The 2021 Global Risks Report closed with a reflection on the extent to which shortcomings in the pandemic response could be attributed to long-standing complacencies, the novel and specific complexities of COVID-19, the volatile and divisive (geo) political environment or simple mismanagement. This chapter takes stock of national response strategies implemented in the second year of the pandemic and then reflects on collaborative opportunities within countries to improve preparedness for future crises and organizational resilience.
During 2020, national governments sought to protect lives and livelihoods against a novel virus that was resulting in a significant mortality rate—with the backdrop of significant shortcomings in national and global preparedness. In 2021, as the virus evolved more contagious variants, governments sought to deploy new responses, in alignment with measures developed the previous year, to return to societal and economic normalcy. Most countries experienced several surges during the year, with the number of daily cases characterized by exponential growth and a 20-to 40-fold increase between peak and trough (see Figure 6.1). By this measure, most countries presented both success stories and cautionary tales at different times.
Two interlinked factors have proved critical for the effective national management of the pandemic: first, governments’ readiness to adjust response strategies according to changing circumstances; and second, their ability to maintain societal trust and compliance through principles-based decisions and effective communications.
In general, effective national responses were characterized by a holistic view of societal well-being, multi-pronged approaches to transmission control and health system protection, robust coordination of policy and process, reliable logistics, and the deployment of new interventions and increasingly granular and real-time data where available. Countries such as Chile and Finland were better able to manage peak periods than those with less well-rounded approaches.1 They achieved this via cross-departmental policy agendas; expanded networks of community health workers; key health worker protections; a range of individually imperfect but collectively effective transmission control measures such as testing, tracing and isolating; digital healthcare technologies; and early investment in anticipation of future needs.
Critical for many countries was the establishment of well-judged policy transitions between enabling social interaction and economic activity when possible and returning, when needed, to the kind of mobility constraints that were default strategies in the early stages of the crisis. Rapid and wholesale easing of constraints on social and economic activity often resulted in a steep rise in case numbers, although the impact on health systems and mortality was often mitigated by high vaccination rates. Some countries that had prided themselves on very low case numbers for a long time found it hard to acknowledge or pivot when that was no longer the best indicator to measure the state of the pandemic.2 The Omicron variant, with its higher infectiousness, will moreover force governments to revisit the balance between sustaining economic activity and limiting spread. Some are choosing to minimize disruptions in light of the virus’ evidently milder threat, although they must be prepared to reinstate restrictions as necessary given that healthcare systems remain at risk of collapse.3
The arrival of effective vaccines and antiviral treatments changed the game in terms of managing the impact of the virus on citizens’ health and national health systems, enabling greater latitude in another policies.4 Mass deployment of affordable rapid tests also helped people move and mingle again while mitigating transmission risk. However, although a range of vaccines was technically available from early in the year, differing negotiating powers, contracting approaches and approval regimes had a strong impact on programme rollout timetables. Many high-income countries had privileged access to vaccines: by early December 2021, all but three Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries had double-vaccinated at least 50% of their populations.5 Some middle-income countries had also achieved high levels of vaccination: for example, the 79% vaccination rate in Malaysia was largely due to effective distribution,6 while Brazil’s 65% was attributed to strong vaccine enthusiasm.7
The lowest vaccination rates were mostly found in low-income countries (see Figure 6.2), especially in Africa, that had to rely on “vaccine diplomacy” initiatives from individual countries and multilateral agreements such as the Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) programme. The latter suffered from low contributions from high-income countries, high levels of bureaucracy, unpredictable supplies, and storage and distribution challenges.8 Relatively younger populations and a favorable climate may have blunted the mortality of the virus in these countries, although excess deaths were estimated at between 0–2.1 million in Africa by May 2021,9 and long Covid may emerge as a longer-term challenge given the large number of non-fatal cases.
In general, successful vaccine rollout programmes struck a balance between speed and robustness, recognizing that perfect was sometimes the enemy of good. Vaccine effectiveness was found to improve following a second dose but waned over time, leading advanced economies to introduce booster jab programmes in which take-up and speed were key priorities.10 By the latter part of the year, analysis showed that fully vaccinated individuals were less likely to transmit the virus, experience severe or long-haul symptoms, occupy hospital beds or die.11
Although global eradication of COVID-19 is no longer a viable option, persistent transmission of SARS-Cov-2 allows the emergence of new variants that are more contagious and may be more virulent and escape immunity conferred by infection or existing vaccines. Hence, the relatively slower vaccine rollouts in middle-and low-income countries, as well as vaccine hesitancy wherever present, remain a continued pandemic risk for all countries and require anticipation of further policy transitions. As and when new variants arise, governments will need to reimpose an appropriate set of control measures.
