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Lessons from existing disaster risk and recovery research should inform equitable and sustainable pathways out of the pandemic

A new Briefing published by ISC member the British Academy highlights eight lessons for pandemic recovery, drawing on research work from Latin America, the Caribbean, East Africa and South Asia.

Knowledge sharing and public engagement are critical for finding solutions to the cascading crises caused by the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. This article is part of an ISC blog series, which aims to highlight some of the latest COVID-19 related publications, initiatives and findings from ISC Members.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the ongoing discussions about how to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic look eagerly ahead to the moment when the crisis will end, and when we can get started on the road to recovery, whatever that may look like. But as a new publication in the British Academy’s Shape the Future programme makes clear, recovery planning needs to start now.

“This particular form of disaster, like many, isn’t just a something that happened in a point in time. It’s gradually unfolding, and happening at different timescales and in different places within the same country, let alone the world. Life is already having to go on. It doesn’t make sense to wait for a point when the crisis ends to then start thinking about how to rebuild”.

Roger Few, lead author of COVID-19 Crisis: Lessons for Recovery.

A pandemic on the scale of COVID-19 has never been experienced in living memory. However, while it can’t be directly compared to other crises, there are similarities with other disaster situations, and relevant learnings for decision-making around recovery. The Briefing, COVID-19: Lessons for Recovery, draws on decades of research into disaster recovery, bringing together insights into how communities responded to different crises such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and droughts in places as diverse as Ecuador, India, Ethiopia and Montserrat. 

As the introduction makes clear:

“While in many places the pandemic has brought a level of societal disruption seldom experienced before, in others the situation has broad parallels with the losses and disruptions experienced in recent major disasters”.

And although the Briefing note is mainly concerned with managing the long-term implications of the pandemic in low- and middle-income countries, the lessons it highlights for supporting people to recover their livelihoods and wellbeing, equitably and sustainably, are relevant for different countries and contexts all over the world.

“In this case we’re talking about a virus, but what causes the hazard could be extreme weather or earthquake, volcanic eruption, or other epidemic situations. Something like Ebola doesn’t have the global reach, but where it hits, it hits society in exactly the same way and far worse. Research has shown that in disaster or conflict situations, where there is a major disruption to society, there are many ramifications beyond the initial trigger. With this Briefing we aimed to draw useful lessons from different work that we’ve done at the University of East Anglia, and to link it into a much broader body of global work on disaster risk,” says Few.

At the heart of many of the examples highlighted is the need to understand that while the pandemic is an exceptional event, it has become a crisis because it is not a ‘discrete’ problem:

“As with all hazards, the short and long-term impact of COVID-19 has been shaped by the environment into which it has emerged. The reason that COVID-19 has turned into a disaster is essentially to do with how we organize and structure society. That’s affecting the extent to which the disease is transmitted, but also the type of public health and other measures we choose to take and the extent to which we can undertake them. This also means that managing crises and the recovery from them must take into consideration other interacting threats and challenges that inevitably create a more complex situation. Governments will always be making decisions during crises, about all different aspects of the crisis, but there can be a tendency within governments to parcel up responsibilities, and to see different aspects as discrete events, but in fact they overlap in space and time” says Few.

To illustrate this point, the Briefing refers to the recurrent droughts that have affected many areas of the Horn of Africa, including Ethiopia, from 2015 onwards. Responses to the droughts tended to focus on the most immediate needs: providing water and food for those affected. But research has demonstrated how the implications of the drought for local populations were entangled with other factors, such as changes in land-use and access to water sources, and more recently a severe locust invasion. By focusing on responding to water scarcity without considering the wider reasons behind that scarcity, crisis management actions did not address the underlying vulnerabilities that continued to affect the region after the worst of the drought was over.

And just as the wider context is affecting how COVID-19 affects people, planning for the post-pandemic period must recognize that interacting threats and issues can influence the course of recovery. We are already seeing how the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis are being experienced very differently by people depending on where they live, their age, gender, ethnicity, their job status and ability to access healthcare, among other factors, and recovery measures will also be experienced differently.

The authors note that “poorer social groups are often more susceptible to downstream impacts that emerge well after the hazard event”, calling upon decision-makers to ensure that recovery actions do not entrench existing inequities.

Most importantly, research shows that responding does not have to be reactive, and that we need to look beyond narrow short-term fixes focussed on the most immediate aspects of the crisis. Instead, planning for an equitable and sustainable recovery must include consideration of the implications of recovery actions for different people in different places and across different timescales. There are important lessons to be drawn from what’s worked and what hasn’t for recovery from other disaster situations, and there is a critical role for social scientists in highlighting available evidence, carrying out comparative work, and sparking new interactions that can support knowledge sharing.

This is a global pandemic, and we need to work globally, drawing on learnings from across the world and seeking conversations between different actors, including those who are most vulnerable to the negative impacts of the pandemic and who have the most challenges for recovery. The Briefing also offers a hopeful note, highlighting how support for activities at the grassroots level, such as through the creative arts, can help to build resilience and help communities to implement their own recovery actions. Rather than being powerless recipients of aid and recovery actions, communities affected by the pandemic are agents of change with a crucial role to play in shaping recovery for the long term.

Read the full Briefing: COVID-19 Crisis: Lessons for Recovery.

Photo: EU/ECHO Samuel Marie-Fanon via Flickr.

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