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Any administration would be hard-pressed to cope with Cyclone Idai. For central Mozambique, southern Malawi and eastern Zimbabwe, the catastrophe is piled onto already often poorly served communities and underperforming governments. Even after the most severe storm hit on 14-15 March, news outlets and the donor community took time to appreciate the scale of the disaster – as mosque killings, Brexit and Donald Trump jostled for airtime that might have helped generate more immediate support.

Fortunately for some of those trapped by flooding, immediate support came from newer global players, such as South Africa’s emergency response teams and India, whose navy was exercising in Mauritius. Even so, as of 20 March, only five helicopters were undertaking rescue and surveys, including one from the South African Air Force, another from India and three operated by NGOs. These saved lives, but could only have a mitigating impact on a disaster that has created a new inland sea and smashed already inadequate social and economic infrastructure. Aid professionals expect the situation to worsen, predicting a surge in malaria, cholera and other water-borne diseases. Zimbabweans had already been experiencing severe food insecurity: some 5.3m people have been targeted for food aid following drought in the country. Now maize and other crops have been washed away.

Many drew the conclusion that Cyclone Idai was intensified by climate change. Underlining Africa’s vulnerability, rapid population growth and movements towards the coast also contributed. A tropical depression formed in the Mozambique Channel on 4 March, which caused major flooding on 6-7 March in Mozambique’s Tete and Zambezia provinces, and in Malawi, where at least 45 people died. Mozambique’s national weather service on 6 March issued a ‘red alert’ and a cyclone named Idai was declared three days later.

Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi reported his shock at seeing floating corpses as his helicopter flew over the region on 16 March. This government has reacted, but resources are thin to cope with displaced (and even disappeared) communities, and destruction to infrastructure, including power lines, water supplies and health centres serving some 2.5m people in the cyclone’s path. With an estimated 500,000 population, Beira is a strategic port linking to a southern African hinterland.

Huge amounts of money will be needed to support displaced people and start reconstruction. With President Emmerson Mnangagwa maintaining an orthodox, International Monetary Fund-friendly economic policy, Harare had been gearing up for an early April conference in Washington to tackle Zimbabwe’s arrears problem and raise a $2.3bn bridging loan, but finance minister Mthuli Ncube is also now looking for emergency assistance.

There will be concerns that aid and reconstruction funds are used properly in three countries that continue to concern governance campaigners. Nyusi’s administration is committed to a clean-up following the $2bn hidden loans scandal – whose more recent twists have seen the arrest of ex-president Armando Guebuza’s eldest son Ndambi Guebuza – as are Mnangagwa and Malawi’s Peter Mutharika. But all three administrations face claims of continued high-level graft and other abuses.

Cyclone Idai is an immediate disaster whose short-term impacts affect millions of vulnerable people. Its ill winds clearly have longer-term economic consequences, once again calling into question the efficacy of contemporary solutions for solving huge structural problems in poorer economies – and the fitness of national and international governance and policy for pulling low-income populations out of poverty. That is before lessons in increased climate volatility are properly digested into global policy responses from Idai and other natural disasters. The myriad questions Idai poses highlight the extent to which the global political and economic climates are changing.