Over 3.5 million dead and counting. Long-term health problems, livelihoods destroyed and a long way yet to go. This is the age of COVID-19. Was it simply a natural disaster, part of living in a fast-paced, globalised world? Or can we identify preventable mistakes?
The key is the term “natural disaster”: it’s a misnomer. Disasters occur due to societal failures, not nature. Those with power and resources force others into vulnerable locations, difficult living conditions and inadequate livelihoods, with few choices to change their situations. This point has been explained and analysed for decades.
We knew everything we needed to know to reduce the chances of a deadly new microbe emerging and – once it did appear – to avoid it engulfing the world. But international organisations, governments and people with choices did not apply this knowledge.
Three sets of societal failures have so far been observed during the pandemic:
People encroaching on ecosystems and wildlife, followed by poor hygiene when handling captured animals, likely allowed the virus to jump species, although other possibilities, such as a lab leak – another preventable occurrence – are being explored.
Inadequate local and international monitoring and response once the new disease was observed and reported by health officials let it spread.
Vocal minorities with disinformation threw doubt on scientific, evidence-based action around lockdown measures, vaccine uptake and face coverings.
Similar societal failures were evident in previous viral outbreaks such as HIV, SARS, Ebola and swine flu. So why did we fail to learn from the past?
Here is a six-point plan – three principles and three practices – that will boost pandemic recovery and lead to better disaster-related decision making in the future.
Principles for resilience
Resilience is about always improving. Standard ideas of “bouncing back” and “returning to normal” are counterproductive because they re-establish the same lack of resilience that caused the pandemic through those disaster-creating societal failures.
One example of a better recovery would be to increase support for and the implementation of international disease surveillance to better enable warning and response systems for new pathogens. Mechanisms exist already to operate these systems, namely the International Health Regulations. But when they are not obeyed or when some jurisdictions are not fully involved, then there is a failure in resilience.
Behaviour and values
Real recovery incorporates resilience as a continual and inclusive societal process, not an end state. Resilience means striving to improve our behaviour and values by involving the huge range of people who form the links in a disaster’s chain. These people include hunters and farmers as well as world political, business and non-profit leaders.
Meanwhile, polarised values can dismiss evidence which clearly supports, for example, the emergence of long COVID and the effectiveness of vaccines. Resilience includes seeking balanced, evidence-based interaction in which knowledge evolves to inform values and behaviours. A key example is an open scientific process of investigation.
Power and resources
Opportunities always exist for preventing disasters, including pandemics. Choices to take those opportunities rest mainly with those amassing power and resources – frequently government leaders (elected or otherwise), corporate heads and religious figures. The majority of the population does not have this power.
So recovery should involve pushing for power structures and on-the-ground actions which support disaster prevention and risk reduction. Examples include removing houses from floodplains in Toronto, providing livelihood opportunities in Bangladesh to reduce people’s vulnerability, reducing earthquake risks in Seattle, creating local teams for disaster prevention and response, and using volcanoes to generate local livelihood options.
As with most catastrophes, the pandemic often hit hardest those who are typically marginalised already, such as people with disabilities, poorer people, and ethnic minorities. Resilience means not leaving people behind.
Practices for prevention
Here are three steps for preventing disasters which implement the three resilience principles.
Involve everyone in preventing disasters
When people do not have enough food or water each day or when people fear harassment or other crimes at work, then those concerns might understandably be prioritised. Asking people what they need for resilience and pre-disaster preparation means filling in the gaps they identify. It might be money, time, knowledge, technical ability or behaviour change.
Make prevention practical
Day-to-day COVID-19 prevention, while awaiting fully vaccinated populations, means “space, hands, face” (which is more effective than the UK government’s order): stay physically distant from others, wash hands and cover mouths and noses in crowds and indoor collective places. Everyone must still be involved.
Physical distancing is difficult for people who must commute via public transportation or who can afford only crowded homes. Washing hands presupposes the availability of clean water and soap. Face coverings cost. To reduce disease transmission during vaccination and societal recovery, people deserve “space, hands, face” options – which could be as straightforward as supporting work-from-home and distributing soap, clean water and face coverings.
Prevention is better than cure
The World Health Organization (WHO), for all its faults, typically has an annual budget in the billions of pounds compared to the pandemic’s cost of more than four orders of magnitude greater. Investing billions per year for cooperation in pandemic prevention (with or without the WHO) generates immense paybacks even if averting only one pandemic per millennium.
Ultimately, post-pandemic recovery through resilience means ongoing efforts to forestall pandemics and other disasters by instilling an ethos of responsibility. This responsibility admits that societal choices cause “natural” disasters while proffering alternatives for helping us all. Otherwise, we guarantee another devastating, global, decidedly unnatural disaster – along with many smaller ones.
This article is part of a series on recovering from the pandemic in a way that makes societies more resilient and able to deal with future challenges. It is supported by PreventionWeb, a platform from the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction
Ilan Kelman receives funding from research councils in the UK and Norway, as well as from the Wellcome Trust and internal UCL funding. He is also Professor II at the University of Agder in Norway and co-directs the non-profit organisation Risk RED (Risk Reduction Education for Disasters).