natural disaster. “We usually deal with one risk at a time,” Dolce said. However, the idea of ​​dealing with multiple disasters simultaneously has become increasingly relevant in the past five to ten years and has been brought to the fore with COVID-19.

Silva and Paul’s study helps him understand various risks and prioritize formal procedures and regulations. “This is a completely original study,” Dolce said. “Having an idea – even a quantitative sense of what could happen during a catastrophic event – is important.”

“The study is interesting for policymakers and decision makers,” Dolce said. “It helps them better appreciate how the two risks interact and how important it is to be prepared to manage an event.”

Further reading

Silva, in, and paul, N. (2020). Potential impact of earthquakes during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. Spectra of earthquakes,

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