As part of my postgraduate dissertation I used the seven principles of resilience set out by researcher Reinette Biggs and her colleagues. They were designed to assess ecosystem services, but I was able to adapt them for my own purposes of assessing a community situated in a remote marine environment. I travelled to Greenland to collect my data for the study. I was initially interested in climate related impacts to the community and how resilient they were to those, but that morphed into globalisation and modernisation as well.
The very resilience I explored is directly linked to that community’s ability to cope with a pandemic as well. I’m not an epidemiological expert and my studies didn’t go deep enough to be able to say how a small community in Greenland would be impacted by a viral infection, or what they should do to combat it. However, I did think it would be interesting to compare my findings with characteristics of a pandemic.
Not wanting to bore you with the details, I have chosen two of the seven principles.
- Maintain Diversity and Redundancy
- Managing Connectivity
- Managing Slow Variables and Feedbacks
- Fostering an Understanding of Social-Ecological Systems as Complex Adaptive Systems
- Encouraging Learning and Experimentation
- Broadening Participation
- Promoting Polycentric Governance Systems
Managing connectivity is all about networks. In science terms, networks are described as having nodes and edges. An example would be your family network. Each family member is a node, while the edges are the connections they have with others. In an immediate family unit each member is directly connected to all of the others. As you extend to grandparents, second cousins, and in-laws the connections might have to go through other family members. Visually, networks are usually portrayed like this:
When certain nodes have hundreds of edges, and others have one or two, if that most popular node is taken out, it knocks the network down because all other nodes were relying on it to maintain connection. Equally, if there are many, many nodes but each only has one or two connections, it doesn’t take much for something to sever the connections, because there just aren’t many to start with.
To put this into pandemic perspective, your community might be served by a large, state of the art hospital. If it’s the only one serving the entire community and disaster strikes, everyone’s healthcare service is gone. If you live in a sparsely populated area, but there are several healthcare centres, equally sparsely located, you have options. However, it won’t take a lot to prevent you from getting to more than one of them – maybe a storm rolls in, the car breaks down, or there isn’t enough time to get there – still just as screwed. To combat this, networks should incorporate some hubs, and many connections. A second hospital isn’t too far away and can call on a greater network of healthcare professionals, or you have a small clinic much closer to you where you can buy some time and get essential care.
Interestingly enough, remote communities have strong internal networks, but are easier to shut off from the rest of the world because they have fewer external connections. As we modernise and globalise, this changes and brings with it positives and negatives. It may be harder for the virus to reach a community where the only way in is by boat or plane. Once it gets there, it could have a much more severe impact.
Encouraging Learning and Experimentation
As we’ve seen over the last couple of months, countries tackle this pandemic differently. Whether they learn from those who’ve dealt with it before them is still in question, but the principle is there. Our medical knowledge is vast, and it puts us in a much better position to cope with outbreaks now, than one hundred years ago. The learning we’ve done since previous epidemics and pandemics puts us in a more resilient position now to know how to isolate it and treat the symptoms.
As we continue in the face of this challenge, medical researchers continue to learn and experiment. They are searching for better ways to help those who have contracted the virus, trying to understand better how it spreads, and working on a vaccine to protect us in the future. Learning and experimentation work hand in hand to not only make us resilient in the face of a challenge, but to help us get through it.
With schools and universities closing it might seem like we have shut down our ability to continue teaching the younger generation. I would argue that these institutions, although they provide resources, aren’t the single component of our knowledge expansion. At the moment, it is important that the research resource we have goes into epidemiological research. This doesn’t mean that everyone else has to stop learning.
I have just started a new job this week and for the next few days will be remotely learning how to do my work. I’ve also planted some seeds which will be a bit of an experiment because I don’t have a particularly green thumb. Across the world, those lucky enough to be able to connect virtually will continue their formal education. We are all learning about self-sufficiency, community support, and supply chains.
Social distancing should more appropriately be named physical distancing. In our current world it is easier than ever to maintain our connections with those we support and those who support us without being in the same room. Many can continue their work and education, if in a different format, but we are all discovering new things out of this uncertainty. By physically avoiding crowds and utilising technology we safeguard our connections – both hubs and remote locales – without compromising our ability to continue learning and experimenting.
The pandemic for many is not the first challenge they are facing in life, and it is unlikely to be the last for those coming out the other side. I encourage everyone to consider how they might be more resilient to other challenges in the future, from starting a new job, to climate change.