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Opinion

Acting together offers best risk insurance against future disaster

World needs to better understand how one threat can ripple across multiple sectors

| South Asia
Leaders and people can leverage this moment.    © Hindustan Times/Getty Images

Kanni Wignaraja is U.N. Assistant Secretary-General and director of the U.N. Development Program's regional bureau for Asia and the Pacific.

It would be safe to say that for the most part, we did not see this coming. Nor did we get it right.

Governments, development agencies, businesses, and health systems reduced to reactionary forces, fighting an unseen enemy we were ill-prepared to face. COVID-19 has shattered our illusions of resilience.

While the world has seen multiple disasters -- and none of us have experienced anything like COVID-19 in recent times -- we did at least have some blueprints. So why have not we learned from past disasters and been able to prepare for the worst?

At the U.N. Development Program, we have focused on improving peoples' lives and well-being. We advocate and act for a set of sustainable development goals to spur economic growth, develop institutions and infrastructure, alleviate poverty, protect the environment, and build stronger communities.

These issues connect with each other, and we have seen human development progress over the past three decades. Yet when it comes to addressing so-called "black swan" disasters -- rare catastrophic events -- we all fell woefully short when COVID-19 struck. So, what happened to our collective predictive capacities?

Asia and the Pacific ranks as the world's most disaster-prone region. Over the decades it has dealt with devastating tsunamis, catastrophic floods, and terrifying typhoons. In the past, these and other disasters resulted in a staggering loss of life and devastating economic losses.

But in recent years, we marshaled our forces and built systems to blunt the power of those extreme weather events. From Odisha in India to Aceh in Indonesia, Tacloban in the Philippines, to Khyber Pakthukwa in Pakistan, we have rebuilt communities, infrastructure, and homes, to be more resilient than ever before.

While Nassim Taleb -- the scholar and mathematician who coined the black swan theory -- refers to "unexpected events of large magnitude and consequence," no recent disaster or pandemic can compare to COVID-19. Its scale, severity, and impact have transcended borders as it marches on, inflicting a grievous toll.

To combat COVID-19 -- to prepare, contain, respond, and recover from it -- we must pull together all that we have learned and done in the face of other massive crises, be they financial, natural, or political. And we must be honest about where intentional inaction or unintentional inertia lies.

No one country, no one ministry, no one agency could manage the response and recovery of the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004. We realized then that we needed to work together toward identifying risks facing people and economies, which are both multilayered and multifaceted. We need to do that now. We need to better understand and address systemic risk -- how one risk can ripple or cascade across any one sector and then multiple sectors. How a health shock fast becomes an economic, political, and social shock, with a response that works on several fronts.

Marina beach after a tsunami hit the southern Indian city of Madras, pictured in  December 2004: we realized that we needed to work together toward identifying risks facing people and economies.   © Reuters

Simply put, without real collaboration between countries, we cannot defeat a virus like COVID-19. This kind of approach is needed to mend ruptured global production and value chains, to produce and distribute a COVID-19 vaccine to all, and to ensure cross border pandemic controls. It would also help to coordinate stimulus packages and debt relief, to allow countries -- especially the most vulnerable -- to tackle the pandemic and its human impact. This virus is finding the weakest links in our political, economic, and environmental systems and it is exploiting them, just as it does inside a human body.

If we have learned anything from responding to past disasters and the process of rebuilding, it is that we do not want to feel powerless, disempowered, and vulnerable, in the face of crises. The virus is busting bureaucracy as we know it, and giving rise to a new social contract: between states and people, between institutions and households, between the public and private sector -- a recovery pushing the reset button on direction and trust.

Not everything will change, and some behaviors may go back to old ways, but leaders and people can leverage this moment. This is about choosing new governance that enacts policies, implements laws, builds infrastructure, and delivers services and social protection by putting people's needs, ideas, fears, and contributions ahead of other imperatives.

We are not there yet. A big blight is the wrenching gender gap that still prevails. Growing income, wealth, and power disparities that exist between men and women in most parts of the world still need to be addressed. Inertia and intentional inaction on this front carry enormous economic, social, and political costs, and must be tackled now.

COVID-19 has underscored the importance of investing in a different kind of crisis prevention, risk-conscious planning, and disaster forecast-based financing. We cannot live our lives afraid of the next black swan. When the next one comes, we must know what to do when it arrives, and after it has gone.

Today, we can apply so much of what we have learned in the face of crises that went before. We know that the cleanup, the healing, and the bounce-back from disasters are less painful and faster by deciding and acting together in the larger public interest.

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