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We’ve Done It Following Floods, Fires & Earthquakes, But Can Society Recover From COVID?

The challenge right now isn’t uncertainty, but ambiguity.

A condition in which the future is unclear, the past is no help, and we don’t even know what we don’t know. 

*** Steven (Steve) D Armstrong ***


When you hear the word ‘disaster,’ is this what you imagine?

On North America’s western edge, an earthquake caused the seabed to drop and rebound within minutes. The shift beneath the ocean displaced an enormous quantity of seawater that surged upward into a massive hill of water, then collapsed. That phenomenon caused a 1,200-kilometre liquid wall to reach the west coast about 15 minutes after the earthquake began.

 By the time the shaking ceased, and the tsunami receded, the region was unrecognizable.’

How about a disaster story that starts?

A man in a Hong Kong elevator sneezes as a woman is checking out of the hotel, and soon after her return from a business trip to Hong Kong, she dies from what seems to be a flu-like infection.

 Thus, begins the spread of SARS. 

Are both scenarios disasters? In one example, lives and livelihoods ruined, homes and infrastructure smashed. In the second, health systems are overwhelmed; people get sick and die, the economy collapses.

 By every definition, they are both disasters.                          

Phases of Disaster

Understanding the phases of disaster allows people, communities and organizations to prepare for and respond to disasters in an informed way. Making the right decisions during each phase gives you the best chances of survival and recovery.

The following chart details each disaster management phase in a ‘traditional’ disaster and compares it to that of the current COVID Pandemic.

Figure #1 – The Phases of Disaster

 Retrieved from:

Phases of Disaster (Tradition Vs Pandemic) A Side-By-Side Comparison

Disaster phase During a ‘Traditional’ Disaster During COVID
Phase 1, the pre-disaster phase A traditional disaster with little or no warning can cause feelings of vulnerability and lack of security, worries of the future, unpredicted death and tragedy and a sense of loss of control or the ability to protect yourself and your family. In the case of COVID, science has predicted a global pandemic for decades, including near misses with SARS and Eboli. Yet society felt it could ignore the matter as so unlikely that little was done to prepare.
Phase 2, the impact phase The immediate response to a ‘traditional disaster’ can be characterized by a range of intense reactions ranging from shock to panic, confusion and disbelief and a focus on self-preservation and family protection The impact phase is usually the shortest of the six phases of disaster, but in the case of the COVID Pandemic, it will last for 6-months to years. It natural for people to tire from the intensity of any traditional emotional response.
Phase 3, the heroic phase Characterized by a high level of activity with a low level of productivity. There is a sense of altruism during this phase, and many community members exhibit adrenaline-induced rescue behaviour. This phase manifested itself in the celebration of healthcare workers, first responders and front-line workers. Unfortunately, the heroic phase passed quickly into anger and frustration, as demonstrated by angry outbursts around mask usage.
Phase 4, the honeymoon phase Characterized by a dramatic shift in emotion from the heroic phase to a settling down into the routines of putting lies back together. During the honeymoon phase, disaster assistance is readily available. Community bonding occurred during the opportunities for healthcare providers and first responders to build rapport with affected people and groups.
Phase 5, the disillusionment phase Characterized by stark contrast to the honeymoon phase, communities and individuals realize the limits of disaster assistance. As optimism turns to discouragement and stress continues to take a toll, adverse reactions such as physical exhaustion or substance use may surface. The increasing gap between need and assistance leads to feelings of abandonment. As of this writing (July 2020), if COVID was on a shopping mall map, it would say “You are here.”
Phase 6, the recovery phase, Individuals and communities begin to assume responsibility for rebuilding their lives, and people adjust to a new “normal” while continuing to grieve losses. The reconstruction phase often starts around the one-year anniversary of the disaster and may continue for some time even lasting years. In the context of the COVID pandemic, full recovery is a distant objective. Short-term recovery objectives like returning to workplaces and schools have begun.But civil society has not even started discussing long-term recovery objectives such as what public and private infrastructure will be required. For example, what will post-secondary institutions look like in the future, and how will the function.


COVID & Recovery

The progression of the Phases of disaster response, when applied to COVID, will look nothing like Figure 1, above. It will look more like the following chart, with overlapping and concurrent phases and with extended timelines.

