“Twin emergencies”, the amalgamation of a global pandemic with another emergency, whether prompted by a natural disaster or a conflict, was, until recently, an inconceivable scenario. Yet this is the reality currently being faced by a number of governments around the world in light of the COVID-19 crisis. Over the last few weeks, the world has witnessed a number of devastating natural disasters, from the earthquake which struck the city of Zagreb in Croatia, Tropical Cyclone Harold which caused extensive damage in the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, and Tonga, to the fire which severely affected the Milot Church in Haiti. Conflicts, on the other hand, continue in a number of countries – Iraq, Libya, and Syria to name a few – leaving many people to live in permanent uncertainty and fear. Responding and coping measures are limited during a pandemic.
Alongside the severe impact on society, the culture sector has suffered enormous damage and loss. For example, in the city of Zagreb, a number of museums suffered damage to their buildings and collections following the earthquake. In the current context, however, standard emergency response procedures are being challenged. The urgent stabilization of the affected buildings and the evacuation of the collections to a safe zone, which would be implemented under normal circumstances, are curtailed by the need to ensure social distancing. On-site expert assistance cannot take place, due to travel restrictions. At the national level, government resources (both technical and financial) are being redirected towards responding to the sanitary crisis, which can, for example, leave already vulnerable cultural heritage assets at risk of further damage or collapse.
After the first assessments of the damage from the earthquake in Zagreb, the Minister of Culture of Croatia, Ms Nina Obuljen Krožinek, estimated that the reconstruction and recovery would take years.
“The scale of the impact of the earthquake on cultural monuments and institutions in Zagreb is still being estimated, but it is already quite clear that this is a huge damage, much greater than it seemed at first glance”, commented Minister Obuljen Koržinek.
Despite such challenges, UNESCO is continuing to provide assistance to countries affected by conflicts and disasters.
Over the past weeks, UNESCO supported analysis via satellite imagery of cultural heritage sites in Vanuatu and Fiji, in cooperation with its partner UNOSAT-UNITAR. It has also provided remote assistance to museums managers in Croatia, through a virtual workshop co-organized with ICCROM, INTERCOM, and ICOM Croatia. In Haiti, with the support of the start-up ICONEM, we have processed raw images and developed 3D modeling of the church of Milot, part of the World Heritage property "National History Park – Citadel, Sans Souci, Ramiers. Over 350 images and a full 3-D model have been put at the disposal of the Haitian government.
This strategic work has been supported through the Heritage Emergency Fund established by UNESCO to support countries with emergency preparedness and response activities. It is one of the main tools deployed by UNESCO to deal with crises and has benefitted over 55 countries. UNESCO also manages a Roster for Culture in Emergencies, making experts in the different dimensions of culture available to help in various emergency situations worldwide.
“Emergencies, especially when cumulating as during this health and economic crisis, affect culture as a whole: tangible heritage, intangible heritage and the diversity of cultural expressions alike. As a result, we need a cross-cutting tool to ensure a meaningful and effective response. The Heritage Emergency Fund offers the necessary transversal dimension and flexibility to deal with these complex scenarios” said UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Culture, Ernesto Ottone R.
As countries grapple with the current crisis and emerge into the post-COVID world, UNESCO will continue supporting those affected by conflicts and disasters, notably through remote assistance to national and local authorities, documentation, and planning for recovery, as well as the expertise of the Roster for Culture in Emergencies.
 The Heritage Emergency Fund is supported by the Qatar Fund for Development, the Kingdom of Norway, the Government of Canada, ANA Holdings INC., the Principality of Monaco, the Kingdom of the Netherlands, the Republic of Estonia, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, the Slovak Republic, the Principality of Andorra and the Republic of Serbia.