The Covid-19 crisis showed the human fragility as well as the vulnerability of our social and economic system. What started as a health crisis quickly became an economic and social crisis that affected millions of people all around the populated continents on Earth.

This crisis is not the first that hit our society and unfortunately, it will not be the last. Learning from the experience of the global financial crisis that a few years ago trigged a major recession, today EU is better equipped than before to fight economic crises originating in the financial sector. Yet, we have to acknowledge that each crisis is different from the previous one.

How can we prepare ourselves to face unforeseen or even unknown shocks? How can we make the right, or at least good enough societal choices once a threat has breached our defenses? How can we better understand the trade-offs and reconsider our socioeconomic models and lifestyles where needed?

In these circumstances and with these perspectives,  we need to reinforce the resilience of our society, which is its ability to face shocks and persistent structural changes in such a way that societal well-being is preserved, leaving no one behind and without compromising the heritage for future generations.

Since 2015, the European Commission-Joint Research Centre has been working to put resilience thinking into policymaking by proposing a vulnerability-resilience narrative that focuses on a multidisciplinary perspective and adopts a wide, 360-degrees system approach.

Specifically, the COVID-19 pandemic impacts our society at different levels and with different intensity. It first impacts on people’s health and the health system, which in the first instance was under a huge pressure to absorb a large number of sick people in the need for hospitalisation. Human capital is immediately eroded, as the disease put workers into their sickbeds. The prolonged shut down of schools and non-essential activities put many people in the condition of losing their job causing tensions in the social and economic systems.  Governments have been under pressure to respond to the emergency in the short term and now they are bearing the effort of implementing strategies for relaunching the economic activities, re-training workers who lost their job and support financially the most vulnerable ones. Financial markets suffer now from uncertainty and from the repercussions the crisis has on the economy. Many sectors are confronted with a long period of low demand and issues with supply.

To cope with shocks, which are the resilient capacities that need to be evoked? They depend on the combination of the intensity of the shock and the time of exposure. When both are under control, characterised by a manageable time of exposure and intensity of the shock, the most appropriate way to react might be through the absorptive capacity. As the time of exposure and its intensity increases, the adaptive capacity will start playing a role, strengthening the flexibility and readiness for small changes. Ultimately, as the disturbance becomes unbearable (both in terms of its intensity and persistence) and the adaptation would lead to a too large change, a transformation is needed to ensure that the system finds its new sustainable development path and avoids collapses. The severe vulnerabilities in the health, economic and social systems the Covid-19 crisis revealed are seriously challenging our way of producing and maintaining the well-being of our society. In this perspective, the Covid-19 crisis functions as a wakeup call towards a substantial transformation.

Resilience capacities originate strongly in people and their own capacities. A resilient society relies on the resilience of each individual. Yet, people should not be left for themselves: individual resilience can and should be supported by institutions. Appropriately crafted policies can help both to complement and to enhance resilience capacities. They are particularly important for people at the margins of the society, who are more vulnerable and often also less resilient.

At the same time, societal resilience is not simply the ‘sum’ of individual resilience. It has important system-level ingredients, including social ties, community-level capacities, and the role of various institutions. Since the crisis started many people volunteer in critical situations, putting their own life at risk, donating money to hospitals, organizing themselves to create and supply hospitals with sanitary equipment or help others to cope with everyday difficulties during the lockdown. The current crisis highlights both the role of individuals and mutual dependence between people and institutions. If the containment measures didn’t work when they are not endorsed by people, the necessary condition to follow the measures in place is to trust governments.

As proposed in Manca et al. (2017)[1], the measures that institutions could employ to enhance societal resilience can be reclassified according to an innovative 5-group framework: prevention, preparation, protection, promotion, and transformation. Preventive measures aim at reducing the incidence and size of shocks and, in the best case, to avert them (e.g. red zones to limit contagion). Preparation measures aim at preparing for handling them successfully (e.g. reinforcing the health capacity with extra resources to face the emergency, strengthening medical research efforts to find a vaccine). Protection measures are required to mitigate the impact and support the absorptive capacity (like state support to the economy, e.g. for SMEs or the most hit sectors like tourism, or benefits for families which are forced to telework). Promotion measures serve to increase the adaptive capacity or flexibility (reinforcing the health capacity in those countries where the contagion has not yet spread). Finally, transformation measures get their role when the adaption needed is too large, or when aiming to bounce forward after the shock (promote investments into green sectors when the economy and investments will restart, redesign production chains, re-evaluate healthcare and working practices, etc.).

Yet, the resilient response comes from both individual, community and institutions. The combinations of resilience capacities and policy measures able to prepare our society to cope with the current and the future crises is the base for the transformative resilience, which is the ability to successfully switch from an unsustainable to a sustainable development path.

The COVID-19 shock is so extreme in its duration and intensity that it is simply impossible to address it through absorptive capacities or a simple adaptation of the system. Therefore, it should become an opportunity to progress and “bounce forward” through adaptation and transformation.

The return to business after the lockdown of activities many European countries faced can be used as the opportunity to ground the relaunch of the economic system on the green transition and digital transformation. As highlighted in a recent statement of the European Council[2], the European Union needs to fight the immediate emergency and to start preparing the recovery and the eventual return to sustainable growth:

“The urgency is presently on fighting the Coronavirus pandemic and its immediate consequences. We should however start to prepare the measures necessary to get back to the normal functioning of our societies and economies and to sustainable growth, integrating inter alia the green transition and the digital transformation, and drawing all lessons from the crisis.”

In line with this forward-looking view, the JRC approach to tackle societal resilience has led us to suggest a few actions that could be implemented to face the current COVID-19 emergency.

First, policy measures need to rebuild all capitals eroded by COVID-19: built, represented by structure and infrastructures, human and social capitals. This requires better and stronger coordination of sectoral interventions, an improvement in the measurement and monitoring of human and social capitals, and the adoption of innovative classifications of public and private expenditures, according to the “capital-based” policy framework.

Second, policy measures have to focus on the short-run, but keep in mind the medium-term and the opportunity to bounce forward. The opportunity of getting out of the crisis greener, more digital and fairer cannot be wasted in the name of urgency.

Third, many factors highlighted by such a resilience perspective are useful for designing policies to face the current crisis, and eventually facilitate a bounce forward: the role and participation of citizens; trust in institutions; identifying opportunities that would allow the EU to improve its wellbeing and sustainability without using expensive policies; reconsidering the health systems; re-addressing the trade-offs between security and privacy; promoting a shift towards more sustainable tourism; making a jump in using digital tools in administration and education practices.

Forth, the societal mood and people’s perceptions will play a key role in driving the behaviours, in the post lockdown phase. Therefore, it is fundamental that governments and the EU are perceived as institutions able to manage the recovery process. This calls for clear and effective communication.

[1] Anna Rita Manca & Peter Benczur & Enrico Giovannini, 2017. “Building a Scientific Narrative Towards a More Resilient EU Society. Part 1: a Conceptual Framework,” JRC Working Papers JRC106265, Joint Research Centre.

[2] https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2020/03/26/joint-statement-of-the-members-of-the-european-council-26-march-2020/

This article is based on a more extensive article available: Time for transformative resilience: the COVID-19 emergency