Community needs to be central to recovery
26 August 2021 at 8:08 am
Ahead of the release of his new book, Recovery. How we can create a better, brighter future after a crisis, Andrew Wear reflects on how one of the key lessons of past recoveries is that communities are an extremely important element.
Australia’s pandemic response has been inelegant of late, as we stumble towards an end that is just in sight. Yet vaccination rates are increasing quickly and it’s likely we’ll soon figure out a way to leave the virus behind, or at least to live with it.
Nevertheless, the pandemic will leave scars that last years. It’s been a traumatic experience that has led to a surge in mental illness and a rise in family violence. Vulnerable young people unable to attend school have fallen further behind their more advantaged peers. Australia has lost two years of economic growth, and as the pandemic recession has disproportionately impacted vulnerable groups – such as the young and those with low skills – a worsening of inequality is likely.
But there is good reason to be optimistic about the recovery ahead. Humanity has recovered from many crises in the past: war, depression, pandemic and natural disaster. Often, we’ve bounced back to create a better future. The Spanish flu was followed by the economic prosperity of the Roaring Twenties. After World War II, the German economy grew to become the world’s most advanced. US social and economic policies responding to the Great Depression paved the way for 20th-century prosperity.
One of the key lessons of past recoveries is that communities are an extremely important element of any recovery process.
The pandemic has reminded us that community members and community organisations have unique expertise that we ignore at our peril. Scientific and medical voices led the public health response, but as the pandemic progressed, it became clear governments needed to draw on other expert voices too.
A failure to engage with multicultural organisations or ethnic associations in a coordinated way meant their expertise was underutilised. As a result, many communities found it difficult to access up-to-date public health information in a timely manner or an appropriate form. Governments have belatedly recognised that social workers, migrant community representatives and not-for-profit organisations all bring unique and valuable expertise.
In the short-term, enhanced access to mental-health services will require proactive screening and provision of support services to specific groups such as frontline health workers. To tackle an increase in family violence, governments will need to dramatically increase funding for the services that support women and children. We will need to trial ways to overcome significant disengagement from school and the curbing of student aspirations experienced during the pandemic. The community sector will have a delivery role at the centre of these enhanced services.
In the years ahead, community needs to be central to recovery. This was certainly the experience of Aceh, recovering from the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, when the government determined that recovery would be community-driven. Although this approach perhaps took longer, the resulting public support for rebuilding efforts yielded long-term dividends. Bottom-up participatory approaches are more likely to bind stakeholders together under a common purpose, ensure project outcomes are tailored to local needs and build the capacity to better respond to future disasters.
Governments will also need to adopt an experimental and creative approach. Recovery doesn’t require us to lock in a grand masterplan. In fact, given governments really don’t know what will work and what won’t, it’s probably better that we try lots of different things. Governments should listen to suggestions from experts and community members and give their ideas a go – as President Roosevelt did when he developed the New Deal in response to the Great Depression. And rather than deliver everything itself, governments should be prepared to empower and fund others – such as community organisations, artists or companies – to run a range of recovery initiatives. Creative groups might activate vacant spaces in high streets, as in Christchurch. For-profit event management companies might deliver major festivals. Not-for-profit organisations might organise volunteers to support reading remediation in schools.
COVID-19 has shown us – again – that the conditions in which people live and work influence health outcomes enormously. Disadvantaged people are disproportionately burdened by disease, and this includes COVID-19. Social determinants impacting health outcomes include higher rates of smoking and alcohol consumption, obesity, overcrowded housing, dangerous jobs and exposure to air pollution. Reducing the impact of these social determinants will improve our preparedness for the next pandemic, but it will also improve overall health outcomes. It brings the added benefits that come with a reduction in inequality, including improved educational outcomes, greater economic growth, improved social mobility, reduced crime and greater support for democracy.
The United Kingdom grappled with this challenge in the decades after the Spanish flu. The solution they put in place was universal access to healthcare, with the birth of the National Health Service in 1948. This was a critical step forward, but universal access to care did not improve the social determinants of health, and so did not improve health in general.
Tackling the social determinants of health means reducing inequality. In general, people from poorer social or economic circumstances are at greater risk of ill health, have higher rates of disability and death, and live shorter lives than those who are more advantaged. COVID-19 spread fastest and furthest in countries with the greatest levels of inequality, in countries such as the United States, Brazil, Mexico and Peru.
While there are some big policy challenges ahead of us, the good news is that crises 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 New York, or Aceh or South Korea now enjoy a quality of life that far exceeds that pre-crisis. In many cases, countries which experienced a shattering crisis have not merely recovered but have gone on to lead the world. This should provide us with the confidence that we too can recover and thrive.
This article is drawn from Andrew Wear’s book, Recovery. How we can create a better, brighter future after a crisis, to be published on 30 August by Black Inc.