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As we explore the definition and needs of “vulnerable populations,” it’s important to first examine the concept of vulnerability and the factors that contribute to an individual’s (or community’s) vulnerability. From the disaster response perspective, vulnerability provides another lens into the needs of a particular group during a disaster, and how response efforts should be. Whether it be for search and rescue, or expediting life-saving medicines and medical services, identifying potential vulnerability can serve as a guide in finding and supporting those who need it most.

Defining “vulnerability” is critical because it is not a “one-sized fits all” approach and there are a range of measures that can indicate a vulnerable population. It can be tempting to use the classification of “vulnerable populations” as a blanket term to cover a range of groups, but that is neither informative nor useful. Without clarifying the term and the populations that would be vulnerable in a crisis, society risks missing those who may need support and/or assistance the most.

One of the challenges in working on disaster preparedness, especially at the community level, is making the case for continued investment and planning for an event that might happen. When one’s daily life is impeded by real challenges that complicate survival and well-being, it is difficult (sometimes nearly impossible) to invest in preparing for an event that might not happen. For example, if someone is faced with a choice between buying food to feed their family or purchasing extra emergency supplies for an event that’s not currently happening, they will choose food every time.

This is a double-edged sword for medically fragile and vulnerable populations, especially those who reside in lower income communities with fewer resources and greater constraints. The challenge to spend time and resources on preparedness is thwarted by daily challenges of maintaining health and ensuring that basic needs are being met. In reality, we cannot expect individuals who are struggling to feed themselves and their families to spend money on something that is not necessary in that moment. While prioritizing daily survival is a logical approach, the unfortunate reality is that these groups would be most quickly and severely impacted should a crisis occur.

Crises can often cause a gap in access to sustained medical care due to power outages, loss of potable water, closed medical facilities, and limited transportation from damaged infrastructure (due to damaged roads and no public transportation during a disaster). Such instances have a severe and far-reaching impact on vulnerable communities. This is when it becomes painfully clear how those who are vulnerable, such as those dependent on daily doses of prescription medications or routine medical interventions, can be at increased risk during a disaster.

Preparing for an event that might happen while struggling to combat serious daily obstacles can be a real challenge, and these groups should not have to face that alone. Thanks to the many patient-focused groups who train providers to support these patients, the preparedness gap for vulnerable populations is slowly narrowing. However, we have a long way to go to ensure all patients and people are protected. We know that this work cannot be done in isolation, and one size certainly does not fit all when it comes to disaster relief.

Defining the types of vulnerable populations that exist and differentiating their needs is critical as we experience an increase in natural disasters, disease outbreaks, and catastrophic events. With more people being affected more frequently, understanding and meeting these communities where they are and providing tools they can use is the only way we can expect communities to be resilient in the face of disaster.