This opinion piece was first published by Thomson Reuters Foundation
The new coronavirus, COVID-19, was declared a “public health emergency of international concern” by the World Health Organization (WHO) at the end of January and has since laid bare all the vulnerabilities at the heart of human development.
The Sustainable Development Goals will have suffered a mortal blow if the world does not get to grip with the increasingly systemic nature of disaster risk, including health.
The COVID-19 disaster is a manifestation of what the international scientific community has recognised for years: that in an increasingly interdependent world, our lifestyles, our choices mean that hazards are interwoven and spread throughout communities, societies and economies in complex ways that lead to systemic and cascading risks.
The 2019 U.N. Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction (GAR2019) – produced in cooperation with hundreds of leading scientists including the WHO – specifically warned about the growing risk of biological hazards, notably the threat of pandemics and epidemics.
Biological hazards had been included, for the first time, in a globally agreed blueprint for reducing disaster losses, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, adopted by U.N. member States on March 18, 2015.
As we clearly see now, COVID-19 is much more than a public health emergency. Systemic risks like COVID-19 speak to the inherent vulnerabilities lurking in the complexity of today’s interconnected global social, environmental and economic ecology.
As a stark example, COVID-19 shows that climate conditions, travel and trade, urban density, lack of access to clean water and sanitation and other realities of living in conditions of poverty and conflict combine with the inadequate risk management capacities of individuals and institutions to create the conditions for an outbreak to become an epidemic, a pandemic – and, ultimately, a global economic and social disaster.
Most importantly, the COVID-19 crisis stress-tests our ability to cooperate, learn and adapt in the face of deep uncertainties and increasing risks. Despite the disruption and suffering, it nevertheless provides governments and communities an opportunity to revisit much that underpins our modern world – from fundamental aspects of governance, investment and consumption, to our relationship with nature, and to place risk reduction at the heart of a policy reboot.
Ultimately, the choices made now with respect to risk and resilience in sustaining human health in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic will determine progress towards the goals of the 2030 sustainable development agenda and beyond. UNDRR and the International Science Council believe this is an opportunity we cannot afford to squander. We must step away from a reactive protection approach to a proactive prevention approach.
Any development plan or initiative seeking to respond to the socio-economic damage wrought by COVID-19, or to prevent its recurrence, should do so with sensitivity to the drivers that caused COVID-19 to become a global disaster.
We therefore call on policy-makers to increase investment in evidence-informed policy and integrated action across the interconnected domains of disaster risk reduction, climate change action and sustainable development. As governments and other decision-makers spring into action to protect populations and rescue the global economy, policy-makers should engage with science experts to ensure that a comprehensive risk lens is applied to investment decisions and emergency funding.
At the same time, governments, lawmakers and regulators must work together to increase disaster risk reduction spending in national and local budgets generally. This requires a comprehensive risk approach to investment decisions, both public and private, and seizing the momentum generated by initiatives such as the Taskforce for Climate Related Financial Disclosures and related sustainable, green and climate risk financing discussions.
We also call upon the science community to work together across disciplines to advance our understanding of the interdependencies between systems and system components, including precursor signals, feedback loops and sensitivities to change. An example could be the threat of multiple breadbasket failure and the need to develop agricultural models in the context of the spread of COVID-19 and the climate emergency, while also taking into consideration local conditions including vulnerability.
All of these are critical to improve our understanding of how risk is generated, how it propagates across interconnected systems, and how, when risk manifests itself, the impacts cascade with unexpected consequences, and especially, how we can prevent this.
While uncertainties will always be present, there is much we do know and much we can discover. Uncertainty and change can be either a threat, or an opportunity to thrive and improve – we need to work together to make sure it is the latter.
Mami Mizutori is the U.N. Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction and the head of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction
Heide Hackmann is CEO of the International Science Council