10 ways of thinking about crisis resilience


It is still too early to learn lessons from the coronavirus crisis. However, there is one term that comes to mind when addressing the inevitable directions of political thinking after the crisis: resilience. But what exactly does it mean and how will it influence the political agenda?

"Sometimes less is more" - Central railway station Wiesbaden, Germany

It is way too early to learn any lessons from the COVID-19 health crisis. Half of the world’s population is in quarantine, infection rates are rising, while the epicentre of the crisis is shifting from Europe to the USA. Increasingly, the post-crisis situation is being felt – the collapse of the global economy.

Crises are not only the hour of the executive, but also a moment of truth for each and every prevention measure in place. If something does not exist or has not been established at the time of the crisis, it is not possible to pluck it out of thin air under pressure.

This applies to hospitals and their provision of staff and medical equipment, as well as to the competence of teachers to move their lessons online, mirrored by the ability of students to learn online, going beyond all social differences. Where no broadband expansion has taken place, neither home office nor home schooling is now possible because the networks are simply overloaded. Even less can be done to make up for the precautionary deficits in research and development.

The moment of truth for prevention measures in place also applies to the European Union. The health crisis hit the EU at a moment when European cohesion and the Union’s ability to find solutions were already in a critical state – tough Brexit negotiations plus the erosion of the rule of law in several European countries, most notably in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, plus disagreement over a medium-term financial framework, plus the deadlocked refugee policy. It is not surprising that the existing early warning systems and instruments for pandemic management did not take effect at all in the first instance and only slowly in the second. [1]

It is the basic factors of globalisation that are currently reduced

The measures to contain the crisis follow two broad patterns: limiting mobility and preventing personal contact, both essential factorswhich fundamentally shaped the peak of globalisation as it was experienced until February 2020 – for better or worse. Better, because the rail networks, the airlines and the ocean shipping routes were something like the blood circulation system of a globalised economy, because contact possibilities, economic and civil society cooperation, and information about human rights violations could be exchanged across continents in seconds. Worse, because they made transport costs disappear, because they exploited and thus increased global inequality, and because they created environmental costs that nobody was willing to pay.

How sensitive these essential factors are for globalisation is shown by their interruption – interrupted economic cycles and closed borders lead straight into a global economic crisis or, as Ivan Krastev aptly puts it: “a ground zero of globalisation”. [2]

Within the European Union, the shockwaves of the interruption of supply chains, of export restrictions on industrial products, and of restrictions on movement in certain sectors, resembled a ground zero of Europeanisation.

Recognition of our vulnerability is the prerequisite for resilience

This shows that European, western-style societies are highly vulnerable. Acknowledging this is not a matter of course. Recognition of vulnerability is different from assuming that security is feasible and producible. This insight can be decisive for dealing with impending crises, the climate crisis first and foremost.

A policy of apparent invulnerability, for example, sealing off an economy in a protectionist and nationalist manner, while at the same time exploiting the openness and vulnerability of others, leads to deep frictions and irresolvable contradictions. For example, when the US administration tries to lure research-based pharmaceutical companies with money to the USA to develop vaccines exclusively for one country, these are activities that obey baser instincts and follow a script that only knows the selfish moment and no common future. This script is the result of not acknowledging its own obvious vulnerability.

Recognition of vulnerability is also a prerequisite for developing something for the global North, something that was previously necessary above all in the global South – resilience. Resilience concepts provide information on the capacities needed to enable individuals and societies to absorb shocks and stresses. Originally coming from psychology, resilience refers to a material property that ensures that a certain material deforms under stress but does not break. Can this be transferred to the current situation?

Three capacities have been identified in political resilience research: Coping capacities, adaptive capacities and transformational capacities. The question of what capacities are and are not available allows cautious conclusions to be drawn as to the directions political thinking should take after the crisis.

Coping capacities cover endurance as well as overcoming sudden disturbances quickly and with the greatest possible flexibility. In this sense, some of the capacities with which the health crisis is currently being overcome are:

1. The state and its institutions are becoming more important again. People trust governments, public institutions such as health authorities and national agencies to the extent that they make well-founded and explained decisions. People are even prepared to accept measures restricting their freedom to an extent that even dwarfs the heavily contested emergency laws of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1968. However, this is only the case as long as the measures address the current core problem and do not serve to legitimise other political intentions.

2. Professionalism and expertise – after gruelling strategies of devaluing scientific knowledge – are recognised again, at least in the acutely relevant areas. This gives hope for a move away from populist half knowledge towards objective, evidence-based policy – also in other fields, such as climate science, which mirrors similarly complex scientific fields like public health. However, the coronavirus crisis does not offer an answer to the climate crisis. Anyone who points out that CO2 emissions are falling and concludes that these are the appropriate measures to tackle the climate crisis is heading for a political dead end. A climate policy that presupposes the standstill of our society will fail and will not even come close to finding a democratic majority. This requires more convincing and better answers. Because:

3. Democracy itself is proving to be part of the coping capacity. It can and must be contradicted, questioned and debated: Are the measures lawful, appropriate and not permanent? For example, the hasty legal introduction of a tracking app was stopped in democratic discourse. Democracies are learning systems that can adapt, correct and thus improve their behaviour. Damaged democracies are less able to do this – as demonstrated by the suspension of democratic institutions and the complete gagging of freedom of expression in Hungary. The suppression of information hinders the democratic learning process and can cost lives. In this respect, authoritarian systems do not function better than democratic systems – on the contrary. Chinese state propaganda attempts to prove to the global community that the “Chinese system” is superior to the “western system” (not only) in times of crisis. The truth is different: The non-transparent situation in China has made it much more difficult for the international community to deal with the crisis. It is still unclear today how the situation in China really is on the ground. In contrast, European governments have also proven that they can act quickly, democratically and decisively.

