According to a disaster expert, these six steps could aid the world’s recovery from a pandemic.
Over 3.5 million people have been killed and counting. Hard-term health consequences, livelihoods devastated, and a long road ahead. This is the COVID-19 era.
Was it a natural tragedy, unavoidable in today’s fast-paced, globalized world? Or can we find avoidable errors?
The critical point is that the term “natural disaster” is a misnomer.
Disasters are caused by society failures, not by natural causes. Those in positions of power and resources coerce others into vulnerable places, tough living circumstances, and insufficient livelihoods, leaving them with little options for change. For decades, this point has been explained and analyzed.
We knew everything we needed to know to minimize the likelihood of a lethal new bacterium developing and, if it did, to prevent it from sweeping the planet. However, international organizations, governments, and individuals with agency have failed to use this understanding.
Three distinct types of societal failures have been documented thus far throughout the pandemic:
People encroaching on ecosystems and wildlife, followed by poor hygiene while handling caught animals, most likely allowed the virus to spread between species, though other theories, such as a lab leak – another preventable occurrence – are being investigated.
Inadequate local and worldwide surveillance and response following health officials’ detection and reporting of a new disease allowed it to spread.
Disinformation campaigns by vocal minorities cast doubt on scientific, evidence-based action on lockdown measures, vaccination uptake, and face coverings.
Earlier viral outbreaks such as HIV, SARS, Ebola, and swine flu demonstrated similar societal failings. Therefore, why did we fail to learn from our mistakes in the past?
Here is a six-point approach – three concepts and three practices – to expedite pandemic recovery and improve future crisis decision-making.
1. Constant improvement
Resilience is about continuous improvement. The conventional wisdoms of “bouncing back” and “returning to normal” are ineffective because they re-establish the same lack of resilience that contributed to the pandemic’s outbreak via those disaster-creating social flaws.
One way to improve recovery would be to expand support for and implementation of international disease surveillance in order to improve the capability of warning and response systems for emerging infections.
Mechanisms for operating these systems already exist, especially the International Health Regulations. However, when they are not followed or when some jurisdictions are not fully committed, resilience is compromised.
2. Personality and values
True recovery views resilience as a continuous and inclusive societal process, not as a state of being. Resilience entails working to modify our behavior and values through the involvement of the vast array of people who form the links in the chain of a disaster. These individuals range from hunters and farmers to global political, business, and non-profit leaders.
Meanwhile, polarized attitudes allow for the dismissal of evidence that plainly supports, for example, the emergence of lengthy COVID and the efficacy of immunizations.
In order to be resilient, one must seek a balanced, evidence-based engagement in which knowledge advances to shape one’s values and behaviors. A critical example is an open scientific study procedure.
3. Authority and resources
There are always opportunities to avert tragedies, including pandemics. The decision to seize those possibilities is typically made by people amassing power and wealth – frequently elected or unelected government officials, corporate executives, and religious figures. The vast majority of the population lacks this ability.
As a result, recovery should include advocacy for power structures and on-the-ground initiatives that promote disaster avoidance and risk reduction. For example, removing houses from floodplains in Toronto, creating livelihood opportunities in Bangladesh to reduce people’s vulnerability, reducing earthquake risks in Seattle, establishing local disaster prevention and response teams, and utilizing volcanoes to generate local livelihood options are all examples.
As is often the case with natural disasters, the epidemic often disproportionately affects those who are already marginalized, such as those with disabilities, the poor, and ethnic minorities. Resilience entails not abandoning people.
Three steps for averting disasters that incorporate the three resilience concepts are outlined below.
4. Involve everyone in disaster prevention
When people lack access to enough food and water on a daily basis, or when they fear harassment or other workplace crimes, these concerns are appropriately emphasized. Inquiring about what people require for resilience and pre-disaster preparation entails addressing the gaps they find. It could be in the form of money, time, expertise, technical ability, or a change in conduct.
5. Make prevention a possibility
Daily COVID-19 prevention, while waiting for fully vaccinated populations, entails adhering to the “space, hands, face” principle (which is more effective than the UK government’s order): maintain a physical distance from others, wash hands, and cover mouths and noses in crowds and indoor communal spaces. Everyone must remain engaged.
Physical separation is difficult for persons who rely on public transportation or can only afford cramped housing. Hand washing requires the presence of clean water and soap. Face covers are not inexpensive.
To minimize illness transmission during vaccination and to aid in societal recovery, people deserve “space, hands, face” options. These could be as simple as encouraging work-from-home opportunities and supplying soap, clean water, and facial coverings.
6. Prevention is preferable to cure
Despite its flaws, the World Health Organization (WHO) normally operates on a billion-pound annual budget, compared to the pandemic’s cost of more than four orders of magnitude. Investing billions of dollars each year in pandemic preventive collaboration (with or without the WHO) offers enormous payoffs even if just one pandemic is averted per millennium.
Finally, post-pandemic resilience requires continued efforts to avert pandemics and other disasters by fostering a responsibility mindset. This duty acknowledges that societal choices contribute to “natural” disasters while proposing solutions that benefit everyone. Otherwise, we ensure another catastrophic, global, decidedly unnatural calamity — as well as numerous smaller ones.
Ilan Kelman, University College London (UCL) Professor of Disasters and Health.
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