Complex environmental, economic, and social conditions in the places we live provide strong cues to our longevity, livelihood, and well-being. Although often distinct and evolving relatively independently, health disparity, social vulnerability and environmental justice research and practice intertwine and inform one another. Together, they increasingly provide evidence of how social processes intensify disasters almost predictably giving rise to inequitable disruptions and consequences. The domino and cumulative effects of cascading disasters invariably reveal inequities through differential impacts and recovery opportunities across communities and subgroups of people. Not only do cascading disasters reveal and produce inequitable effects, the cascade itself can emerge out of compounded nested social structures. Drawing on, and integrating, theory and practice from social vulnerability, health inequity, and environmental justice, this paper presents a comprehensive conceptual model of cascading disasters that offers a people-centric lens. The CHASMS conceptual model ( C ascading H azards to dis A sters that are S ocially constructed e M erging out of S ocial Vulnerability) interrogates the tension between local communities and the larger structural forces that produce social inequities at multiple levels, capturing how those inequities lead to cascading disasters. We apply the model to COVID-19 as an illustration of how underlying inequities give rise to foreseeable inequitable outcomes, emphasizing the U.S. experience. We offer Kenya and Puerto Rico as examples of cumulative effects and possible cascades when responding to other events in the shadow of COVID-19.
COVID-19 has vividly exposed the dynamic, complex, and intense relevance of placing social conditions and structures at the forefront of cascading disaster inquiry and practice. The intensity of social disruption and the continuation of the pandemic will, no doubt, perpetuate and magnify chasms of injustice.