The large-scale and long-lasting effects of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), combined with the possible impact of other hazards and recent events, have the potential to damage or destroy vital infrastructure and the life support systems of large parts of societies and economies. The COVID-19 pandemic will also have a historic socioeconomic effect on Latin America and the Caribbean. The Caribbean and especially its economic activity have been hit by external shocks, accompanied by a global recession and a collapse in international trade. This is expected to be reflected directly in higher unemployment and greater poverty and inequality, two major and historical drivers of vulnerability in the region.
The increasingly complex interactions between economic, political and human systems on one hand and environmental systems on the other contribute to the systemic nature of risk and its cascading effects. Today’s environmental, health, food, energy, information, financial and communication systems and supply chains are complex, interconnected, and vulnerable.
Their vulnerabilities also appear and exist at multiple levels, from the local to the global. These systems are tested by and drive disruptive factors such as infectious diseases, depletion of natural resources, environmental and ecosystem degradation, food shortages, social unrest, political and financial instability, and inequality.
These disruptive elements shape the risk scenarios the Caribbean faces. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the absence of significant efforts by countries and cities around the world to overcome the limitations of a hazard-by-hazard, siloed and fragmented view of risk management.
It has demonstrated, that in an ever more populous, networked and globalized society, the very nature and scale of risks have changed, to such a degree that they overwhelm established risk management institutions and approaches (UNDRR, 2019). A systemic approach to risk management must guide action in the short, medium and long term.
Disaster risk can be understood as a function of hazard, exposure, and vulnerability. The wording of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030 emphasized the systemic nature of risk and it proved prescient. The global COVID-19 disaster has revealed the precarious systems upon which trade, food, energy, transportation, and social safety nets depend. Risks manifests with local, regional and global cascading consequences and can trigger feedback loops that reverberate across communities, sectors, geographies and scales (UNDRR, 2019).
The pandemic has affected the social, economic and physical environments, as well as the very same systems that created the right conditions for this virus to emerge, propagate and become a global catastrophe.
The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates the urgent need for new conceptual and analytical approaches to improve understanding and management of risk dynamics and complex, interconnected risk drivers with cascading effects. Progress will only be accelerated towards risk-informed sustainable development and regeneration by strengthening the understanding of system risk and incorporating systems-based approaches in the design of policies and investments across all sectors, geographies and scales. Improved risk governance is essential. There is an opportunity to build on progress to date.
The United Nations blueprint for reducing disaster risk, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030, adopted by Member States in 2015, is a common and agreed tool to better prevent, mitigate, prepare for and respond to all risks, including systemic risks and biorisks. If we do not act now on reducing disaster risk, we are accelerating the wilful destruction of our planet. The response to this pandemic must accelerate rather than undermine decarbonization, protect natural capital, build resilient cities and ensure social equality and inclusion. Risk and recovery from disasters cannot be addressed without aiming to protect people and the planet, preserving gains across all the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and placing the voices, rights and agency of people at the heart of any efforts.
A return to normal is therefore a return to those same mutually reinforcing conditions that gave rise to the pandemic emergency in the first place. Resuming business as usual —rebuilding the same systems— will generate more risks, yielding similar outcomes. Framed correctly, the actions that governments choose can transform the sectors they seek to save. The urgency is evident, and the opportunity is there. We have observed governments wresting back and wielding power in many countries, in a historic fashion, the likes of which have not been seen in decades.
The required transformation is possible. It demands much greater ambition, and action that is on a par with the scale of the threat. Not what is convenient, but what is necessary.