The year 2020 will be remembered as the beginning of the Age of Pandemia. A new period in human history when people and nation-states come to the realisation that the risk of pandemic has become structural to our hyperconnected globalised society. Just as the global movement of finance, labour, goods and technology has transformed the planet dramatically over the last century, so have the global disruptions to ecological systems and human consumption patterns heightened the risk of pandemics in our everyday life. The Covid-19 crisis has shocked us to the vulnerability of our global system and the systemic risk posed by highly infectious diseases.
This is an important point. The risk of a pandemic is not an external threat but a by-product or ‘externality’ of modern industrial society. A risk that is embedded within the very structure of our contemporary community – not any different from the risk of a nuclear reactor meltdown or the crashing of global financial markets. In this ‘Risk Society’, a term coined in 1992 by German sociologist Ulrich Becki, such pandemics will continue to crop-up as new and novel human pathogens emerge from the mutative cycles of modernity.
How should policy makers respond to such a risk? We argue that the current tendency of using the war metaphor is not the way to respond. Such a metaphor is useful to mobilise and rally people around a short-term external threat. But it is also the root cause for the chaos we are experiencing now – the lack of government preparedness despite having experienced similar events such as the ‘Spanish’ Flu, SARS or the Zika virus epidemic throughout the last century. The war metaphor masks the fact that the threat of pandemic is a long game requiring a more complex response at the local, national and global levels of society. We require far-reaching changes to the way we design and organise our cities and supply chains, and a rethinking of the way we interact and transact as a global society. Arundhati Roy wrote recently that, “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew.” In this paper, we argue that such a response would require reshaping policy making around the concept of reflexivity and made operational through an adaptive policy making approach.
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