Coronavirus: what we can learn for the future

“Resilience is the key to securing the benefits of globalization.”

Interview with Prof. Stephen E. Flynn, founding director of the Global Resilience Institute, Northeastern University, Boston, Massachusetts

Stephen E. Flynn
Stephen E. Flynn is professor of political science and an internationally recognized expert in the field of resilience. He was formerly advisor to the Obama administration on questions of homeland security.

What makes a society or a country resilient?

Flynn: Societal resilience requires a balanced commitment to advancing: (1) individual, family, neighborhood and community resilience; (2) the resilience of infrastructure and systems that people rely on for their daily lives; and (3) a sustainable and equitable economy. Countries are resilient if in the face of a major crisis, they have strong social capital, infrastructure and systems that can sustain or rapidly recover function, and they possess adequate resources to cover losses and provide a social safety net. Importantly, strengths in one can help compensate for deficits in other. For instance, developing countries that possess significant levels of individual and community resilience can find creative, low-cost ways to work around the loss of infrastructure function or limited resources. Indeed, there is much that developed countries can learn from less-developed countries when it comes to bolstering greater levels of self-reliance.

Which competencies do we need to develop in order to be prepared for future crises?

Going forward, we need to leverage the tools of network science to model and predict how disease will spread. We need to invest in public health education for the general population. We need to bolster the means for international collaboration to accelerate the development of tests and vaccines and for managing the rapid production and sharing of critical supplies where they are most needed. Viruses pay no attention to political jurisdictions. Our approach for managing them needs to acknowledge this reality.

The USA has been badly hit by the pandemic. What conclusions should be drawn?

First, the locus of managing a disease outbreak is local, not national. Investment in public health at the local and state levels is key along with stepping up the capacity for local hospitals to be able to quickly surge their capabilities for caring for those who are sick. Additionally, the business model for US health care delivery is being stressed to breaking point, highlighting the need for Americans to embrace fundamental health care reform. Another important lesson is the limit of border controls in managing the pandemic risk – international collaboration at all levels is critical to confronting a deadly disease. Finally, just as with national defense, there must be the political will to invest in preparing for low-probability, naturally occurring disasters that can lead to catastrophic consequences.

How can globalization, economic efficiency and resilience be combined?

The global resilience imperative is animated by the fact that the world has become hyperconnected. This has translated into costly and disruptive consequences when disasters strike, because what were once local shocks can now rapidly generate cascading consequences on a global scale. Over the past three decades, the world has invested heavily in connectivity because of the economic benefits globalization has generated. What we did not do is make a commensurate investment in safeguards to mitigate the risk associated with hyperconnectivity. Individuals and businesses are willing to make a connection only when they believe that the benefit outweighs the risk. When they start to believe that there is more risk than benefit, they disconnect – as the response to COVID-19 has made clear. Accordingly, the key to safeguarding the benefits of globalization is to invest in resilience. Alternatively, a short-term focus on efficiency that disregards the need to anticipate and manage disruption is reckless and self-defeating. Ultimately, generating an equitable and sustainable global economy requires investing in resilience at all levels and across all infrastructure and system sectors.