by Rallis Kourkoulis, PhD, ICONHIC Director
Lessons learnt from the recent coronavirus health crisis highlight the similarities between the novel SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and natural disasters. Those shape a profound and unprecedented challenge, that we are called to tackle today.
The virus attacks the human body, while natural disasters impact our infrastructure. Just like humans, some infrastructure assets are more resilient and better prepared against an imminent crisis. However, disaster recovery and business continuity the day after are controlled by the performance of the infrastructure system/network as a whole, not by the successful response of some assets in isolation. It is our obligation to protect the most vulnerable structures, in the exact same manner that we cater for high risk groups, during the pandemic. It is out of the question for economies to bounce forward amidst the debris of a natural catastrophe.
We cannot predict the recurrence or the intensity of the next pandemic event, but we know for sure that it will occur. Likewise, we cannot foresee a natural disaster, yet we know it is only a matter of time. Past experience does not provide adequate information about the future, and we have now learnt that robust decision-making frameworks should take “black swan” events into consideration. In this extremely uncertain landscape, the only rational strategy is preparedness. What is more, we have realized that the cost of prevention comprises only a small fraction of the disaster-induced loss, while it could also yield direct benefit to society.
This pandemic has been the starkest reminder yet of how connected we are. Spread of the virus in one country endangers the entire humanity, as per the “tragedy of the commons.” What is more, the indirect consequences to “healthy” organisms (e.g. major productive sectors, supply chains, transportation, societal activity, etc.) is orders of magnitude higher than the direct financial loss (in terms of health system expenses and social security). Similar is the case with natural disasters: even if some assets remain intact after a catastrophic event, or sustain low levels of physical damage, they will certainly not be spared of the widespread, financial and societal impact, brought by the collapse of their neighbors.
A holistic approach to risk mitigation, preparedness, emergency response and recovery is feasible only if strategic decisions are coordinated with, and informed by, both the academic and business world. No single player can solve such a global problem on their own.
Mega-cities with their diverse demographic features and complex interconnectivities have been affected disproportionally by the spread of this virus. Their vulnerability to natural hazards is similarly amplified by the increased risk of failure implicit in dense residential networks that involve diverse building typologies, and by the highly sensitive interdependency of financial activities.
The recent experience of inadequate preparedness against a global threat has shaken public trust to systems and brands that used to be role-models in the quest for sustainable development. Indeed, a single unsuited response in a critical time is enough to diminish the value of a market or a product that took years to establish. In anticipation of an imminent crisis, preparedness or the lack of it, can potentially promote, or eliminate a product brand.
It is only natural that in the post-COVID era communities will be much less tolerant of deficient response plans. Stakeholders must propose solutions that go beyond the traditional drivers, in a new framework defined by shared responsibility, universal financial accountability, respect of natural capital, transparent ethics and societal justice.
Such holistic approach to risk mitigation, preparedness, emergency response and recovery is feasible only if strategic decisions are coordinated with, and informed by, both the academic and business world. No single player can solve such a global problem on their own.