#2 The Disaster Cycle

Welcome back!

As mentioned in my previous post, this blog will be introducing a snippet of disaster theory, and placing it in the context of the current COVID-19 pandemic.

In this post, we will be talking about models – no, I do not mean the ones on Instagram. Models of disaster management.

Modelling Disasters:

What is a disaster management model?

A model is just a way of thinking about the processes involved in a disaster – one of the most accepted models is the disaster cycle (see figure 1).

There are many iterations of the disaster cycle, but most of them boil down to 4 key phases: mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. These phases can overlap and occur in any order.

Figure 1. The Disaster Cycle.

What is a disaster management model?

The following phases will be discussed in the context of a disaster that is feared by many of us – being stuck in Tesco’s alone after getting separated from your Mum.

  • Mitigation: understanding the hazard* and putting in place strategies to prevent or minimise its potential to develop into a disaster.

E.g. trying to keep Mum in sight at all times.

  • Preparedness: advance planning to improve capacity for the response phase.

E.g. making yourself aware of the customer service desk location, so that they can put out an announcement if needed.

  • Response: processes undertaken soon after a disaster event to reduce losses.  

E.g. working your way down the central isle, systematically searching the smaller aisles coming off it.

  • Recovery: the process of re-establishing a state the same or better as before the disaster.

E.g. relocating your mum (after having a Twix to calm down).

And the cycle continues: you arrange an emergency meeting point with your Mum in case this happens again i.e. a bit more mitigation.

So that’s great but why bother with a model at all – why not just get on with it?

Using models can help us to understand where we can intervene and make changes that could prevent or minimise the impacts of disaster.

Oftentimes, a lot of money and effort is poured into the response phase. Giving adequate consideration to the mitigation, preparation and recovery phases can help to build resilience to future hazards.

This idea is nothing new – it’s like the well-known axiom in medicine, ‘prevention is better than cure’. Taking measures to maintain a healthy blood pressure is much better than waiting until you have a heart attack, right?

Application to COVID-19:

And what’s all this modelling got to do with COVID-19?

An interesting question to ask is whether this pandemic could have been prevented.

This isn’t our first time around the block (or the disaster cycle) with coronaviruses. The SARS outbreak of 2003 and the MERS outbreak in 2012 were also coronaviruses initially found in bats.

Lessons from previous outbreaks have helped with the mitigation phase of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Systems were put in place to facilitate surveillance of new diseases, which allowed rapid identification of COVID-19.

A fancy new set of International Health Regulations (IHR) were also introduced in 2007 to help monitor national capacities to prevent and respond to public health emergencies.

So where’s it all gone wrong?


  • Failures in our mitigation phase are highlighted daily by the news reel – for example, inadequacies in supply chains for personal protective equipment, and insufficient strategies in place for dealing with surges in patients requiring ventilator support.
  • As naturally happens, coronaviruses slipped off the agenda soon after previous pandemics died down, and so did the funding for research. This has left us on the backfoot with developing medicines and vaccines for COVID-19.


  • A delay in the Chinese government informing the international community about COVID-19 is likely to have hindered global preparations for the pandemic.


  • Data from the IHR has been compiled in light of COVID-19 (Kandel, Chungong, Omaar, & Xing, 2020). It shows that only half of the 182 participating countries have the operational capacity to respond effectively to a pandemic. And the majority of these countries are high or middle income nations.

Next time around, what can we do better?

This isn’t our first pandemic, and with our increasingly mobile global population, it won’t be our last.

The hard stuff, like strengthening healthcare systems in less developed countries, and the expensive stuff, like funding research, is sure to drop off the agenda again soon.

A coordinated global effort to complete this disaster cycle is needed to minimise future biological disasters of this scale.

And in the meantime, we can all do our little bit during the response phase – like checking in on our elderly neighbours, donating to food banks, and washing our hands!

Thanks for making it to the end!

Next time: the gendered impacts of disaster.

*Please see previous post re difference between a hazard and a disaster.

An update on my situation:

Yesterday the UK health secretary announced that 5500 final year students will be joining the frontline to bolster the current NHS workforce; however, we are still awaiting the exact details of our role. Although it feels daunting to start work so much earlier than expected, I am excited at the prospect of being able to do my bit.


Elrah. (2020). Disaster Management Cycle. Retrieved from Humanitarian Innovation Fund: https://higuide.elrha.org/humanitarian-parameters/

Jacobsen, K. (2020). Will COVID-19 generate global preparedness? The Lancet. [Online]

Kandel, N., Chungong, S., Omaar, A., & Xing, J. (2020). Health security capacities in the context of COVID-19 outbreak: an analysis of International Health Regulations annual report data from 182 countries. The Lancet. [Online]

Mackenzie, D. (2020). We were warned – so why couldn’t we prevent the coronavirus outbreak? Retrieved from New Scientist: https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24532724-700-we-were-warned-so-why-couldnt-we-prevent-the-coronavirus-outbreak/

Nojavan, M., Salehi, E., & Omidvar, B. (2018). Conceptual change of disaster management models: A thematic analysis. Jamba, 10(1), 451.

Park, M., Thwaites, R., & Openshaw, P. (2020). COVID-19: Lessons from SARS and MERS. European Journal of Immunology, 308-11.


Published by Becca Anderson

Junior doctor with an interest in disaster management 💊👩🏻‍⚕️💉 ~ 🌋🌪🦠

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