By Caroline Austin and Jelenko Dragisic
In ideal circumstances, recovery from a major disaster would be free from aftershocks. But aftershocks are the norm. Hence the question: how well are we equipped for recovery from the current pandemic? This is the time for serious thought.
Firstly, it should be noted that recovery is not easy to define. While a seemingly simple term to grasp, it is used differently in different contexts. In some cases, for example, reconstruction might be a more fitting term. Broadly speaking, recovery can be understood as an overarching process of returning to normal, which encompasses all aspects of life.
The current pandemic of a zoonotic disease is shaping up to be the greatest economic shock of the last 100 years. Professor of Economics Nicolas Bloom believes it could be five years before we reach the level of pre-pandemic economic output and warns that the current event may, in the future, be referred to as the ‘the Greater Depression”.
However, economic recovery from our current pain is expected to happen and a few scenarios on how it could unfold are already being offered, which is not surprising given the number of studies on economic crises. Consumer behaviours are well understood. The larger issue is understanding the impact on broader societal changes. Each culture will interpret the current pandemic in its own way. This is where the results of responses to the pandemic come into play. When things were done better, i.e. when decision makers prepared for the likely scenario of a pandemic and invested in resilience, the decisions tended to dodge the ‘make it up as you go’ scenario.
“Humans are incredibly well adapted to act quickly in a crisis. We mobilise fast. That quality will always be there. But the qualities we need to develop are preparedness and long-range focus. This is where our culture needs more work. A lot more work.“
While it is clear that during crises decisions have to be made on the spot and improvisation is necessary, this should not be confused with adaptation and agility in the midst of a crisis. Agility is based on anticipation of disruption and prudent investment in preparadness for a host of scenarios. A good resilience plan is not meant to be some kind of ‘super risk management’. Instead resilience should be more about capacity to act adaptively, be agile and capable to deploy knowledge, resources and critical decision making.
We should remember there were plenty of voices declaring that the likelihood of a pandemic such as this was not a question of ‘if’ but rather ‘when’. While many have watched the TED talk by Bill Gates, who used his status to amplify what scientists were trying to tell us for decades, as recently as six months ago global experts were saying that the chances of a global pandemic were growing. In its first annual report published in September 2019, expert independent group, the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board, stated categorically that “the world is not prepared for a fast-moving, virulent respiratory pathogen pandemic”. Scientists also predict that there will be further and probably worse pandemics.
The upshot is this: executing a well-prepared plan reduces the chance of mistakes that leak into an already costly path to recovery.
Recovery in our mind is about getting back to normal. Resuming life as we knew it. That has a nice ring to it, but research shows that it is much more complicated than that.
For a start, recovery is a painfully slow and frustrating process. While the link between the scale of a disruptive event and recovery is obvious, another link often ignored is that between the quality of response and recovery.
Perhaps it is worth noting that there is a good reason why recovery is often referred to as a ‘second disaster’. While original disasters tend to affect indiscriminately, the recovery process, unfortunately, can discriminate. In recovery, mistakes are often made, and some miss out. Moreover, recovery is not as heroic an act as responding to shock is. This means that the media also loses interest post-shock, leading to less of the attention that a well-executed recovery process needs.
Regardless, the story of recovery must be told. Why? It is during this time, the frustrating recovery process time, that we lay the foundation for our future capacity to respond to yet another shock.
Next time, the shock is likely to be bigger and more painful. This crisis is offering us a possibility to envision a very different world, and to move on to create it. It is also during the recovery phase that we can make mistakes that have a lasting impact. Things get overlooked, underestimated, ignored, or simply done poorly. The lessons from the virus responsible for SARS is a pertinent example. Vaccines were developed, but not supported to a testing phase. There is little profit in staving off some anticipated catastrophe. Undoubtedly, there is often good work undertaken which does prepare us for the future, but the risk of not getting it right is real.
What happens in the response stage (which immediately precedes the recovery stage) can have far more impact than the original event itself. A tardy response, marked by a lack of good preparation, causes people to make rash decisions with enduring consequences. Humans are incredibly well adapted to act quickly in a crisis. We mobilise fast. That quality will always be there. But the qualities we need to develop are preparedness and long-range focus. This is where our culture needs more work. A lot more work.
We are risk takers. We are also entrepreneurial. And we are downright optimistic. This won’t change. And it shouldn’t change because it is these traits that allow us to create and shape a better world. We can however apply those qualities to appreciate that future disruptions will be more testing. Being entrepreneurial means to adapt better and respond with more foresight. Recovery is very likely going to be a process entangled with events that demand response. The lines between responding and recovering are blurred at the best of times. Our own processes are disrupted.
Another thing that is often ignored is the fact that we assume conditions following a disaster, or any disruptive event, will be normal. We presume there won’t be any additional disruptions that hamper recovery. Here in Australia we should look no further than our recent mega-scale bushfires. Without a doubt, the bushfire recovery work is now further complicated by the coronavirus. This effectively makes recovery significantly more complex, more protracted, less complete and much costlier. We cannot rule out further disruptive events in the future that might just do permanent damage to regions impacted by bushfires. This could shape society beyond what may have previously been reasonable to assume.
The main thing to note is that recovery is becoming something altogether different. It is not a journey to restoring ‘normal’. It is more a process of change, adaptation and innovation towards new possibilities, potentially a society that conceives of a social and political order where profits are not above people. Rather than trying to get back to normal, maybe our plans for recovery should focus on adjusting to turbulence and finding better ways of living with instability.