Disasters Don't Wait: We Must Make Babies a Priority in Emergencies

September's National Preparedness Month carried the theme Disasters Don't Wait. Make Your Plan Today. As we look back on a month that included fires, floods, and hurricanes, that message feels especially urgent.

I live in Portland, Oregon, on the traditional lands of the Multnomah, Clackamas, Tualatin, Wasco, Molalla, and Chinook bands, who were stewards of this land for generations.


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The beautiful mountains and volcanoes around us are reminders that our family may one day face a catastrophic earthquake. Our family has taken comprehensive steps to prepare for the possibility of an earthquake, but I can tell you emphatically – we were not prepared to live through nine days of breathing hazardous air imposed by the substantial wildfires taking place up and down the West Coast throughout September, as 5.8 million acres burned in California, Oregon, and Washington this year alone. We’re going to need to change our disaster kit to be better prepared for future fires that are now tragically predictable here.

The look, the feel, the impact of fires on that scale is almost impossible to describe. The skies were red, orange, or gray, depending on proximity to the areas – plural – that were burning all around us. We refreshed Air Quality Index apps compulsively to learn the AQI throughout each day. We tracked the progress of the fires and the patterns of evacuation. We fashioned homemade air filters from box fans and furnace filters, then watched them turn sooty while stores were sold out of replacements and everything outside became coated in ash and grit. All the while, we managed the edge of panic caused by the awareness that if a major metropolitan area needed to evacuate there would be literally nowhere to go.

And yet… as a household and community, we were far from the most impacted. Our house, neighborhood, and city were safe from flame, while so many others lost their homes and livelihoods. Even as I write, the fires are not yet all extinguished. I cannot imagine experiencing this with an infant or young child in my care. I’ve read many first-person accounts of escaping the fires, including tales from families with young children in tow.

Take a pause and consider right now – if you had 15 minutes to leave your home, perhaps forever: do you know what you would take? What if you have a day's notice? Consider that anything left behind may be gone forever. You'll have life and loved ones in arms, but the sense of place and the familiar may be altered for quite some time. Now consider this is happening in the context of a pandemic that we know is transmitted through droplets – where our breath and proximity may be dangerous rather than life-affirming.

Unfortunately, our shared context of global pandemic and climate crisis, requires that we not only imagine such complexities but prepare for them with deliberation. At the state and community levels, such plans also need to include equitable access to immediate help and long-term support.

Babies are born each and every day; therefore, our emergency response and preparedness efforts must account for the presence of infants and young children in disasters. The New Orleans Breastfeeding Center is leading the way with their Infant Ready program, including Emergency Feeding Kit for parents, and their educational materials for caregivers, emergency responders, and health professionals.

We are seven months into this pandemic. The babies born today were conceived in another time—in what feels almost like another world—before the pandemic, masking, and social distancing disrupted our world.

As a nation, we have a long way to go to ensure that families are held with kindness and care during emergencies. There is a desperate need for thoughtful, intentional support as we collectively work through a scale of loss that we all hoped to never have to face—and the breastfeeding field has risen to this challenge.

The USBC-affiliated COVID-19 Infant & Young Child Feeding Constellation is a collaborative group of 43 organizations, including government agencies and medical authorities, that have worked together to shape and respond to infant feeding policies and practices throughout the pandemic. Together we have had ongoing bidirectional learning and communication to center family and provider experiences and to explore the complex and multi-faceted issues that this pandemic has created in the context of infant feeding.

Individuals from these organizations, located all across the nation—in the midst of uprisings in their communities, raging wildfires, violent hurricanes, and a surging pandemic—showed up to do the high stakes and incredibly difficult work that was needed.

We've influenced, disseminated, and interpreted guidance for maternity care centers, published the Statement on Infant and Young Child Feeding (IYCF) in the Context of COVID-19 in the United States, and called for the infrastructure investments that are needed to meet the needs of breastfeeding families. As we collaboratively support successive iterations of public health guidance, I'm reminded of Maya Angelou's quote, "Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better," on a collective scale.

Through this work, we've learned that emergency and disaster relief work has three phases: response, resiliency, and preparedness. We are in the midst of emergency response efforts on many fronts, but the concept of resiliency as a planned stage of emergency and disaster relief work is one of the things that keeps on giving me hope. We will, eventually, sufficiently build the systems of pandemic response to a stage where we will begin, like many other parts of the world, to focus on rebuilding our resiliency.

The world as we're coming to know it requires us to be responsive, flexible, adaptable, and resilient in the face of ambiguity and even danger. We can build our capacity to recover by holding one another in care—and you can help your family and community get there.

National Preparedness Month urges everyone to take a week-by-week stepwise approach to prepare for the inevitable disasters that are now coming faster than ever: Week 1) Make A Plan; Week 2) Build A Kit; Week 3) Prepare; Week 4) Teach Youth About Preparedness.

Disasters don't wait. Taking steps today can make a world of difference for tomorrow. One of the steps you can take today is also one of the easiest—use the USBC easy action tool to urge policymakers to make babies a priority in emergencies!

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