Drawing on evidence from other crises civic leaders need to already start planning for society’s recovery from COVID-19, says Dr Joy Furnival.
At the moment the authorities and emergency services are rightly focusing on their immediate response to the COVID-19 outbreak. But the uncertainty created, and sheer scale of the pandemic, means that a strategy for recovery also needs to be put in place as part of the response, a strategy which will need to be reinforced by UK government guidance.
Drawing on evidence from the impact of previous emergencies, we can consider recovery as a strategy that is pursued with both short-term and long-term goals. Whilst compelling, a goal of ‘getting back to normal’ for recovery is too simplistic, particularly given that the challenges we currently face are far larger than a typical emergency response. The intangible damage to health, economies and social structures are on a global scale which has been rarely accounted for in emergency preparedness plans.
Instead, what recovery aims to establish is ‘a new normal’ - a way of life that, in some ways, might resemble life before the crisis but that is also adapted to and conditioned by the crisis that has passed, building on lessons learned through the crisis.
Short-term recovery will look to restart basic services, livelihoods, governance and the re-initiation of social lives, and it is important to consider the speed at which this should take place. In the longer term, recovery should seek to reconcile, improve and amend some of the shortcomings, mistakes and vulnerabilities that exacerbated the emergency’s effects in the first place.
Drawing on UK government guidance, recovery should be focused on the following key areas: humanitarian assistance, such as ongoing help to the homeless and vulnerable; economic recovery such as the re-opening of retail and leisure outlets; infrastructure, including the re-opening of schools and return to full transport timetables; and environmental, particularly should social distancing continue to be required during the recovery phase.
To this I would also add legislation and governance as recovery will include reinterpreting emergency legislation and restrictions put in place for COVID-19, and their need after the response.
To develop robust recovery plans, a thorough assessment of the communities and the response system’s vulnerabilities are required together with the development of clear recovery aims. A deep impact assessment of the damage enacted by the crisis is required even whilst the crisis is still unfolding.
Despite its devastating impacts, the crisis provides invaluable information about the weaknesses of our systems. Recovery will look to generate positive outcomes to address the fragilities and opportunities that the emergency has exposed, while the magnitude of its impacts are indicators of the nature and the scale of the required change during recovery.
In the UK and other countries this might mean recognising the need for different expenditure on resources on key public sector services, as well as alternative ways of delivery such as the use of digital technology in primary care services.
It might also mean finding ways to maintain the levels of volunteering and community activism evidenced in recent weeks in helping those made most vulnerable, with volunteering being taken to a much higher level nationwide.
The restrictions across the country also lead us to consider enhanced protection of green spaces, the effect of reduced commuting, our use of digital services, and ongoing emergency legislation affording housing to homeless people.
Securing resources for a prolonged impact and recovery is key. In addition, it is important to have early engagement with communities in the impact assessment and in the development of recovery aims and strategies.
Recovery might not seem like the most important aspect of emergency governance. It may not seem appropriate or possible to discuss strategic recovery during the response phase, and perhaps it deflects somewhat from the heroic scenes of frontline responders taking action to save lives. Yet the lessons from previous emergencies and crises indicate that recovery must start early and can lead to a better future.
At the very least its implementation can determine our ability to ‘find ourselves’ again after an unprecedented shock. At its best, recovery can be ground-breaking as it possesses the potential to remake a more equitable, sustainable society that is also better prepared for emergencies that may be to come. Whether this promise is realised hinges on experts from across local communities working together to develop actions for the benefit of everyone.
*Staff from across The University of Manchester, including Alliance MBS, are working with local authorities around the UK to develop successful plans for ensuring their recovery from COVID-19. This blog has been co-developed by a team of academics and specialists in the areas of critical systems, emergency response, community resilience, humanitarian aid and mobilisation, digital solutions and security, viable systems, healthcare delivery and operations management to support the COVID-19 recovery.