by Sunita Mutha, MD, FACP
I arrived at Lawrence Cook Middle School, an emergency evacuation center in Santa Rosa several days after wildfires devastated communities across Northern California. The vastness of the devastation can be represented by numbers: 42 lives lost, 84,000 structures destroyed, nearly 200,000 acres burned, more than $1 billion lost and thousands of people displaced. But, the individual stories, both sad and heartwarming, were even more poignant for me:
- The man who evacuated with his granddaughter, but made sure to help his disabled neighbor escape safely.
- The elderly man who needed help using a bedside commode, whose family was doing everything to avoid a care facility.
- The undocumented immigrant desperately continuing to look for work.
It was eye-opening to see this visual manifestation of the economic divide that many of us talk about and talk around. The people seeking services at this evacuation center did not have a second home or nearby family who could host them. Many of them live on the margins, and some grapple with mental health issues, substance abuse and homelessness. Disasters highlight and exacerbate ongoing systemic inequality.
So what do we do as health leaders? Leaders take the long view and consider the big picture. This is especially important in the aftermath of disasters so we can plan for the next. We knew that the effects of global warming would eventually impact the American health care system, but we didn’t know how soon. Just this year we’ve seen the deadliest fire in California’s history, in addition to one of the most catastrophic hurricane seasons in US history. Scientists predict more common and more severe droughts, hurricanes and wildfires in the coming years. That’s why we must get prepared.
Emergency preparation means more than just safety drills—it could mean the difference between life or death. Health leaders need to plan for all scenarios. How do health care workers provide care when they themselves are devastated? What do we do when health professionals can’t get to the clinic without risking their own lives? How do we prepare for temperature increases and more prevalent disasters?
As health leaders, it is our responsibility to act now to plan for those scenarios, not later. Because at the end of the day, we’re as vulnerable as the most vulnerable among us.
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Sunita Mutha, MD, FACP, is the director of Healthforce Center at UCSF. For over a decade, she has been engaged in transformational leadership in healthcare with a special focus on emerging leaders and inter-professional training.