Post-Coronavirus resilience: no bouncing back

This article is part of our ongoing series by LSE IDEAS and the Ratiu Forum analysing the Covid-19 pandemic within a regional context. Here, Artur Gruszczak, Chair of National Security at the Faculty of International and Political Studies, Jagiellonian University in Krakow, examines how countries can become more resilient in a post-COVID-19 world.


The coronavirus blues

The coronavirus pandemic marks another breaking point in modern history. Unprecedented in peacetime, human civilisation has deactivated social, religious, economic and political interactions in their conventional forms. Fear of the pandemic has caused extraordinary legal, administrative and economic measures to be adopted by state authorities and international organisations all over the world. Global markets have been thrown into turmoil and the terrible spectre of recession hangs over the world economy. Many governments declared a state of emergency. Extraordinary situations call for exceptional measures; this assumption has been widely shared among politicians, businesspeople, celebrities, social activists and ordinary people.

In the face of the biggest security crisis since 9/11, and the worst economic recession since the Great Depression, numerous questions arise as to the evolution of the current imbroglio and long-term consequences of the pandemic. As the famous Israeli author Yuval Noah Harari wrote in the Financial Times on the 20th March: “Yes, the storm will pass […] — but we will inhabit a different world.” Now this sounds trivial: the global structure of human civilisation is bound to undergo a major adjustment. The world will be different, as it tends to be in the aftermath of great wars, social revolutions, religious awakenings or technological breakthroughs. And a new world should be brave enough to notice black swans and black elephants as early as possible and to cope effectively with imminent threats and tough challenges. One property of our complex reality can prevent the COVID world from going into a spin: resilience.

Rooted in the environmental sciences, resilience was welcomed by practitioners and decision-makers as an agile formula for responding to varied challenges, dilemmas and contingencies. Resilience should be understood as the capacity of a system to cope with unanticipated dangers after they have become manifest, absorb change and disturbance and learn to bounce back through reorganisation and change by ensuring the maintenance of essentially the same systemic functions, structure and agency.

The coronavirus pandemic has triggered shock and awe for all mankind and has revealed weaknesses of national crisis management systems and global regulatory mechanisms. A rebound of the entire global system needs a thoughtful reconsideration of existing mechanisms, instruments and measures for ensuring systemic stability, protecting public order and safeguarding the population from cataclysms and calamities.

This commentary does not aspire to depict the ‘shape of things to come’, as this has been practiced recently on a massive global scale in the media. It aims rather to reflect on resilience as a scientific concept which has made a rapid and impressive career in the social sciences of the 21st century. Now it is the time for a real trial.

Let reason triumph!

Even before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, there was a widespread belief that we are living in restless times which make us particularly aware of existing threats such as terrorism, crime, regional armed conflicts, irregular migration, political instability, market volatility, and more to come. We were excited by the brave new cyberworld inviting us to embark on exciting adventures with no negative consequences, no collateral damage. Better than Commander James Bond, who lived only twice, we were granted an unlimited number of ‘lives’. The blurring of the division between the real and virtual worlds was extended to our knowledge and cognition: What is real, what is false? What is rational, what is senseless? What is true, what is fake? Humankind has lost its resilience to falsehood, disinformation and manipulation. Its ‘cognitive immune system’ has been severely weakened by the expansion of social media, the speed of the creation and spread of information, the deficit of time necessary to rationally assess incoming messages. The French sociologist Jean-Claude Kaufmann announced that “[…] the great utopia of the Enlightenment crashed into the reality of elusive complexity”.

The decay of rational, even commonsensical, behaviour should be attributed to many politicians and leaders who have preyed on some people’s inclination to demagogy, conspiracy theories and paranoid thinking as means of amassing political capital and acquiring power. It was their fault that in the early weeks of the spread of the virus they did not stop people from transmitting it in crowded places and open public areas. Likewise, a considerable part of the general public has been seduced by competing conspiracy explanations of the roots of the pandemic, be they in a secret Chinese laboratory, the US army, or 5G technology. Many scientists, scholars and experts have lamented the fact that the results and recommendations of their empirical research and fact-based reports are considered as wolf cries by state authorities. A general ignorance, or negligence, of the risk of a pandemic by decision makers largely contributed to the rapid spread of the coronavirus. Furthermore, stupid medical recommendations or nonchalant behaviour practiced by top politicians and public figures caused quite a stir among the public. Medical staff and health care workers were dismayed at the ‘good advice’ that some politicians shared with their fellow compatriots.

