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A new UN report has shed new light on how the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered cascading risks, especially to vulnerable people, around the world.
From the mangroves of West Bengal to the vast archipelago that makes up Indonesia, and from the bustling port city of Guayaquil, Ecuador, to the tropical shores of southern Togo, the systemic risks of the COVID-19 pandemic have been exposed in human terms. raw.
Millions of people who were already struggling to make ends meet, often working in the informal economy of agriculture and surviving below the poverty line, faced a host of new risks that they would not have could foresee.
These included unemployment, debt, civil and domestic violence, derailed children’s education and severely reduced opportunities. In many places, women have suffered disproportionately due to pre-existing gender biases in society.
Taken together, these human experiences are not just a catalog of suffering in places around the world that don’t often make the headlines. They also highlight a very real challenge: how to better understand and manage the cascading systemic risks that resulted from COVID-19 as it spread across borders.
Potentially deadly domino effect
The report, “Rethinking Risk in the Time of COVID-19,” shows how in each of these four locations – part of five field studies conducted in 2021 by the Institute for Environment and Human Safety of the United Nations University (UNU-EHS) and the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) – a clear picture is emerging 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 clearly illustrates that our world is interconnected by systems that come with associated volatile risks that have revealed and reinforced societal vulnerabilities.
In the Ecuadorian port city of Guayaquil, for example, families already living in overcrowded housing have suffered more from stay-at-home orders than those living in more favorable living conditions.
The city’s health care system hit a tipping point weeks after the first case was detected in February 2020, resulting in high numbers of corpses left unattended in hospitals and care homes, as well as in nursing homes. streets. Images of bodies piling up in the streets that circulated in global media were among the first to show what happened when COVID-19 arrived in densely populated urban areas.
A complex and fragile web
Yet, before COVID-19, the interconnectedness of these risks may not have been immediately evident in our daily lives. Nor was the systemic nature of these risks, that is, how they have affected, or can potentially affect, entire societies beyond the initial problem.
On the one hand, we have tended to think of systemic risks in relation to what happened in the aftermath of the financial crash of 2008, where the failure of major banks rippled through the global economy, leaving million people out of work and triggering a global economic recession.
Other examples can be seen in how climate change, natural hazards and, more recently, the global consequences of the war in Ukraine have shown how our world relies on a complex, often fragile web of interrelated factors. which, if destabilized, can have devastating effects on entire societies. For example, Ukraine and Russia are the world’s two main producers of cereals and fertilizers. One of the ripple effects of war can be seen in rising global food prices, driving up the cost of living for those who can afford it and pushing those who cannot deeper into poverty. food insecurity.
It’s time to have a bigger perspective
The emergence of COVID-19 has forced a broadening of the perspective on systemic risks. The good news is that it has broadened the understanding of these risks and how to manage them.
Hazards and shocks can come from outside and inside the system. Exposure to these can be indirect, meaning the effects can be felt in places that are not directly affected by the hazard – in this case, COVID-19 – but end up being affected due to the ‘interdependence. Finally, the vulnerability of one system can also turn into danger or shock for other interdependent systems.
What then are the actions that can be taken to improve risk management, given that traditional approaches fail in more complex contexts?
One is to understand how things are connected. The cascading effects coming from COVID-19 have helped spot the interconnections that exist in many such systems and assess whether a system is working as expected.
Another is to identify the trade-offs implicit in policy measures: several COVID-19 measures, such as school closures, stay-at-home orders or travel restrictions, have had widespread effects.
This highlights the need to assess the potential trade-offs and cascading effects involved in introducing such measures, as they may have unintended repercussions and exacerbate existing societal vulnerabilities.
A third action is to focus on systemic recovery processes without leaving anyone behind. The interconnected nature of the systems presents an opportunity for positive turns, creating positive effects. In the context of the pandemic, this has materialized in job creation that has followed financial assistance from governments, charities and NGOs, or advances in digitization following stay-at-home orders.
Today’s interconnected world is an evolving system, and disastrous events are often the result of systemic failures. The report shows that it is time to develop a deeper understanding of systemic risks, how they trigger other hazards and shocks, often in unpredictable ways.
It also demonstrates that the management of these risks must be properly integrated into the way policymakers, planners and other stakeholders approach risk management, with the aim of creating more resilient, equitable and prosperous communities and societies. in the world.