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Natural Environment

Covid-19: Is this the new normal for the urbanised world?

According to the WHO, it took Covid-19 67 days to reach its first 100,000 cases; 11 days to reach a second 100,000 cases and 4 days for a third 100,000 cases. This is an accelerating threat that shows no sign of slowing down.

Prof. Samer Bagaeen, , Thought Leadership Relationships Manager, RICS
30 March 2020

In the early days of January 2020, the later named Covid-19 virus started to spread from Wuhan in China to other countries. Personally, it hit very close to home in mid-February 2020 when a cluster of cases emerged in Brighton and Hove in England, aided by a single “super spreader.” In March 2020, other countries around the world, including Iran, Italy, Spain, Germany and others became the main focus of the spread.

The pandemic is profoundly impacting lives and livelihoods around the world. There is no doubt about that. Built environment professions are not immune to this. The challenge for us as professionals is therefore to mitigate the negative effects and ensure that we remain resilient as much as we can through the next few weeks.

Perhaps more importantly, the challenge is also to emerge different, more mature, aware and suitably enabled to take advantage of the new operating environment.

Our use of work enabling technology will, in all likelihood, change drastically. Relationships with insurers and clients will take on a new character. The way in which we think about climate change as a humanity defining challenge will be affected and the solutions that we develop will be different.

An important fact in all this is that a pandemic event of this severity is not something that has arrived out of the blue. We have been warned about something of this magnitude on numerous occasions.

Writing in February 2016, Robert Glasser, former Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction, and head of the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, wrote about the pandemic threat to human security. At the time, the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, was coming to an end, while the mosquito-borne Zika virus had led WHO to declare a public health emergency of international concern.

Perhaps most pertinently, he highlighted the lack of vaccines and reliable diagnostic tools. As we battle today against Covid-19, the absence of a vaccine and shortage of testing kits and personal protective equipment continues to be a crucial hindrance.

Glasser asked whether we had collectively buried our heads in the sand as to the threat of epidemic and pandemic events. The political, humanitarian and economic fall-out from major natural disaster events has been shown to effectively catalyse international collaborative relief efforts. Perhaps now we will treat the threat of pandemics equally as seriously.

The World Economic Forum certainly does. Leading economists agree that we need to act fast and do whatever it takes to fight the Covid-19 crisis. They may be motivated like the rest of us by ‘flattening the curve of cases’ to ease pressure on our health systems. But they are also driven by the dire economic consequences of the hollowing out of our urban centres, and the grinding down of trade, commerce, real estate transactions and the travel and leisure sectors.

90% of all disasters are now climate-related and there is so much focus on them that deaths are being avoided in many weather-related disasters.

This sense of urgency and action among political leaders in disaster-prone countries has taken root since the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami became the world's first truly global natural disaster, claiming over 220,000 lives from many countries across the world. The political fall-out from major disaster events such as this has helped to spur politicians at all levels.

In contrast, are we burying our heads in the sand when it comes to the threat of epidemics and pandemics?

Robert Glasser
Formerly Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction, United Nations (speaking in 2016)

Though the economists say it’s still too early to tell how bad the economic damage will be, they’re certain it will be profound – the pandemic is destroying lives and livelihoods around the world. There are, of course, fiscal policies governments can adopt to prevent or limit the economic damage.

In the same way that we are leveraging the big guns in the fight against the virus, we can do the same for the economy. Pierre-Olivier Gourinchas of the University of California, Berkeley, argues that governments must act with equal confidence to reduce the accumulation of economic scar tissue. To do so, we must ensure that people have money to keep spending even if they’re not working, while also increasing public investment and healthcare spending. In this way, resilience can be built into the system.

What else can be done? The actions that governments around the world have taken to mitigate and contain the outbreak have been nearly uniform:

  • Reducing travel and non-essential personal movement;
  • Temporarily shutting down shops and businesses;
  • Asking people to work from home where possible;
  • Maintaining the agility and resilience of the supply chain;
  • Closing schools and universities and moving children and young adults to online education;
  • Closing airports and limiting corporate travel.

There is nothing to say that once we have moved past this testing moment in our history, that the precautions that we have largely accepted without complaint could form part of a long term campaign to build resilience to climate change.

At the same time, they could inspire holistic thinking about the myriad challenges that we face globally, including rising sea levels, flooding, drought and tsunamis.

Covid-19 may represent a “new normal” once we are at the other side of this crisis. How will we, how will our societies, businesses, politics and habits change as a result?