In a traditional disaster setting, emergency managers generally look at Phases 1 through 5 in terms of months, whereas in a COVID environment, these phases could last for years.

Furthermore, the tidy approach to managing the Pandemic in phases is a false construct that will only lead to failure. Even in the best conditions, managing a traditional disaster by phases is an iterative exercise and fraught with setbacks caused by additional disasters and externalities.

The recovery phase for COVID may well last years and even decades, and may not even begin until 1 to 2 years after the initial outbreak.


Figure #2 Phases of Disaster Seen Through A Pandemic Lens

Recovery in COVID19.

Nations, corporations and public organizations have believed that their institutions can foresee and manage calamity, arrest its impact and restore stability.  When the Pandemic has passed, many institutions will have failed. The reality is that the world, governments, institutions, civil-society, for-profit and non-profit organizations will never be the same after COVID-19.

The virus does not respect borders, corporate structures or social constructs. While the assault on human health will – hopefully – be temporary, the political, economic and social impact could last for generations.

Consider the impact of the pandemic response on women. Workers were sent home, schools and daycares were closed, and this was the right decision by every measure.  Yet, according to a report from RBC Economics, 1.5 million Canadian women lost their jobs in the first two months of the Pandemic. Women’s employment has been slower to rebound as women dominate jobs in retail and accommodation and food services, which are expected to rebound gradually as the economic reopening plays out.

A second, critical factor behind women dropping out of the labour force is motherhood. Given widespread uncertainty surrounding the format of children’s schooling in the fall (and the potential for a virtual/in-class blend), if mothers cannot work remotely and have been laid off, they may hesitate to seek out new work while their child requires daytime supervision at home. Single mothers were even more significantly impacted, with employment among this cohort, those with a toddler or school-aged child, down 12% from February to June compared to a 7% decline among single fathers.

Finally, the distribution of family income matters. Since only 29% of women in dual economic families are the primary earners, most secondary-earner women may have to scale back their hours or pull out of the labour force altogether to manage additional family and household obligations as a result of COVID.

With respect to COVID’s impact on women, and by extension children, the considered decision to close businesses, schools and daycares was like throwing a rock into the water. The splash was enormous, but the ripples have extended further out and in ways not first imagined.

The results of decisions made to solve a complex problem have, in turn, created a so-called “Wicked Problem” of unanticipated proportion.

The concept of Wicked-Problems comes from responding to significant and complex human dilemmas in a traditional way that’s frankly incapable of providing a meaningful result. Responding to issues like the AIDS crisis, homelessness or poverty in conventional methods that often made the original problem worse.

The challenge of using traditional problem solving to implement complex change is enormous. ‘Because change is inherently uncertain and ambiguous, we must learn to manage risk rather than attempting to remove it.


COVID19 will irrevocably change society.

Arguably, COVID has irrevocably changed our organizations, our communities and each of us as individuals.

We’ve lost thousands of people to the disease. The systems, programs and business models we’ve relied on have become instantly outdated. Much public and private infrastructure may now be redundant or surplus.

The Pandemic’s effects on mental health are acknowledged as an afterthought during the ‘Impact’ phase. As we consider long-term recovery, the repercussions on individual and family wellbeing may well be immeasurable.

Additional to the economic impact on women, shutting down society to control the Pandemic’s spread has cost those with the least to lose the most as employers were unable to maintain payrolls. There are, yet to be, calculated Pandemic related long-term job losses. A young person’s lifetime earning potential will suffer as entry into school is postponed, and summer jobs needed to pay tuition evaporate. Families will have to dip deep into accumulated wealth to survive, effectively stripping the meagre wealth of working- and middle-class families.

The result could well cause long-term and persistent generational poverty. 

As the pandemic proceeds, there is no way that communities, employers and governments will maintain themselves as they once were. Society will survive the Pandemic. But, as we would plan Long Term Community recovery from a ‘traditional’ disaster, we must:

  • Delegate managing the day to day issues that the Pandemic brings to your organizations.
  • Start envisioning and planning what your community may look like after the Pandemic passes.
  • Invest in and begin developing civil society and people, so they’re ready to come out the other side.

