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Coronavirus Pandemic Complicates Evacuations For Cyclone Amphan


Here we call them hurricanes. In South Asia, they call them cyclones. A massive one is slamming into India and Bangladesh this morning. Amphan has winds of more than a hundred miles an hour, and it is hitting during Ramadan, when Muslims are fasting, and during a pandemic, when people are trying to avoid each other. Lauren Frayer covers the subcontinent for NPR. She's on the line. Good morning, Lauren.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: So give us a sense of the geography. Where is the cyclone now, and where is it heading?

FRAYER: Well, it's been churning for days in the Bay of Bengal. And it's just made landfall on the borders of eastern India and Bangladesh. This is a low-lying area. Much of it is actually an enormous river delta. Several rivers come out of the Himalayas down into the Indian Ocean there. These are hot, steamy marshes dotted with villages extremely prone to flooding. I spoke this morning with Kirti Mishra. She works with Catholic Relief Services in her hometown of Bhubaneswar near India's east coast. And she says homes along that coast are mostly flimsy fishermen's huts, and they're just getting destroyed.

KIRTI MISHRA: These houses are mostly, like, made of bamboos or some wood. With the rains and everything, the wind, like, blows the roof away and the walls collapse.

FRAYER: The last storm as strong as this one killed 10,000 people on that coast. Now, this storm appears to have just made a slight westward turn toward one of India's biggest cities, Kolkata, with a population of 15 million people.

KING: Oh, dear. What are people doing, then? Are they evacuating?

FRAYER: Officials in both countries are going village to village on that coast, still thought to be the most vulnerable place, with megaphones urging people to evacuate. But some people are hesitant. You know, we're in the middle of a pandemic. For two months, people have been told to stay indoors because of the coronavirus. And now they're being told to leave. I spoke with Kaiser Rejve. He's with the aid agency CARE. He's in Bangladesh.

KAISER REJVE: You know, the last two months, a lockdown (unintelligible), poor people already hard hit. What about the small means of surviving they have in the home? They fear that it will be lost.

FRAYER: And Bangladesh actually wanted to evacuate 5 million people, but so far, only 2 million people - a little bit more than 2 million people have been willing to leave their homes.

KING: There will likely need to be a massive disaster response. What are the challenges going to be?

FRAYER: Well, health systems in both India and Bangladesh are already stretched to the limit with this pandemic. India Today had a record number of new coronavirus cases for a single 24-hour period. India and Bangladesh are both still under lockdown. But there's been a lot of pressure to open up. I mean, the poorest of the poor are literally starving to death on the sides of the roads. And on top of the coronavirus crisis, you've got people now trying to social distance inside storm shelters. Some of these shelters were actually quarantine centers for COVID-19 that have been converted into storm shelters. There are concerns about infection. And it's Ramadan. People are already - Bangladesh is a majority Muslim country. People aren't eating or drinking during daylight hours. There are worries that this storm surge could bust through levees and poison their water supply now.

KING: Very worrying. NPR's Lauren Frayer. Thanks for following this.

FRAYER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.

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