Resilience-building should strengthen a rationalist approach to elusive complexity. Resilience is about learning, exploration, reflexivity. It should promote education, self-development, and organisational learning. It should also resist our susceptibility to the malign influence of hostile actors, the spread of fake news, disinformation and black propaganda, and also those who would seek directly or indirectly to subvert and weaken the legitimate basis of constitutional regimes. Society should be defended against leaders, politicians and influencers who prey on people’s ignorance, bewilderment and confusion. Offering primitive solutions to complex problems may increase political support, so necessary for the maintenance of power or mobilisation of an electorate, but it will not help handle properly those complex and critical issues which address the very essence of good governance and legitimate rule.

Beware nationalism, my son!

An effective and appropriate response to global crises requires solidarity and shared responsibility from governments, societies and local communities. A sense of togetherness, of belonging to a community with a shared destiny, to the unique but increasingly endangered human species on planet Earth, fosters resilience and social participation. However, the fear of an ‘invisible enemy’ may activate a bunker mentality and trigger rescue scenarios, precluding cooperation and focusing on self-preservation. Such inward-oriented resilience has proved effective, as Sigmund Freud ascertained, as a survival instinct motivating human behaviour in critical existential moments. But it works only in extreme circumstances and cannot underpin long-term strategies of recovery and sustainable development. Alas, we have observed a strong tendency towards free riding, national selfishness, even hubris. The race for protective medical equipment, bans on exports of some health products, dirty games over the acquisitions of some medical companies developing vaccines and medicines against COVID-19 – these are just a few examples of governments’ efforts to outsmart others.

Nationalist narratives and attitudes have persisted in Central and Eastern Europe for years. They were used by populist parties and shrewd demagogic politicians to quickly gain political capital and eventually seize power. The migration crisis in the EU of the mid-2010s reinforced nationalist feelings and triggered a reluctance to accept, or even hostility towards, “aliens” (immigrants, foreigners, third-country nationals). Nationalism has proven to be a primitive but effective tool of political steering and popular mobilisation. Ultimately, it paid to use nationalist discourse since it generated votes of the extreme fractions of society. In addition, nationalist narratives have often been used to cover up mistakes and bad decisions by ruling parties. They have become part of an immensely developed and quite sophisticated arsenal of propaganda, influence and disinformation measures.

The COVID-19 pandemic caught the majority of Central and East European countries unprepared. The enduring crisis of healthcare systems which are under-invested in, under-staffed, poorly managed and antiquated has been put in the limelight. Acute shortages of health care personnel, especially in Poland and Romania, have hindered access to and lowered the quality of many medical services. The emigration of healthcare workers, because of poor working conditions and low salaries, has made these deficits chronic and severe. From the outbreak of the pandemic the ruling parties have grappled with enormous healthcare challenges: reorganisation of the public healthcare system to adjust it to epidemic conditions, shortages of protective gear for medical staff, exhaustion of overloaded personnel, the dramatic situation in care homes. Unpreparedness, mismanagement and an accountability deficit have been covered by nationalist discourse and the ‘propaganda of success’. A mood of total mobilisation, full governmental control of the situation, and national pride in handling the crisis alone has spread over the region of Central and Eastern Europe. One issue was especially highlighted in this process: that of taking care of compatriots who were locked down abroad or just wished to return to their homeland. This “return mobilisation” was skilfully used to inspire nationalist and paternalist feelings. In Poland the government and the servile press presented the ‘repatriation flights’ as one of the most complicated logistical operations in the history of Polish civil aviation, a race against time to rescue Poles staying abroad, the costs of which were covered by the Polish state. This nationalist fervour ended on the Polish soil. After landing in Polish airports, passengers were left alone, making health security measures and instructions totally useless. No assistance was offered in regard to the supply of basic protective medical equipment, transportation back home, or preparation for the 14-day quarantine.

