Vulnerable groups, also called “special needs” groups or “at-risk” populations, are those that are “at risk of poor physical, psychological, or social health” after a disaster. The term “vulnerable” in this context indicates the dependencies of particular groups. During disasters, several groups of people are potentially vulnerable and their special needs are often disregarded. Some of them include;
- People with physical and mental disabilities
- Elderly persons
- Pregnant women
1. People with Disabilities
Large-scale catastrophes leave people (particularly the challenged and helpless) with physical and mental disabilities. Governmental assistance may not be sufficient and may end too quickly after a disaster to fulfill the needs of the disabled. People with physical disabilities may be disadvantaged in a variety of ways during a disaster. For example, those with hearing impairments may have a hard time understanding instructions or evacuation orders provided in shelters. People with visual impairments may as well be unable to receive crucial information if official communication is conveyed visually on paper, television broadcasts, or on television monitors. The wheelchair-bound may not have accessible transportation for evacuation, and the shelters may lack accessible entrances, dining areas, restrooms, or adequate medical care.
People with mental disabilities may also face acute difficulties in emergencies. Their evacuation process may be mishandled by emergency responders who might not understand their behavior or might not be comfortable with them, and shelters may refuse to accept them or be ill-equipped to meet their needs. They may also be treated roughly in the event they are unable to follow instructions and be inappropriately institutionalized as a convenient solution. Without appropriate planning that accommodates their needs, these people are likely to suffer poor outcomes.
2. Elderly Persons
People who are sixty-five years or older are more susceptible than others to chronic diseases including hypertension, arthritis, heart disease, respiratory ailments, and diabetes. Eighty percent of people in this age group suffer from at least one chronic illness, whereas fifty percent suffer from two or more chronic conditions. These people may also have mobility, sensory, cognitive, social, and economic limitations that can inhibit their adaptability in disasters, causing them to get overwhelmed, agitated, and traumatized. Additionally, during and after emergencies, the health of older adults can worsen due to poor nutrition, exposure to infection, extreme temperatures, emotional distress, and interruptions in medical treatment. Among people with disabilities, the elderly may require special attention and more support considering their frailties.
3. Pregnant Women
During disasters, pregnant women will also have special needs and face increased risks which include underweight babies, premature deliveries, and infant mortality. Some may have to deliver babies outside the care of hospitals. Pregnant women are also in danger of being evacuated without access to their medical records which contain critical information regarding their welfare or that of their unborn babies. They may also lose access to essential medication and prenatal vitamins. Outbreaks of pandemics are particularly fatal to pregnant women or their unborn babies, and getting exposed to other illnesses in crowded shelters could further be hazardous. Furthermore, relief workers who are unaware of women’s pregnancies might include them in mass vaccination or other prophylactic programs that are contraindicated for pregnant women.
Children are a vulnerable group due to their susceptibility to injury and the fact that they depend on others for emotional support, livelihood, and decision-making. Children who get injured during explosions run a greater risk of significant trauma compared to adults. Because of their size, respiratory rates, and metabolisms, children may also suffer harm to a greater extent from exposure to bioterrorism agents. Children may also develop malnutrition, dehydration, and exhaustion quicker than adults, and they are more likely than adults to contract infectious diseases. All of these factors affect the treatment needs of children and their medical outcomes.
Additionally, caring for children in an emergency has both social and psychological challenges due to their level of cognitive ability, dependence on family members, and emotional vulnerability. The treatment that would be sufficient for adults might be negligent if administered to children. There are also few pediatric specialists and pediatric hospital beds to care for children. Since children need special attention during disasters, they are often identified as a group that should be prioritized during relief efforts. Yet, those involved in public health emergency planning often overlook the needs of pediatric patients.
As we have discussed, there are many groups whose dependencies make them vulnerable to harm during disasters. But should society allocate resources to protect these vulnerable groups during emergencies? Vulnerable groups are entitled to protection under existing legal and ethical frameworks. Successful disaster response for vulnerable groups depends on careful planning. Inadequate preparation for the needs of vulnerable groups could lead to catastrophic consequences, including large death tolls. The ones who survive could suffer permanent injuries and the inability to work, live independently and care for themselves. A failed emergency response could also humiliate the government and make the public lose faith in those responsible for its welfare.
Unless the needs of vulnerable groups are addressed during all three phases of emergency response operations, (pre-event planning and preparation, the event, and recovery), members of these vulnerable groups are likely to suffer harm in disasters. Their poor outcomes may be due to a lack of physical and emotional strength which others rely on during disasters. Response and recovery efforts will be enhanced only if decision-makers carefully prepare for emergencies when they have the time to weigh options and enact responsible policies. To get skills and in-depth knowledge on how to better prepare for emergency response during emergencies, enroll for our course in Food Security & Nutrition in Emergencies today for a 10% discount!