Design Element

When COVID-19 & climate change collide: Potentials and challenges of (multi-hazard) Early Warning Systems


Dr Michael Ryan
Executive Director, WHO Health Emergencies Programme

Prof. Dr. Gerhard Adrian
President of the World Meteorological Organisation

Dr. Erin Coughlan de Perez
Red Cross / Red Crescent Climate Centre

Hendrik Roggendorf
Bundesamt für Bevölkerungsschutz und Katastrophenhilfe

Marie-Luise Beck
Deutsches Klima-Konsortium


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Dr. Michael Ryan
Executive Director, WHO Health Emergencies Programme
Kara Siahaan
International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies
Prof. Dr. Gerhard Adrian
President of the World Meteorological Organisation

While reducing disaster risk is the single most important way, the international community can help communities adapt and prepare for growing and evolving risks, we know that the increasing frequency and severity of climate- and weather-related events as well as the increasing number of outbreaks of infectious diseases means we cannot prevent all risks. We therefore need to also call for expanded early warning and anticipatory approaches and ensure more effective and efficient response and recovery.  

As the WMO 2019 State of Climate Services report (WMO, 2019) shows, many nations lack early warning system capacity and financial investment is not flowing into the areas where the most investment is needed, particularly in the countries where the capacity gaps are the greatest. Even where there are forecasting capacities, multi-hazard early warning systems are only effective if they actually reach and are actionable by those who need them.

Despite improvements in forecast science, some of the most extreme recent weather events were predicted, yet still caused mass devastation. For instance, cyclones Idai and Kenneth devastated Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe in March and April 2019, taking more than 1,000 lives, leaving 2.6 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, and causing at least 1 billion US dollars in damages.    

Overall, critical gaps in early warning systems need to be addressed to translate warnings into action. By turning forecasts and warnings from descriptions of what the weather will be into what the weather will do, the impact-based forecasting has been introduced as an approach that enables organizations and individuals to take forecast-based early action to anticipate and mitigate the impact of a disaster (UKMO, Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, 2020).

The importance of anticipating infectious diseases has become particularly evident in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The increase in many infectious diseases is a result of the combined impacts of rapid demographic, environmental, social, technological and other changes in our ways of living. Disease outbreaks may lead to major public health crises with devastating effects on people’s lives and livelihoods. Addressing epidemics and pandemics is a cross-cutting task that depends on effective case detection and surveillance, community-based risk communication, close coordination and collaborations across countries, agencies and sectors.

Despite the demonstrated usefulness of the concept in meteorology and the best efforts to date (IFRC 2012; WMO 2019), multi-hazard (impact-based) early warning systems (MHEWS) have remained primarily focused on hazards of meteorological origin. A renewed effort is needed to make MHEWS fully multisectoral, inclusive of biological hazards regardless of the cause of the underlying events (Yao et al. 2020a).  

This shift has come about because, despite huge technological advances in forecasting meteorological and hydrological hazards, we continue to suffer major human and economic losses because of an incomplete awareness and understanding of the potential breadth and depth of the impacts of those hazards. Similarly, although COVID-19 has unique epidemiological aspects, it is a known class of virus and the behaviour of a pandemic can be modelled, with advice, guidance, and warnings issued based on detection (observation) or model forecasts (see, for example, Chowell et al. 2020). However, the actions taken by many governments suggest any or all of the following: warnings have not been heeded; the risks have been poorly understood and/or discounted; funding mechanisms to take early action are lacking; capacity is lacking to do the things that need to be done, even if the money is available; and long-term planning to make the best use of the warning is lacking. Unfortunately, this is a common theme for many hazards and a major obstacle in achieving the goals of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction.


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