La fin de la démocratie is coming…

As suggested at the beginning of this commentary, today we live a pivotal global moment, and are seeing the end of the world as we know it. Democracy as part of this world has been constantly challenged by alternative models of political participation and governance. In times of crisis, disruption or catastrophe a strong and assertive power centre consolidates its control of the dynamic environment and tends to limit political participation by means of extraordinary legal provisions, enforcing on society discipline and obedience.

Resilience is comprehensive and effective when it enjoys popular support and acknowledgment and when its building and performance are empowered by legitimate authorities. Consensual choices, popular participation, transparent decision making and the political accountability of state institutions are crucial to effective and competent crisis management and post-disaster stabilisation. Authoritarian and illiberal-democratic regimes are much more prone to arbitrary decision making, politicisation and instrumentalisation of the pandemic. Some of them, especially in the eastern part of the European continent, have already taken advantage of the public health crisis and moral panic. The Orban government in Hungary assumed the power to rule by decree without an end date. The PiS-led government in Poland enforced harsh lockdown measures and numerous restrictions on civil rights, without declaring it a state of emergency pursuant to constitutional provisions. The reason behind that was clear: to ensure the victory of the incumbent president Andrzej Duda in the pending presidential election by changing the electoral rules and mobilising the support of the conservative electorate for the institutions of state authority and the ruling party. In a similar vein, Serbian president Vucić has pushed for presidential elections irrespective of a state of emergency and the atmosphere of fear and intimidation created by the pro-government media. Vucić, similarly to Duda, is keen on avoiding a probable decline in popularity due to the unavoidable consequences of the pandemic, especially economic collapse and social unrest.

The above-mentioned examples of political and legal acts of hostility towards democratic order do not augur well for the post-pandemic rebound and stabilisation. Democracy’s resilience consists in an innovative institutional adaptation to complex challenges and protracted political conflicts. This is made possible by legitimate authorities and an engaged civil society united in the principle of social and political inclusion. Democracies too often have fallen victim to inertia and anomie in society, provoking readiness to entrust political power to the hands of a strong leader with demagogic skills. The false generosity and paternalism of national income redistribution systems are hurtful to societal resilience, as they make promises of material benefits prevail over the premises of democracy. They depreciate democratic values, corrupt institutions and disorganise civic participation. Finally, in the event of a change in power, the democratic system is left crippled by such aberrations. In that case, democratic resilience must be established from scratch because the legacy of the former regime leaves no effective and legitimate elements that might underpin the wide range of integrity-enhanced rules for free and fair political competition.

No bouncing back

An apocalyptic mood has spread all over the world and taken possession of a considerable part of social media. Extremist visions of the future (or non-future) compete with rationalised images of a post-pandemic recovery, stabilisation and transformation. Times of war or of deep crisis are conducive to black scenarios. People in extreme circumstances prefer easy, radical, black-or-white solutions. Wars, catastrophes or crises create an environment favourable to predatory parties, political demagogues and ruthless players.

Resilience is an ability to absorb shocks and adjust the systemic elements of reality in a process of reorganisation and improvement, maintaining the (eco)system’s identity and effectiveness. Resilience is about managing uncertainty and precariousness in search of security and well-being. Resilience consists in innovatively addressing the root causes and structural determinants of instability, crisis and collapse. Resilience teaches us how to ‘survive wisely’ or how to forget old mistakes and rise up after a downfall.

“Resilience hurts”, Tomas Ried said. It entails the making of unpopular decisions, painful reforms, and uncertain outcomes. At the same time, it opens onto, as Kevin Grove wrote, ‘a politics of potentiality’. The current pandemic must be perceived as having the potentiality to transform the pre-pandemic world into a new complex system based on rationality, accountability, solidarity and participation. Otherwise, a restoration of l’ordre ancien will replicate old sins and inherent vices. Bouncing back to old pragmatic solutions, considered as requirements of a quick post-crisis recovery, effective management and legitimate governance, may weaken adaptability, reduce diversity and expose the state and society to new risks and disturbances.

Artur Gruszczak is Professor of Social Sciences, Chair of National Security at the Faculty of International and Political Studies, Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. His principal interests and research areas include: strategic studies; EU internal security; intelligence cooperation. He co-edited with Paweł Frankowski two collected volumes: Technology, Ethics and the Protocols of Modern War (Routledge, 2018) and Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives on Regional and Global Security (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).