Resilience in public health – until now seen as a cost to be minimised as much as possible – will be reframed as an investment in national security. Governments will lead the shift in mindset, but they need not shoulder the burden alone. The private sector and individuals also have a part to play.
This will require us to learn not only what went wrong in 2020, but what went right – not for reasons of blame, but for self-preservation. We may have to live with this virus for a long time, even indefinitely. Covid-19 exposed the fragility of how most of us have been living – and how vulnerable we are to further large-scale, multi-factor catastrophic events.
The pandemic has also revealed some exceptions to that trend which may help us rethink resilience. There was no panic-buying in Switzerland; Germany had enough hospital capacity to treat its own population and assist its neighbours; Denmark reopened its schools and Greece resumed its tourism industry and infection rates and death tolls in both stayed low.
These sound like fairy tales to anyone living in the US, Brazil, Mexico, the UK or India – the countries with the highest recorded numbers of deaths related to Covid-19 in 2020. But they are not; they are evidence. They demand we at least acknowledge that the high infection rates, heart-breaking death tolls and economic devastation were not inevitable. They suggest that something went wrong with many pandemic preparations and tabletop war games of the World Health Organization, national governments and companies. Nor is this unique to governments and institutions: for all the businesses that have struggled, collapsed, or just about survived, others have thrived.
To boost our resilience in 2021 we will improve our ability to anticipate risks and mitigate them. Can we pivot, repurpose and innovate? What is the speed, strength and depth of our ability to respond to a complex and potentially devastating event? How long can we last until we get things back up and running to the minimum viable level, and ultimately, to normal?
This will see us overhaul our pre-pandemic mindset, which considered the “just-in-case” model of spare capacity, reserves and preparedness to be “wasteful”. We will admit that the just-in-time model of our global economy, though more profitable when everything is running relatively smoothly, is extremely fragile when it does not.
It fails to thrive in resilience, which is, more often than not, measured by what did not happen thanks to prevention or mitigation, rather than what did. We will also reassess the ideologies, profit-seeking and short-term thinking that accompanies election cycles and quarterly earnings, which discourage countries and companies from improving their resilience – and penalise them when they do not.
In 2021 we will gain a new understanding of the truth of resilience: we are only as strong as our weakest link.
Stephanie Hare is a journalist specialising in technology, politics and history