While most people would agree that resilience - commonly understood as the ability to adapt and bounce back from adversity - is a good thing, the varied responses to COVID-19 have demonstrated that the concept is multi-layered and highly complex.
In many countries, policymakers are calling for increased emphasis on making systems and societies resilient against shocks, while some have already been incorporating resilience thinking into their strategies - either as a result of previous shocks or having understood the systemic challenges they face in being prepared for major shocks, usually following an audit.
Resilience is not just about preparedness for pandemics. It takes many forms and is a bulwark against a wide range of threats. For example, government incompetence in responding to Cyclone Bhola – which killed more than half a million people in 1970 – actively contributed to the subsequent secession of Bangladesh from Pakistan.
Recently steps were taken to improve resilience in the region, notably the construction of thousands of shelters and better early-warning systems. And when Cyclone Amphan hit – the first super cyclone in the Bay of Bengal for 20 years – just 26 people died in Bangladesh. This is how learning from crises creates resilience.
Cyclones in the Bay of Bengal are a predictable occurrence. Thinking through a response to one crisis can also create better preparedness when a disaster strikes. In 2016, the major UK retailer Tesco held a ‘doomsday’ exercise should its head office be shut down. As a result of thinking through challenges and acting upon the implications, it has been well-placed to deal with the restrictions imposed during the current pandemic.
But anticipation is nothing without actual preparation. If crisis response planning is one side of a coin, the other side is implementation. Also in 2016, the UK government held Operation Cygnus, envisaging how to plan for an influenza pandemic. The results revealed woeful under-preparedness - such as a major shortage of PPE (personal protective equipment) for medical staff in the event of a pandemic - and the findings deemed too revealing to publish.
However if the findings are not then acted upon – as was the case with Operation Cygnus - the exercise becomes worse than pointless because people naturally assume lessons have been learned and preparations made.
On one level, resilience involves awareness and assessment of risk, and knowledge of how to act if the risk became reality, along with the ability to do so. On another level, it involves adaptation while simultaneously transforming systems and societies into a ‘new normal’.
Nature shows us the way on this. Coral reefs can adapt to climate change because they can recover after bleaching events by recruiting new corals, along being able to adapt to rises of water temperature. Fragile flowers with bilateral symmetry such as daisies can not only recover from accidents, but often thrive by ‘reorienting their blossoms back to the best pollinating position’.
At times, resilience and evolution come hand-in-hand. As with coral reefs or fragile flowers, humanity needs to learn and evolve quickly and determinedly to a new, resilient state. But one significant challenge is how to make resilience a priority for politicians.
Given that the electoral cycle in democracies is usually 3-5 years, it is hard to persuade politicians to invest in planning for events which may not happen on their watch, especially in societies with huge demands for spending on things that need fixing today.
A concerning aspect of the coronavirus crisis so far is that some of the best-prepared countries did not actually fare well when the real-life event struck. Political leadership and the use - or not - of pre-established emergency plans and structures have made a real difference in handling the pandemic. And around the world, government neglect, competing priorities, day-to-day crisis management, lack of appropriate funding, and failure of imagination are also to blame.
This combination of leadership and foresight is imperative for resilience to climate change. Countries, regions and cities all need to improve preparedness against acute climate-related shocks, while at the same time dealing with deeper chronic impacts such as sea level rises and increased population migration.
More importantly, climate resilient approaches should integrate both mitigation actions - for example, reducing emissions - and adaptation activities. Where possible, effective climate proofing against future shocks should deliver both mitigation and adaptation, while also having a strong interdependent relationship with multiple levels of resilience preparedness in society and economic systems.
Back in 1933, Kotaku Wamura witnessed devastation from a tsunami on his home town of Fudai, north of Tokyo. When he later became town mayor, he constructed a 51-foot high floodgate and seawall to wide scepticism and ridicule in what was portrayed as a costly vanity project. Finished in 1984, it was not needed until a major tsunami hit Japan in 2011. Many towns were devastated with thousands of lives lost along the coastline. But Fudai stood unscathed, its only casualty a fisherman who decided to check on his boat.
Mayor Wamura’s foresight and leadership - and his ability to withstand ridicule - are much-needed characteristics in today’s politics. Spreading the burden of costs and ensuring benefits are reaped equitably are hugely challenging. And increasingly, public support is a necessary pre-condition for success and so the public must be engaged with respect and honesty.
A better understanding of the concept of resilience and helping it become a known public good rather than something seen as an unnecessary cost or burden is vital. Politicians should be rewarded for showing forward-thinking and building preparedness for catastrophes. Keeping alive memories of the woeful preparedness for COVID-19 would be a good place to begin.