 The coronavirus pandemic has generated tremendous uncertainty. While the scale of the crisis is new, uncertainty itself is not—it’s a natural condition of the government, business and non-profit sectors. Most strategies rely on accumulated knowledge from the past—there’s a precedent on which to make sense of unknowns. COVID-19 breaks all that. There is no precedent for how to respond to this moment, much less steer ahead.

The biggest challenge right now isn’t uncertainty, but ambiguity—a condition in which the future is unclear, the past is no help, and we don’t even know what we don’t know. There’s no predicting when the Pandemic will end or what “business as usual” will be.

Understanding the ‘wicked problem’ that post-pandemic recovery presents, the question becomes, how might we create new ways to push ahead intelligently?


COVID Recovery & Community Development

The best possible chance for disaster recovery success is through a community development approach that allows individuals and communities to manage their recovery. Community development is a method of working with people by placing them at the front:

Community Development is a long-term value-based process that aims to address imbalances in power and bring about change founded on social justice, equality and inclusion. The process enables people to organize and work together to:

    • identify their own needs and aspirations
    • act to exert influence on the decisions which affect their lives
    • improve the quality of their own lives, the communities in which they live and societies of which they are apart 

(LLUK & Alliance SSC 2011, p 4).

In the early phases of the disaster, agencies can make proactive decisions about supporting anticipated community needs based on previous knowledge and experiences, like closing down workplaces, schools and public gatherings.

Disaster recovery agencies should switch from top-down management to supporting individuals, groups and communities and help them identify, prioritize, and implement their recovery process. This involves working with and engaging communities on local concern issues and developing localized community recovery plans and projects.

Recovery planning built upon community development fundamentally aims to support self-help practices and strengthen the resources, capacity and resilience individuals and communities already possess.

Community development recovery should emphasize the need to:

  • Provide opportunities for pandemic-affected people to ‘have their say’ and give them the power to influence (when they may feel powerless following the impact of an emergency)
  • Work ‘with’ people, rather than doing things “to” or “for” them.
  • Support people in coming to terms with their different life circumstances and help them move into a new, changed reality, which may provide new adaptive socioeconomic and disaster preparedness opportunities.

Principles that underpin the best post-disaster recovery-based community engagement include:


  • Inclusiveness
  • commitment
  • building relationships and mutual respect
  • integrity
  • transparency and accountability
  • feedback and evaluation

Trust can be eroded if the community engagement methods used are inappropriate or promise a level of involvement or decision-making that is not delivered.


Challenges for Post Pandemic Recovery

Challenges involved in working with the community through the post-pandemic recovery processes include:

  • Engaging with communities when they are struggling with multiple pressing issues
  • Maintaining business continuity throughout the long-term recovery process
  • Balancing government and community agendas, which may include political, higher-order recovery planning and prioritization of needs
  • Ensuring open communication and relationships between government and disaster-affected communities
  • Engaging and including excluded groups in decision-making processes
  • Managing conflict—unlike the response phase, where a single chain of command generally applies, recovery is multilateral and leads naturally to disagreement and conflict because communities are not cohesive groups
  • Dealing with pre-existing social and economic inequities
  • Managing unrealistic expectations of recovery timelines and processes


Final Thoughts

We are in challenging times.

We must make difficult post-pandemic decisions around our future, infrastructure, and people. As we continue to navigate these uncharted waters, we can find ways for ambiguity to aid rather than impede progress.

Human attributes like empathy, collaboration, and experimentation can be guiding lights along the way. Here are four ways forward and to drive action.

  • Lead with people – Focusing on the need for people to rally around a purposeful cause. It offers focus and strategic clarity and points to a clear path forward that can deliver value.
  • Forge unexpected partnerships – Part of what makes the Pandemic, so complex is its scale. Leaders need to challenge their humility and courage, and be open to working together to find partners, develop new offerings and secure funding.
  • Experiment today to strengthen tomorrow – The time has never been better to experiment. This means considering fundamental changes to operating models.
  • Leverage scarcity  – It’s understandable to feel an overall sense of scarcity right now. Organizations are inundated with legal, health, social, and operating constraints. It may seem counterintuitive, but these perceived limitations are also an opportunity to create growth and spark innovation.

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