How to Recover from a Pandemic: Lessons from Build Change’s Experience in International Disaster Response

A home built by Build Change in Banda Aceh, Indonesia as a part of the recovery from the Boxing Day tsunami.  

Special Note: Echoing Green interviewed Dr. Elizabeth Hausler in January 2005 to talk about the impact of the Boxing Day (December 26th, 2004) tsunami on communities surrounding the Indian Ocean. Earlier this year, that disaster commemorated its 15th Anniversary, but the lessons learned in the aftermath of that tragedy are surprisingly timely to the global Coronavirus pandemic.  We’re resharing a section of Elizabeth’s interview because it’s a step-by-step prediction of what the global recovery from Coronavirus could look like.  

Introduction from Dr. Elizabeth Hausler:  What a unique moment we’re in. This is perhaps the first time (in the social-media era, at least) that the world has suffered a GLOBAL disaster of this scale at the same time.  It’s important to stop and recognize that many people have never suffered a disaster like this before. The need to better understand resiliency—the type of resiliency it typically takes a disaster to learn—is paramount.  In my role at Build Change, I’ve seen firsthand how communities have come back from devastating seismic and wind events and there are so many parallels to what we’re seeing now with COVID-19. Much like an earthquake or windstorm, the recovery from COVID-19 will require an economic effort to get people back to work, a strategic re-thinking of better health, regulatory, and business policy, and an increased reliance on technology of all kinds.  Also like the recovery from an earthquake or windstorm, housing as a sector will also have to be addressed.  People who can’t quarantine due to inadequate shelter are not only at high risk of becoming sick, they are also likely to be at extreme risk of falling victim to a future disaster.  These vectors between public health and housing require immediate economic and social action if we are to prevent disasters (of all kinds) from reoccurring.     


Echoing Green:  From your perspective as a social change innovator, what factors are critical in the reconstruction process, both in the short and long term? 

EH:  [In the initial relief phase], authorities and various organizations are in the process of meeting people’s critical needs with clean water, food, temporary shelter and sanitation.  Once this is accomplished, a transition occurs between the relief phase and the reconstruction phase. This new phase starts with short term reconstruction consisting of debris removal and construction of critical infrastructure, which presents a real opportunity to start providing jobs for people who are ready to go back to work.

The next step in the reconstruction process is not housing reconstruction; generally people are resilient, resourceful and can cope with temporary shelter, or make something for themselves that may not be so comfortable, but will do for a while.  What is really needed at that point is the restoration of economic infrastructure.  Beyond a job, people need to regain their livelihoods.  They need to be able to go back to work and start earning money again, and as we’ve heard in the media, a lot of these villages are highly dependent on fishing.  People need boats, marketplaces for selling fish and roads to transport their goods and services.  The tourist infrastructure needs to be restored and tourists need to be encouraged to come back into the region so that those people who depend on the service industry for their livelihoods can get back to work.

At the same time the economic infrastructure is being repaired, some kind of social infrastructure needs to be restored.  This is especially crucial for kids.  They need to get back to a normal way of life.  Their schools need reopened.  Also, adults and children alike may need psychological services.

At the very end is when we get to the housing reconstruction program.  It is important to get people into secure houses that are resilient to future disasters and that they are comfortable living in.

I cannot emphasize enough how significant it is to get to the economic rehabilitation as soon as possible.  There was a survey that was taken of people affected by the 2001 earthquake near Bhuj, India, and the majority of the respondents said they would have preferred more help in restoring their livelihoods, instead of assistance in building new houses.  Once people get back on their feet economically, they can contribute more to the housing reconstruction process themselves.

One of the critical challenges in this reconstruction process is going to be managing that transition from relief into development.  The agencies are usually different and their approaches virtually opposite.  The relief stage is this intense, “get in get out” drive to provide goods and service as quickly and efficiently as possible, like an adrenaline rush.  But the development stage is actually an exercise in restraint, patience and diligence in getting things right and in getting the right business models for the economic recovery to occur; in getting the materials and design for the houses right so that people will adapt the changes in construction practice permanently and will continue to build safe houses in the future, long after the reconstruction program is over.

Many lessons from past earthquakes and other disasters can be applied in this reconstruction.  There is no need to rush a reconstruction process; it is better to take the people’s needs into consideration and involve them in the process.  For example, there have been situations where an organization has gone in with a relief mentality and build a huge number of identical houses extremely quickly, without consideration whether the doors and windows should face the street or a courtyard; whether people wanted the toilet inside or outside; whether the people wanted a cooking area inside or outside; if the materials and architecture were appropriate for the local climate; if a permanent water source was available.  As a result, people rejected those houses; money and time were wasted, and people went back to living in their houses that were damaged and vulnerable to future earthquakes.

In other situations, organizations have built houses using materials, contractors and masons from outside the city or village.  They may not have trained or employed local masons and carpenters in the construction process.  Or they may have used materials that are not available locally.  Or they may have designed and built a structure that is simply too expensive to build without financial assistance or a subsidy on the materials.  The end result is that the local population does not have the skills and knowledge to build an earthquake-resistant house with locally available and affordable materials.  And an ideal opportunity to change the construction practice permanently has been missed.


Elizabeth Hausler, Ph.D. was a 2004 Echoing Green Fellow, and is the Founder and CEO of Build Change, an award-winning non-profit social enterprise, systems change catalyst, and the global expert on affordable, disaster-resilient housing in emerging nations.