COVID-19 could spur resilience to climate change and other future threats: report

Disaster experts say this pandemic is an opportunity to build stronger communities and institutions.

Once the COVID-19 pandemic is over, what will societies and organizations look like? Will there be a return to the status quo? Will they find ways to survive and possibly even thrive? Or will radical change come about based on what was learned during the pandemic?

Three experts in disaster management and resiliency came together to explore these questions in a recently-released report from Royal Roads University. According to Jean Slick, Robin Cox and Thomas Homer-Dixon, the pandemic created a space for change, as the report calls it, a “tipping event.” 

“At the heart of resilience really are some things like being aware and being able to adapt to change,” says Cox. “Whether it’s personal resilience, community-level resilience or organizational resilience: How easily can you anticipate challenges, how easily can you adapt and how flexible are the solutions that you generate?”

The innovations forced by the pandemic could help build communities that are better equipped to handle future disasters, including disruptions related to climate change, according to the report. The opportunity exists, but it’s not inevitable. It will be up to individuals, groups and communities to transform the lessons of the pandemic into a healthier future.

The report speaks specifically to how Royal Roads University can learn from the pandemic. But the lessons are applicable broadly to communities and institutions, the authors say.

The Discourse talked to two of the three experts about the report, resiliency and what restructuring for the future could look like.

What we know now

Because of the novelty of the COVID-19 virus, the report acknowledges that people are learning about it in real-time. It says the impacts of the pandemic will continue to unfold over the next two years. This means any plans have to adapt in order to keep up with new information.

According to the report, we know COVID-19 infections could be asymptomatic, meaning people may not know they have it. We also know the number of contacts people have can contribute to the spread of the virus and that specific people are more vulnerable because of health conditions and social vulnerabilities.

The report says “the current outbreak will likely last a minimum of 18 to 24 months, or until 60 to 80 per cent of the population is infected or immunized.” The pandemic may also become endemic and stay with us forever or return on a seasonal basis. Other novel viruses are also predicted to emerge in the coming years.

Both Cox and Slick note COVID-19 should not be compared to the flu virus or previous outbreaks like the Spanish flu because times have changed, society has changed and globalization makes transmission of the disease possible in different ways.

The researchers say recognizing differences in the viruses and the context of our world is needed to make accurate recommendations about the future.

Customers line up in painted circles, six feet apart, outside Thrifty Foods Mill Bay on April 20, 2020. (Photo by Jacqueline Ronson)

A tipping event

So what recommendations, and what good, can come out a pandemic filled with uncertainty? 

“I think these large events often intersect and prompt change,” Cox says. 

She says some of the changes are already being recognized. For example, distilleries started making sanitizer, demonstrating that they can pivot quickly if needed. Changes that we assumed would be temporary might become more permanent.  We might not even notice until 10 years from now, Cox says, “when we look back and say ‘yeah, that never changed.’”

The report says the pandemic has been a “tipping event,” causing “a fundamental and irreversible system shift in Canadian society and human civilization more generally.”

Slick says this pandemic has not only created a tipping event, but also a “focusing event.” She says it helps ideas that were around before the pandemic come to life. It’s all about leveraging this focusing event, Slick says, so that the pandemic becomes a reason for making big changes.

Slick points to a change in work culture, with many people working from home now. She says companies may continue to keep employees working from home for reasons like health issues, travel costs and other costs. She says some other adaptations have already begun such as supportive housing and harm reduction practices for people who are unhoused.

Read about how the COVID-19 pandemic has pulled back the curtain on food insecurity on Vancouver Island.

“Whether it’s food security, a catastrophic earthquake or climate change, we need to be conscious of how the changes we’re making can support us in all of these other threats and not just in response to the pandemic itself,” Slick says. “We want to make enduring changes that can address other threats. It’s not about inventing something new, it’s about taking what we know.”

Cox says that when any disaster begins to prompt change, momentum for further change is already created. It gives people the chance to make decisions and move forward and just maybe make deeper shifts that contribute to long-term resilience.

Nurse Tim Croswell poses at the Cowichan District Hospital with bottles of donated hand sanitizer produced by Stillhead Distillery in March, 2020. (Photo by Isabel Rimmer)

OK, but how do you do it? 

Using the lessons of COVID-19 to build a brighter future is easy to say, harder to do. 

What we need to avoid doing, as institutions and as a society, is push for a return to normal, the authors say. That means abandoning all the ways people have adapted and innovated during the pandemic, as quickly as possible. 

“The status quo is something that we’re suggesting as problematic,” Slick says. “There are factors that led to the pandemic being what it is and these can be addressed through changes.”

The authors outline two alternative scenarios, which they call “survive and thrive” and “radical revisioning.”

To survive and thrive, we must consider the adaptations we’ve made and think about how they fit into a longer-term plan, according to the report. How can school or work environments be made more flexible, so they can respond more easily to a future disruption? What future disasters can we envision, and what COVID-19 protocols might be useful in planning for those?

A radical revisioning means not just keeping the lessons of the pandemic in our back pockets to employ in some future emergency. It goes further, calling for a rebuilding of institutions so they are fundamentally different from how they were. And, the new order must be built with an eye towards limiting vulnerabilities and pre-empting future disasters.

These two scenarios are not mutually exclusive, the authors suggest. “It is possible that this scenario could be chosen for some, but not all aspects of our operations,” they write about the possibility of radical revisioning for Royal Roads University. 

The point is not to prescribe a future that looks one way or another, the report suggests. The point is to make sure the many lessons, innovations and adaptations of this time are not forgotten when the pandemic is a thing of the past. [end]

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