Lessons from wars, pandemics, recessions and natural disasters have taught us that countries can bounce back and prosper
*By Andrew Wear
With more than half of Australia in lockdown, it’s difficult to think about anything other than case numbers, restrictions and vaccination rates. But perhaps sooner than we think, we will be able to see a future beyond the crisis. The question then will be: what next?
Lessons from past crises – wars, pandemics, recessions and natural disasters – have much to teach us about how we might approach our recovery. Often, cities and nations have bounced back to create a better future. The 1918 flu pandemic was followed by the economic prosperity of the roaring 20s. After the second world war, the German economy grew to become the world’s most advanced. Following the 2010 earthquakes, Christchurch shook off its conservative reputation to become a place where “everything is possible”.
From recoveries such as these, a clear view emerges of the types of things we will need to do to shape our own recovery.
Step 1: Set up the recovery
Establishing a dedicated government agency will ensure a focused and coordinated recovery process. With contributions from many required – particularly in severely affected cities such as Sydney and Melbourne – a formal partnership between local, state and national governments will be helpful. This approach – with both a dedicated agency and partnership – was successfully applied in the Indonesian province of Aceh following the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. In Australia, the federal government recently announced the establishment of the National Recovery and Resilience Agency to respond to floods and bushfires, but pandemic recovery seems, so far, to be out of scope.
Step 2: Establish a post-pandemic inquiry
A thorough evaluation of all public health interventions is needed to determine how well the health system coped with the Covid-19 pandemic and where improvements can be made. A royal commission is the most obvious way to do this, with the idea gaining increasing support, endorsed by former departmental secretary Terry Moran, Labor MPs and former prime minister Tony Abbott. In Victoria, a royal commission examined the 2009 bushfires that killed 173 people, and improvements made as a result are attributed with saving lives in subsequent bushfires.
Step 3: Keep stimulating the economy
The federal government will need to keep spending for as long as it takes to get the economy truly humming. Following the global financial crisis, the UK found that moving to austerity settings too early led to a decade of stagnation. Stimulus should progressively shift towards measures that contribute to long-run economic growth and address strategic priorities such as climate change, for example, by investing in research and development or electricity transmission and storage capacity.
Step 4: Adopt an experimental and creative approach
Recovery doesn’t require us to lock in a grand masterplan. Governments should listen to suggestions from experts and community members and give their ideas a go – just as President Roosevelt’s administration did when it constructed its New Deal in response to the Great Depression. Recovery was not ideological but incremental, often involving failure. Consulting widely, many things were tried. If an initiative worked, it was kept; if it failed, it was discarded.
Step 5: Invest in economic development
The things we do now to improve the productivity and competitiveness of our economy will shape our future prosperity. Supporting adoption of new technology and the growth of emerging industries will be particularly important. Key candidates for Australia include further support for our globally recognised biotechnology sector and the establishment of green hydrogen as a potentially lucrative industry exporting clean energy to the world.Following the Korean war, the South Korean government’s preparedness to support promising strategic industries such as vehicle manufacturing, shipbuilding and electronics contributed to the country’s subsequent “miracle” economic growth.
This will not be the last pandemic. We will need to take seriously the lessons of Covid-19 and improve our preparedness and response plans
Step 6: Invest in education
Long-term investment in education is one of the most important moves a country can make. It has driven Singapore’s rapid growth since the second world war. For a country with no natural resources and a small domestic market, Singapore’s well-educated labour force is its key economic strength, built on a government-run school system that achieves the best results in the world. For Australia, an investment in initiatives such as universal early childhood education will lead to substantial and sustained benefits.
Step 7: Address the social determinants of health
Covid-19 has reminded us that health outcomes are influenced by the conditions in which people live and work.Advertisement
In the decades after the 1918 flu, the UK government created universal healthcare, but failed to adequately address the social determinants of health. Unless we reduce smoking rates, alcohol consumption, obesity, overcrowded housing and dangerous jobs, we won’t be adequately prepared for the next pandemic. And as we’ve seen in Australia, people who work in poorly paid jobs in places such as aged-care facilities, the security industry or food processing are highly mobile essential workers, meaning that during a pandemic, their vulnerability potentially extends to us all.
Step 8: Have national conversations about difficult issues
Contradictions linger corrosively at the heart of a nation until dealt with. In Aceh, post-tsunami recovery was not possible until peace could be brokered after years of civil war. With much of Aceh practising a more conservative form of Islam than the rest of Indonesia, the Free Aceh Movement had been seeking independence. The rebuilding of trust between people and neighbourhoods was essential for the recovery process, as communities needed to work together to plan for their future.
Likewise, for a modern Australia to go forward with pride and a develop a coherent modern identity, it will need to right the injustice of the Indigenous dispossession and genocide on which the nation is built.
Step 9: Prepare for future pandemics
This will not be the last pandemic. We will need to take seriously the lessons of Covid-19 and improve our preparedness and response plans. Taiwan did this successfully when its experience of the 2003 Sars epidemic informed the policy responses that enabled it to react impressively well to Covid-19. Following Sars, Taiwan established a standing “war room” to respond to any future pandemic, introduced legal measures to provide for compulsory short-term detention and quarantine, and invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the healthcare system, including for the construction of hospital isolation wards equipped for patients with new infectious diseases.
Australia too, will need to apply the lessons of Covid-19 to future pandemics, for example by improving disease surveillance systems and putting in place protocols enabling it to rapidly suspend air travel.
Step 10: Prepare for other crises
Our post-pandemic recovery is highly likely to be interrupted by another crisis, just as New York’s post-GFC recovery was disrupted by the arrival of Hurricane Sandy. With climate change contributing to more severe and frequent floods, storms, droughts and fires, we will need to step up our planning for shocks of all sorts, not just pandemics.
Past experience demonstrates that crises like the Covid-19 pandemic do not have to leave a long-term legacy. We can recover. Countries and cities rebuilding from devastation have gone on to create prosperous, exciting futures. The people living in post-GFC New York, post-tsunami Aceh or post-war South Korea now enjoy a quality of life that far exceeds that of pre-crisis.
In many cases, countries that experienced a shattering crisis have not merely recovered, but have gone on to lead the world. This should provide us with the confidence that – with the right choices – we too can recover and thrive.
*Andrew Wear is a senior public servant and author of Recovery: How we can create a better, brighter future after a crisis (Black Inc)
*This article first appeared on the theguardian.com website