4. And finally, the solidarity of the population – from the mutual offers of help, to the medical students who are helping in hospitals, to the gifts left on railings for the homeless – proves how great the capacities to cope with the crisis actually are. After overcoming the initial national reflexes, European dimensions of solidarity have also taken off. The limits of our solidarity are evident where the incapacity to act in relation to the refugees in the Greek island camps is concerned. The necessary capacities are lacking here – with dramatic consequences.
Resilience requires adaptive capacities, meaning the proactive and long-term orientation of structures, processes and behaviour towards present and future vulnerabilities.

5. The health crisis has revealed vulnerabilities in key jobs that were previously considered unimportant, such as supermarket cashiers and carers in nursing homes. Building up adaptive capacities in this area would mean redefining systemic relevance and making this clear in terms of remuneration.

6. Closely linked to this is the long-term provision and maintenance of participatory infrastructures: publicly funded facilities that are accessible to all and do not generate immediate profit, but which are rightly expected to function both in the event of a crisis and under normal circumstances. Infrastructures make the existence of people in the city and in the countryside possible in a more or less equal way and guarantee a self-determined and healthy life. However, this form of public service has been neglected in recent years – the harshest light is currently being shed on the inadequate staffing of health authorities and hospitals with nursing staff, as well as the inadequate digital equipment and digital skills of schools and universities.
7. Now and in the future, long-term structures of cooperation are needed – not only in the field of crisis prevention and research, not only at national, but also at European and international level. For it is precisely the strengthening of the capacities for action and intervention of international organisations that will be important, such as the massively underfunded WHO, whose financing is not only ensured by the community of states but also to a large extent by the Gates Foundation. It would be just as important to make much greater use of the cooperative potential of the OSCE, the UN, and not least the European Union.
Finally, societies need transformative capacities to learn to adapt to constant and newly unforeseeable conditions and to see change as an opportunity.

8. The image of ground zero is only of limited value for the question of how to deal with the expected global economic crisis. The interdependencies of the global economy, which will continue to exist once the planes take off again, should not be used again in the economic crisis as a weapon in trade wars, but rather to overcome this crisis and the far more serious global climate crisis. The World Bank sees the COVID-19 shock as a “window of opportunity” in which the economic stimulus packages that will and must exist can be designed as “climate-smart” investments. [3] Four aspects are of strategic importance: Investments in renewable energies, which often also create more jobs than fossil fuels and provide energy security; investments in a largely climate-neutral infrastructure in the transport sector or in waste management; investments in local adaptation measures such as irrigation, social housing, water and hygiene facilities, renaturation measures, etc. and the retention of CO2 taxes and tariffs to avoid false incentives.
9. The European Union also needs transformative capacities. It is not facing just another crisis, but is fighting for its existence. If it is to continue to exist, a rapid solution is needed to the question of how to absorb the faltering economies of Italy and other countries severely affected by the crisis. But more far-reaching ideas are needed to prevent the break-up. 67% of Germans still see more advantages than disadvantages in EU membership. [4] This is a good basis on which the German Council Presidency, starting in July, can resolutely assume its dramatically increased responsibility to put the community of EU Member States on a stabilisation course.
10. The coronavirus pandemic is the first crisis in human history in which we are able to continue in a virtual reality those parts of our life, which now are physically limited. Virtual information, contactless payment, digital meetings – all of a suddenly we become aware of the world we have long since lived in without having completely adjusted our behaviour to it. For large sections of the workforce, the digital learning curve is a steep one. There is a great opportunity in this. These experiences will not remain unused after the crisis, but will fuel digital transformation. It can only become a transformative capacity, however, if data and information protection is not played off against usability, if the digital divide – the continuation of social inequality in the digital space – does not increase, and if the Internet becomes a space of secure and trustworthy communication.

The two basic factors of globalisation – mobility and contact – which are currently so greatly reduced, will change. Digital mobility and digital contacts promise more resilience in similar crises and have the advantage that they also promote environmentally sound behaviour without restricting freedoms. 

[1] Cf. Eva van de Rakt/Florian Christl, Covid-19 pandemic shows how fragile the EU is
[2] Cf. Ivan Krastev, Seven early lessons from the coronavirus
[3] Cf. Xenia Kirchhofer, The pandemic is an unexpected opportunity for climate action
[4] Cf. Heinrich Böll Foundation, Selbstverständlich Europäisch!? (Naturally European!?)


The article has first been published on www.boell.de in German.