COVID-19 Teaches Resilience and the ‘Vulnerability Paradox’

Humility from decision-makers, building trust in leaders and institutions, and learning from international experience are critical if countries are to better prepare for the next global crisis.

Expert comment Published 7 August 2020 Updated 10 August 2020 3 minute READ

Dr Gareth Price

Former Senior Research Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme

An information poster on preventing the spread of COVID-19 in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo by MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP via Getty Images.

An information poster on preventing the spread of COVID-19 in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo by MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP via Getty Images.

While we must wait for the final reckoning of most successful national coronavirus responses, it does still appear those countries with memories of MERS and SARS - such as Singapore, Taiwan, Hong-Kong, and South Korea – led the way in being best prepared for COVID-19, with strong contract tracing and isolation measures.

Experience of previous outbreaks informed the containment strategies adopted by countries in East Asia in response to COVID-19. Vietnam reported its first case of COVID-19 in January but, over the following four months with rapid targeted testing, contact tracing and successful containment, only around 300 additional cases with no deaths were confirmed.

These countries learned to be flexible fast when new transmissions occurred, establishing quick lockdown measures targeted at key groups such as Singapore’s schools or South Korea’s night clubs and religious centres. In stark contrast, most European countries were overwhelmed by the pandemic despite enjoying world-class health systems, predictive models, scientific expertise, wealth, and resources.

Asia may have suffered first from coronavirus, but there is no ‘first mover advantage’ in dealing with a pandemic. The more resilient a society, the better placed it is to cope with a variety of risks and challenges. But to become resilient, a society needs to have faced setbacks and learned from them. And to remain resilient, it needs to stay aware of its own vulnerabilities and avoid complacency.

Prior experience of crises and disturbances, coupled with a ‘trial and error’ process of learning to deal with them, makes a society more resilient, whereas high levels of economic welfare and relative lack of recent crises leave some societies less prepared to face shocks. This is known as the ‘vulnerability paradox’.

Within Europe, it has actually been the Greek handling of COVID-19 that so far appears more successful than others. Greece is a country which has suffered a decade of austerity leading to a weakened healthcare system. And with one of Europe’s oldest populations, the Greek government was keenly aware of its own vulnerabilities. This prompted an early lockdown and a rapid increase in intensive care beds.

Although better state capacity and health system capability are clearly positives for mitigating disasters, citizens do tend to be less familiar with risk preparedness. This lack of experience can then breed complacency which threatens societies where risks are often complex, numerous, transboundary and inter-related.

Conversely, the absence of systemic resilience at a national level often puts the onus on family units or local communities – creating resilience as a necessary response to weak government capacity. There is little choice but to learn to look after yourself and your community.

However, although the vulnerability paradox helps explain why prior experience makes a system more resilient, societies need to stay aware of their own vulnerabilities and avoid complacency if they are to continually remain resilient.

Complacency coupled with a belief in the virtues of the free market has left some countries hit harder than others by the pandemic. In normal times, ‘just in time’ business models can be highly efficient compared to holding vast stocks. But it does not require hindsight to know that a global health crisis will see demand for protective equipment soar and these business models severely challenged.

Several societies have also witnessed a decline in trust towards institutions, especially politicians or the media. The deployment of science as justification for political decisions around coronavirus was presumably intended to help garner trust in those decisions. But when the science itself is inexact because of inadequate or emerging knowledge, this strategy is hardly fail-safe.

COVID-19 does provide an opportunity to rebuild trust by rethinking the relationship between the state and its citizens, to engage people more directly in a discussion about societal resilience with empowered citizens, and to rebuild a social contract between state and society in the context of recent significant changes and further potential threats.

It should also provide a salutary wake-up call to a range of ‘strongmen’ leaders prone to portraying issues rather simplistically. Although COVID-19 may be one of the few complex problems to which simplistic measures do apply - such as wearing a mask and using social distancing – these do not provide the whole solution.

Generally, declining trust in politicians reflects the ongoing inability of current politics to deal with a range of societal challenges. COVID-19 is certainly the most sudden and presents the biggest immediate economic shock of recent times, but it is just the latest in a long line of examples of political failure, such as conflict in the Middle East, climate change, terrorism, and cyber-attacks.

Along with the growth of automation and digitization which provide opportunities at the macro-level but threats at a more micro-level, what most of these issues have in common is that national responses are likely to fail. Restoring trust requires re-energized global governance, and this means compromise and humility – qualities which appear in short supply to many current politicians.

But, regardless of political will, building resilience to tackle ongoing or rapidly forthcoming challenges also rubs up against free market beliefs, because building resilience is a long-term investment and comes at a price. But by acknowledging vulnerabilities, avoiding complacency, implementing lessons from past experiences, and learning from others, policymakers will be better prepared for the next crisis.

Reconstructing societies through the prism of resilience creates fundamentally different outcomes to global challenges, and can build trust between elected representatives and the wider population. Accepting the vulnerability paradox and acknowledging that those generally less prone to disasters are actually less able to cope when change happens creates a powerful argument for this new approach.