This article is part of the series — The Future of the Pandemic in 2021 and Beyond.
Seismic events such as the COVID-19 pandemic can trigger unexpected outcomes. The Black Death contributed (in the UK) to the ending of the feudal system, as the power relationship between (the surviving) serfs and their masters tilted, marginally, in the favour of the former. More recently, the 9/11 attacks on the US Twin Towers certainly triggered massive geopolitical change. The impacts of the wars in Afghanistan and subsequently the Middle East are still playing out. In turn, those wars contributed to the rise of Donald Trump: The desire to bring troops home, and the consequent shift towards US isolationism, helped facilitate an increasingly assertive China.
Few would have predicted the chain of events which stemmed from 9/11. At the time, one of the more confident claims about its impact was that air travel would be reduced, following the hijackings. This stood true for around six months, before air travel resumed its pre 9/11 upward trajectory, which continued until the pandemic struck. While in part the return to “normal” can be attributed to enhanced airport security, it also reflects the ability of memories to quickly fade once the immediate aftermath of the shock is over.
It seems fair to argue that the pandemic will leave a major legacy, not least because of the economic chaos likely to come in its wake. But it seems equally plausible to predict that the same desire to return to normal will also be apparent. One of the challenges will be to harness positive legacies of the pandemic, and, perhaps, the most positive legacy would be to shift from a ‘just-in-time’ model to one of ‘just in case.’
While in part the return to “normal” can be attributed to enhanced airport security, it also reflects the ability of memories to quickly fade once the immediate aftermath of the shock is over.
The US National Intelligence Council
(NIC) in 2017 suggested a number of scenarios for the future. The most prescient, as of now, was entitled “islands.” It posited a range of events that would lead to “a more defensive, segmented world as anxious states sought to metaphorically and physically ‘wall’ themselves off from external challenges, becoming ‘islands’ in a sea of volatility. International cooperation on global issues, such as terrorism, failing states, migration, and climate change eroded, forcing more isolated countries to fend for themselves.” One of the assumptions that led the NIC to this potential world was “the global pandemic of 2023 dramatically reduced global travel in an effort to contain the spread of the disease, contributing to the slowing of global trade and decreased productivity.”
Aside from being three years out, the point stands that a pandemic was not a black swan event. It was widely predicted. Can the pandemic become a means to prepare us to deal more effectively with a number of other seismic shifts which are either already underway or imminently forthcoming? These include the impacts of digitisation and questions regarding the future of work as well as emerging risks relating to issues such as cybersecurity. On top of this will come the impact of climate change, with more intense weather patterns already visible to some. Even worse, similar trends may trigger simultaneous disasters, whether extreme weather events or, as seen earlier this year, plagues of locusts in North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia coinciding with the pandemic and, for South Asia, a cyclone.
The more local the devolution of power, the better (with obvious exceptions).
How can we build societal resilience to this range of threats? While the definitive answer to the question of which countries performed best in tackling COVID-19 may have to wait until the pandemic has passed, Bloomberg compiled a ranking — Coronavirus Pandemic: Ranking The Best, Worst Places to Be based on various matrices in late-November, placing New Zealand as the top performer followed by Japan and Taiwan. Some authoritarian countries (notably China at eighth) performed well, but so did many democracies. One similarity of many of those countries higher up the list is that they are small, or have effective federal systems of government. The more local the devolution of power, the better (with obvious exceptions). Another observation would be that those countries with recent experience of pandemics (notably countries in East Asia) performed well. This reflects the vulnerability paradox, whereby, those populations most used to disaster become better at coping with them.
Building resilience can be expensive, but generally fits with the general rule in disaster risk reduction that every $ spent saves $7 (give or take). In 2016, British retailer Tesco held a “doomsday” exercise to imagine a scenario in which its head office would have to shut down. The scenario led to a blueprint on how staff could work from home in the event of a disaster. Consequently, as well as being familiar with Zoom for longer than the rest of us, Tesco staff were immediately able to carry on working effectively through the pandemic. Such foresight is clearly the exception rather than the rule.
Replicating this at a societal level — given the range of threats — is clearly complex, and potentially expensive. And yet, what is notable about Bloomberg’s ranking is that those countries which generally head rankings of “happy” populations, generally performed well. Happy societies may well be resilient societies, and perhaps their pre-existing resilience contributes to their happiness. Other countries should perhaps take note.
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