In a COVID-19 Performance Index published earlier this year by Sydney’s Lowy Institute, five Southeast Asian countries ranked in the top 25 of the nearly 100 countries evaluated: Vietnam ranked in second place, followed by Thailand (fourth), Singapore (13th), Malaysia (16th), and Myanmar (24th). Indeed, Southeast Asia has arguably done relatively well as a region in terms of managing case numbers and deaths, although some countries such as Indonesia continue to struggle to contain the coronavirus.
Nevertheless, with vaccine rollouts gearing up across the region, there is now some cause for cautious optimism. At the same time, some uncertainty remains given the emergence of variant strains of COVID-19 that appear to spread more easily and call into question the efficacy of the various vaccines being administered at present.
Furthermore, while Southeast Asian countries are expecting an economic rebound this year, the long-term economic implications of the pandemic are likely to be profound. In addition to rolling back progress on poverty reduction and income inequality, COVID-19 has also consumed billions of dollars’ worth of future investments and government spending as countries have dipped into their reserves or taken on debt to finance rescue packages.
Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has likened dealing with COVID-19 to a marathon rather than a sprint, urging continued vigilance and caution. However, the prospect of reining in COVID-19 raises important questions for the region in terms of managing the pandemic’s endgame and determining a suitable pathway out of this debilitating global crisis.
First, how has the COVID-19 pandemic shifted the understanding of risk and the increasingly complex task of risk assessment? Gaps in perception of risk matter, as demonstrated by how many countries were slow to respond during the pandemic’s initial stage, despite early warning systems giving them a window to act decisively.
Second, is a different approach needed to cope with the uncertainty that we can expect to persist long after COVID-19 has been rendered manageable? This concern goes beyond future pandemics and extends to the plethora of risks that countries currently face, in addition to those that are yet to surface.
There are no easy answers to these questions. Thus far, the concept of resilience has been at the forefront of policy thinking about the management of risk and the development of effective responses at levels ranging from global to the individual.
Resilience – the ability to recover or bounce back quickly from crises or adversity – has emerged as a “core philosophy” for those seeking to deal effectively with shocks and systemic stressors like the ongoing pandemic. Indeed, building resilience can strengthen societies and systems while encouraging the development of essential competencies such as the capacity to adapt or withstand stress.
The lockdowns imposed by many countries in the wake of COVID-19 can be regarded as a type of resilience measure, in which recovery and renormalization were the end-goals. The first waves of infections in early 2020 saw a series of quick and decisive lockdowns around the world in order to disrupt widespread community infections and prevent hospitals from getting overwhelmed.
Nevertheless, optimism over the summer of 2020 – due the relative success of early lockdowns and a general desire to minimize long-term economic impact – may have contributed to serious second waves of infections in many countries. For instance, across Asia, infections jumped after nations eased restrictions in a bid to restart their economies. Experts also say that factors such as complacency and cold weather contributed to third waves of infections in the autumn. Subsequent lockdowns around the world were also more cautious and localized, with many governments hesitant to reimpose national lockdowns.
In this way, the COVID-19 pandemic has also exposed the limitations of resilience measures such as lockdowns – in particular, how resilience at one level can undermine resilience at another. Another major challenge faced by policymakers is how to balance the pursuit of resilience in one system – for instance, the economy – against the resilience of another, such as public health outcomes. Moreover, as long as global attention remains focused on combating COVID-19, there is a risk of other issues being overlooked or not receiving timely attention.
Continuous reviews of existing risk mitigation mechanisms and strategies in terms of their usefulness and relevance are arguably essential to cope with the increasing complexity of the global operating environment. However, many definitions of resilience imply a return to the status quo prior to a risk materializing. This may no longer be sufficient.
One alternative to resilience worth exploring is the concept of “antifragility.” Developed by the Lebanese-American scholar and investor Nassim Nicholas Taleb, antifragility refers to a system that actively thrives in response to a shock or stressor.
However, some scholars have challenged the concept of antifragility, arguing that there are few real-world examples of antifragile systems, and that, in practice, resilient systems share features that Taleb attributes to antifragility. Furthermore, as concepts, both resilience and antifragility suffer from the fact that they are inherently difficult to measure.
One important point of departure, however, is that resilience assumes we are dealing with predictable events. While pandemics are generally predictable, the scale and impact of COVID-19 certainly caught many by surprise. This could partly explain why notions of resilience are coming up short in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic’s debilitating global economic and social impact.
Although some light is visible at the end of the proverbial tunnel, we are likely entering an extended endgame when it comes to COVID-19. In addition to variant strains and doubts over vaccine efficacy, there is the longer-term economic and social impact of the pandemic, including a new wave of poverty in Southeast Asia.
Furthermore, while vaccine rollouts present an opportunity to minimize future lockdowns and return to a sense of normalcy, it will be some time before enough individuals are vaccinated to entirely shelve safety measures such as the wearing of face masks. In the meantime, economic and social activity will thus continue to face restrictions. This will ultimately extend the pandemic’s impact, even if case and mortality counts drop over time.
Beyond COVID-19, new pandemic-triggering viruses also loom large in our global future. Rapid population growth, high-density urban development, deforestation and climate change, the industrialization of animal farming, and the wildlife trade all increase the risk of exposure to novel viruses and animal-to-human transmissions.
While COVID-19 has renewed attention on public health and epidemiological policymaking, research, and investments, “pandemic fatigue” and the eagerness to put the nightmare of COVID-19 behind us run the risk of undoing these efforts once the current crisis passes. Regional pandemic preparedness will therefore remain essential, even as individual countries’ capabilities continue to vary considerably.
In this context, the added value of antifragility as a concept lies in how it can frame our collective mindset toward future crises. In preparing for future calamities, an antifragile mentality could complement, rather than compete with, existing resilience measures and policies.
Antifragility also recognizes that recovery and returning to pre-COVID-19 normalities should not be the ultimate end-goals, but rather encourage us to raise the bar and turn crises into opportunities. Crises such as the ongoing pandemic can provide an impetus for a reset to pursue and create superior systems that can not only deal with future problems effectively, but also thrive in the face of shocks.
A possible next step would be to develop a framework that integrates resilience and antifragility in a measurable and pragmatic manner. This should ideally enable a longer-term shift in mindset that takes into account the lessons learned from COVID-19 and leverages opportunities to better anticipate, respond, and grow from future threats and crises.