What COVID-19 has taught us about risk in a complex, interconnected world — Global Issues

From the mangroves of West Bengal to the sprawling archipelago of Indonesia, from the bustling port city of Guayaquil in Ecuador to the tropical shores of southern Togo, the systemic risks associated with COVID-19 the pandemic has been exposed in harsh human conditions.

Millions of people who were already barely making ends meet, often working in the informal economy in agriculture and living below the poverty line, had to face a host of new risks that they could not have foreseen..

These include unemployment, debt, civil and domestic violence, the cessation of children’s education, and a sharp decline in opportunities. In many places, women have suffered disproportionately because of pre-existing gender bias in society.

Taken together, these human experiences are more than just a list of suffering places in the world that don’t often make headlines. They also highlight a very real challenge: how to better understand and manage the cascading systemic risks arising from the cross-border spread of COVID-19.

Life-threatening domino effect

Report, “Rethinking risk in times of COVID-19” shows how each of these four locations is part of five field studies conducted in 2021 by the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) and the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) — a clear picture emerges of a domino effect resulting from the COVID-19 outbreak, which has spread through societies far beyond the immediate effects of the pandemic itself.

This vividly illustrates that our world is interconnected. through systems that are associated with volatile risks that identified and strengthened vulnerabilities in society.

For example, in the Ecuadorian port city of Guayaquil. families already living in overcrowded homes were more affected by stay-at-home orders than families in more favorable living conditions.

The city’s health care system has reached a breaking point weeks after the first case was identified in February 2020, leaving large numbers of corpses unattended in hospitals and nursing homes, as well as on the streets. The images of bodies piled up on the streets that circulated in the global media were among the first to show what happened when COVID-19 arrived in densely populated urban areas.

Complex, fragile web

However, before the advent of COVID-19, the relationship of such risks in our daily lives may not have been obvious. The systemic nature of these risks, that is, how they have affected or could potentially affect entire societies, did not go beyond the original problem.

First, we tend to think of systemic risks in relation to what happened as a result of the financial crash of 2008, when the collapse of major banks reverberated through the global economy, leaving millions of people out of work and triggering a global economic recession.

Other examples can be seen in how climate change, natural disasters and, more recently, the global impact of the war in Ukraine have shown how our world relies on a complex, often fragile web of interdependent factors that, if destabilized, can have serious consequences. devastating impact on entire societies. For example, Ukraine and Russia are the world’s key producers of grains and fertilizers. One of the ripple effects of the war can be seen in the rise in world food prices, which raises the cost of living for those who can afford it and pushes those who cannot into even greater food insecurity.

Guayaquil, a port city in Ecuador.

Unsplash/Andres Medina

Guayaquil, a port city in Ecuador.

Time for a wider perspective

The emergence of COVID-19 forced us to expand our view of systemic risks. The good news is that it has expanded the understanding of these risks and how to address them.

Hazards and shocks can come from outside and inside the system. The impact on them can be indirect, meaning that the effects can be felt in places that are not directly affected by the hazard – in this case COVID-19 – but are ultimately affected by interconnectedness. Finally, the vulnerability of one system can also endanger or shock other interdependent systems.

What actions can be taken to improve risk management, given that traditional approaches do not work in more difficult conditions?

First, understand how things are connected. The cascading effects caused by COVID-19 have made it possible to identify the relationships that exist in many of these systems and assess whether the system is functioning as expected.

The other is to identify trade-offs embedded in policy measures: some measures to combat COVID-19, such as school closures, stay-at-home orders or travel restrictions, have had wide-ranging effects.

This highlights the need to analyze and evaluate the possible trade-offs and cascading effects associated with the introduction of such measures, as they may have unexpected consequences and may exacerbate existing social vulnerabilities.

The third action is to focus on system recovery processes, leaving no one behind. The interconnected nature of systems provides an opportunity for positive turning points, creating positive effects. In the context of the pandemic, this has become a reality thanks to the creation of jobs after financial assistance from governments, charities and non-governmental organizations, or advances in digitalization after stay-at-home orders.

The modern interconnected world is an evolving system, and catastrophic events are often the result of system failures.. The report shows that the time has come to better understand systemic risks and how they cause other hazards and shocks, often in unpredictable ways.

It also shows that the management of these risks must be properly embedded in how policy makers, planners and other stakeholders approach risk management in order to create more resilient, equitable and prosperous communities and societies around the world.

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