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Covid-19: How resilience could help us learn from systemic shocks

With the world catapulted into a crisis that has impacted all sections of society, what lessons can we learn, and how can the world heal? These are the questions tackled by the Geneva Science-Policy Interface, which in a report published last week said resilience is key in responding to the current and future pandemics.

The Geneva-based platform is tasked with finding effective solutions to systemic shocks which impact health, social, economic, environmental and governance structures, such as the Covid-19 pandemic.  From the findings, GSPI illustrates how decision-making processes that existed prior to the pandemic lacked cross-cutting solutions to solve systemic problems. Even measures that have desired short term effects are eventually accompanied by detrimental long term effects. As such, a multisectoral, interdimensional approach could prove useful in addressing and preventing future shocks, including pandemics.

Dr Didier Wernli, lead researcher of the report and global health governance expert speaks to Geneva Solutions on the focus of the report and the implications this has for pandemic recovery and preparedness.

Geneva Solutions: Why was resilience the goal for this project? 

Didier Wernli: When faced with pandemic such as this, it is important to look at it as a shock to society, which impacts all sectors. Taking these ‘shocks’ or ‘disturbances’ as we identify it, resilience becomes an insightful way to look at how societies can be impacted. By understanding the consequences of Covid-19, the apparent result is a systemic crisis and by identifying resilience as an ultimate goal it can help us think of different short and long term prepared responses to risk.

Our definition of resilience and the purpose is essentially looking at our capacity to cope, adapt and also transform. When faced with these critical societal shocks impacting on all structures and sectors such as health, economy, social and environment,we must remember they are interdependent.   

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GS: One of the findings of the report is that governments, particularly Western governments are not prepared to deal with systemic shocks as seen in the Covid-19 case, why do you think this is? 

DW: There are many different interacting causes and drivers of this pandemic. Wealthier countries for example did not have to do the learning for the recent health crisis, Ebola in West Africa. As this occurred in low to middle income countries, Western governments did not take it seriously enough as something that could impact them. This lack of preparedness in addition to ageing populations, myriad of chronic diseases and dwindling funding in health systems which occurred after the financial crisis, created a strong conducive environment for the pandemic. 

There were assumptions of already efficient health systems, which go against ideas of resilience as there is no built in spare capacity. When there is an ‘efficient’ system we tend to believe it is the best to face any circumstance. Then a shock like this occurs which gives us the opportunity to reflect on what efficiency, resilience and sustainability means. 

 We then have the perfect opportunity to look at these crises through a complexity lens to understand its underlying causes to find solutions.

GS: What is the complexity lens you speak of and how does it apply to Covid-19? 

DW: The complexity lens is really about an approach that studies the consequences of interconnectivity, or interdependence in our globalised world. This is a way to address global problems we face that are difficult to predict and control. It is about understanding the complexities, the drivers of crisis and also the vulnerabilities in our current governance structures. Secondly, we need to think in terms of short- and long-term tradeoffs between different sectors in our responses, seeing how it affects different countries, regions and globally. Although this is a new agenda for our research, we also adopted some thinking and learning from the period following the financial crisis.

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GS: What are the main take-aways from the recommendations and five principles of governance?

DW: We identified a number of actions which can be taken in different sectors that will help build resilience capacities, and here we should think about resilience in preventative measures. For example, we know that there are some spillovers or rather natural encroachments which drive transmission of animal pathogens to humans. Therefore, this is just one aspect we need to address preventively, with the knowledge this could lead to pandemics.

When shocks strike we should be prepared for its implications on safety nets at a social level, or in the case of the first few months of the current pandemic the shocks to the health system. Personal Protective Equipment for example was lacking almost everywhere. And this lack of preparedness affects the recovery process once crises subside.

To do so then we encourage a holistic approach which includes investing in mental health programmes, trying to foster intergenerational dialogue, governance mechanisms, creating opportunities for people to face the world again, which will serve as starting points for the healing process of society. Governance mechanisms are particularly important because you can always have actions and recommendations, but things are constantly evolving. Governance mechanisms can therefore support the adaptability to face crises like Covid-19. 

GS: How can governments better prepare for future systemic crises? 

DW: There are a number of steps at the upstream level.  Governments need to have an integrated approach between the different sectors, whilst also needing entities that gather people from a number of stakeholders in society who partake in discussions regarding systemic risk. Taking our understanding of resilience, governments must adapt and strengthen societies based on their individual context whilst remembering we live in an interconnected and interdependent world which requires complete multilateral buy in. International Geneva is a good example of this.

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GS: What is the integrated approach you talk of?

DW: This goes back to the principle of governance looking at the short and long term. For example, what are the consequences of closing schools, what are the consequences for parents and for work? These form the short term. Then we look at the psychological impacts so for example the long-term impact of education for children in places where schools have been closed for almost one year. An integrated approach thus maps the systemic effects of different sectors and assesses trade-offs for prevention and responses of the current and future crises.

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GS: What does a resilient society look like?

DW: A society that can prevent, react to and recover from shocks ensuring it has an inclusive approach where the respect of human dignity is at its foundation. A variety of actors must be involved in decision making processes. And more importantly this is a society that can prevent the discrimination of people.

GS: How would you and the GSPI ideally like this policy brief to be used?

DW: For us this is really a starting point of a broader reflection that should take place within international Geneva, and beyond. With the global resilience agenda, which we believe is imperative in avoiding future crises, we identify a list of actions which is not exhaustive. It has been a year now and we need to ask ourselves about the society that we want, and the future of our civilization.

Graphics from the policy brief: “Governance in the age of complexity: building resilience to Covid-19 and future pandemics”