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How to foster national resilience during a crisis

Resilience means overcoming adversity by successfully adapting to negative life events, trauma, stress, or risk. At the individual level, people who are resilient draw on their own internal resources and aptitudes, and on external supports such as mutual aid networks.

Community resilience refers to cultural strengths that insulate members from external attacks. Such attacks might come in the form of natural disasters, severe economic losses, or social oppression. Researchers who are studying resilience within a socially oppressive environment are really studying not the impact of one traumatic event but the impact of a whole constellation of events. And their focus is apt to be on entire communities in their ability to bounce back from the shattering experience.

The adversity or hardship has to end for there to be resilience In a people who have lived through long-term adversity. Psychological and social qualities alone are not sufficient to lead a people into a state of well-being. The oppressive environment must change so that people can achieve their potential.

At the national level, resilience following a jolting event is characterized by more than just bouncing back to a previous state of existence. It also involves overcoming any dysfunctions in the system and working to make people less vulnerable in the future. Regarding the coronavirus pandemic, resilience would entail prevailing over the challenges and emerging out of the crisis with new laws and social policies designed to correct the flaws in the system.  Social welfare history shows us that building a resilient society generally takes a crisis of major proportions.

Crises can be exploited, however, by powerful elites for their own ends. For example, many people furthered the promotion of privatization after Hurricane Katrina. We should be wary also of the tendency to shift blame in times of major upheavals. History tells us that the Black Death of 1348 led to attacks on Jews, who were forced to flee western Europe. Following the turmoil of World War I and the Great Depression some countries in central Europe turned to fascism. Parallels today are in attacks on people of Asian descent who some blame for spread of the coronavirus. In China, people of African origin have been scapegoated.

Instead of shifting blame for a disaster, resilient nations direct their attention to painful truths that they overlooked in the past and consider ways to build a better and more protective society. Policymakers often look to precedents from history for insights. With job losses today at a level not seen since the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal can serve as a reference point.

Because of the urgency of the Great Depression, the government was able to pass legislation that moved the nation in new directions. The New Deal ushered in the passage of the Social Security Act, banking regulations, home loans, expansion of the National Park Service, and the Works Progress Administration. In so doing, it left a legacy and social welfare policies that continue to be important  today.

Given the public health and economic crises of 2020, citizens will ask questions about how to better protect people during disasters. A major concern is job loss and with it, loss of health care protections.  Some commentators are looking to Europe to see what kind of social supports governments can provide.

Counties in Western European provide comprehensive economic safety nets that include family allowances, free preschool, care for the frail elderly, lengthy vacation time, labor rights, and income for unemployed workers. And in Europe, as in most economically advanced countries, health care is viewed as a human right.

The United States, in contrast, relies on privatized insurance plans for those who can afford them and help for the poor through means-tested programs that are inadequate and highly stigmatized. When the pandemic struck, therefore, and people were in quarantine and out of work, Congress had to rush to pass emergency legislation to send stimulus payments and unemployment relief to people.

Racial, ethnic, and class inequities in American society were exacerbated in the crisis. The job loss in minority communities was disproportionately high as was the death toll. The large number of all Americans living paycheck to paycheck were in urgent need of help when they lost their jobs and had to pay themselves for medical care. The staggering death toll in nursing homes exposed the shoddy treatment provided to older people in those facilities. Similarly, the high death tolls in jails, prisons, and meatpacking plants have exposed unhealthy conditions in these places. Many have found out the hard way that the institutions they could count on for care in a crisis were faulty. The good news is that now with extensive media coverage of problems in the system, the American public has become critical of the status quo and ready for change. The Green New Deal movement, which advocates progressive social welfare and environmental protections, has gained in strength in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Sadly, it has taken the scale of a horrific pandemic to expose weaknesses in the social structure that should have been seen and addressed all along. As we emerge from the COVID-19 health crisis, and the economy begins to rebound, hopefully, the impetus for change will persist. Then we can embark on a path of the kind of economic changes that lead to resilience

Featured Image Credit: by Stanislav Kondratiev on Unsplash 

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