COVID-19 has sparked new thinking about risk, according to UN report
As world leaders travel to Bali to gather at the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction 2022 to discuss how to better prevent and mitigate current and future risks, the United Nations University Institute on Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) and the United Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) has released the new report “Rethinking Risks in Times of COVID-19”.
The report shows that the way individuals and decision-making bodies such as governments view risks related to hazards and shocks has fundamentally changed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Before the pandemic, little was known that hazards such as floods, droughts or regional outbreaks of disease can impact societies around the world. It was only when COVID-19 began to spread and impact our daily lives that the true extent of the interdependencies in our highly connected world, causing the impacts to overlap within and between societies, became fully apparent,” said Dr. Michael Hagenlocher, lead author of the report and senior scientist at UNU-EHS.
As infections mounted, the unfolding pandemic prompted a range of policy measures, including house bans and public shutdowns, to limit the spread of the virus and avoid overburdening healthcare systems.
The impact of these measures has been critical to preventing health systems from collapsing and critical to reducing deaths from COVID-19, undoubtedly saving millions of lives around the world. However, the cascading effects of some of these measures hit the most vulnerable hardest. Underlying problems such as poverty, precarious jobs in the informal economy, lack of access to education and structural gender bias have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
“Rethinking Risks in Times of COVID-19” presents the research findings from five case studies conducted in five geographically and socially diverse locations; an urban environment in Ecuador, coastal areas in India, the world’s largest refugee camp in Bangladesh, the marine region in Togo and Indonesia.
The experiences of people at each site not only demonstrate the human cost of the cascading effects of the pandemic, but also point to lessons that can be learned for risk management in the future. A clear picture is emerging, showing that the pandemic has cast a far-reaching web of impacts on society far beyond the immediate effects of COVID-19.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is a textbook example of systemic risk with cascading impacts, where a public health disaster quickly turned into a socioeconomic disaster. The amplifying impact of these shocks and hazard events clearly demonstrates the need for greater investment in disaster preparedness and a multi-hazard approach to disaster risk management,” said Jenty-Kirsch Wood, lead author and senior program manager at UNDRR.
The new report, Rethinking Risks in Times of COVID-19, provides a clear set of recommendations to improve risk management.
One is to connect the dots on links. The cascading effects of COVID-19 made it possible to understand how things are connected and how this creates and amplifies impacts. For example, many people working in the informal economy in Guayaquil, Ecuador depend on a trade inflow from the city’s port, which slowed significantly during the pandemic, ultimately resulting in significant financial impacts for individuals. When you understand how this system of connections works, you can see where there are vulnerable components that need to be addressed.
Another is to identify the possible trade-offs inherent in policies. Several measures to combat COVID-19, such as school closures, house arrests and travel restrictions, while necessary to contain the spread of the disease and save lives, have had far-reaching cascading effects that have hit people disproportionately depending on their individual circumstances. This underscores the need to assess and evaluate potential trade-offs and cascading effects in adopting such policies, as they can have unexpected impacts and exacerbate existing societal inequalities and vulnerabilities in unintended ways.
A third measure is to focus on systemic recovery processes, leaving no one behind. The networking of systems also offers an opportunity for positive turning points by generating positive cascading effects. In the context of the pandemic, this has been evident in job creation following the provision of financial support from governments, charities and NGOs, or advances in digitization following stay-at-home orders.
Today’s connected world is an evolving system, and catastrophic events are often exacerbated by system failures. This underscores the need for a deeper understanding of the systemic nature of risk. This includes an understanding of how risks trigger other hazards and shocks, often in unpredictable and uncertain ways.
“This report provides lessons from COVID-19 and reminds us of the importance of better understanding the interconnectedness of societies and the vulnerabilities within them. This applies not only to pandemics, but also to the effects of climate change and violent conflicts, as we can currently see in the devastating consequences of the war in Ukraine. With our report, we therefore hope to influence the discourse on how we understand and address risk at the upcoming Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction 2022, but also beyond,” concluded Hagenlocher.