Maintaining societal trust involved galvanizing compliance and cooperation across citizens and the business community through frequent changes of government policy over an extended period. This often proved challenging as, during 2021, many citizens became wearier of lockdowns and obligations such as mask-wearing. In late November, several European countries and Australia experienced riots when governments tightened regimes in the face of ballooning case numbers.12
Moreover, in advanced economies with widespread access to vaccines, significant percentages of the adult population remained unvaccinated the end of 2021 due to misplaced concerns about the risk of the vaccines relative to that of catching the virus, over-confidence in their own natural immunity and adherence to a range of theories that lack scientific basis.13 In other countries, general distrust of the government has resulted in widespread vaccine hesitancy, with alternative sources of authority, including local opinion and religious leaders, not sufficiently able to help allay fears.14
The trust component of managing this crisis has often depended on a balance between imposing constraints or coercion based on science and policies that encourage good behaviour. Communication has needed to steer a narrow course between individual freedoms and collective resilience; indeed, nearly 50% of the World Economic Forum global risk experts identified this tension as one of the most critical for societies to manage.i The challenge will only intensify as the pandemic extends into its third year and the public grows increasingly weary, especially during festive seasons as expectations for unfettered social activity increase.
The faster distribution of testing kits, along with easier self-administration and greater reliability of results, were helpful for enabling social interactions and international mobility. The widespread availability of affordable testing will be crucial as restrictions are increasingly lifted and greater social activity causes demand to outstrip supply, as has already been seen in some countries. However, regarding vaccines, some governments have become concerned that voluntary measures have reached their limits, especially with the arrival of the Omicron variant.15 Plans for vaccination requirements, with sanctions on employment or mobility for those who continue to resist, will test societal goodwill and compliance as well as government determination in light of divisive politics.16 Additionally, national resilience strategies for future pandemics may require anticipation of some level of distrust and defiance of restrictions and interventions aimed at protecting vulnerable population segments.
The COVID-19 crisis repeatedly surprised those charged with anticipating its trajectory and will likely leave further complex problems in its wake. Nor is the pandemic and its response the only challenge that governments, societies and businesses are facing. As the Global Risks Report sets out, new crises may lie just over the horizon. Many critical risks demand a whole-of-society response. This involves not only the engagement of different sectors leading to multiple individual actions but also more effective interaction between different sectors in ways that are accretive to well-being and prosperity.17
Countries must distinguish between different resilience goals to harness their collective capabilities more effectively and navigate the many inevitable trade-offs, as failure to appreciate where agendas are misaligned will limit the traction any solutions can gain. One such goal might be community resilience to potential disasters; another might be reliable critical economic and societal infrastructure; a third might be long-term strategic imperatives such as industrial transformation.18 Each of these goals requires different strategies, providing a frame for different cross-sectoral interactions.
National risk assessments and resilience strategy reviews should be used to reveal where momentum is insufficient and greater government intervention is needed. It is not desirable or feasible for governments to seek to fill all gaps themselves: instead, they should look to harness the capabilities and energies of other sectors to complement enhanced competencies that ought to lie in the public realm.19 Strategies should set out what is needed and examine all available levers with fresh eyes. They should identify where governments may need to compel action by others, and where they can exercise power as a client, stimulate new initiatives, facilitate collaboration or simply act as cheerleaders for good practices.
In their interactions with the private sector, governments that are more dirigiste might want to adjust their approaches to models for stockpiling critical goods, requisitioning and procurement in a crisis.20 All might also seek tougher cybersecurity mandates and set out stronger expectations of stress testing for critical infrastructure.21 They might seek to bring about a research and development ecosystem for resilience, coordinate crisis management exercises involving public and private sectors, and provide a level of backstop for pooled insurance schemes targeted at catastrophic risks.22
On three issues, finding a balanced path is critical. First, it is essential to allocate risk in a way that means the taxpayer does not ultimately pay up in every crisis nor do governments sweep risks off the public balance sheet onto the private sector. More transparent, analysis-led discussions about risks and tolerances should spur more equitable, creative solutions about the cost and pricing of risk as well as fiscal and market buffers that might mitigate fallout in the event of crisis.
Second, regulating for resilience must factor in rapid changes in assets, industries and systems; conflicting priorities in regulatory mandates; and enforcement challenges. Arguably, systemically important assets, firms and sub-sectors ought to experience greater oversight to prevent “hidden” assets in digital ecosystems, dominant firms in niche but critical industries and growing segments of certain sectors where the plausible near-simultaneous failure of several providers could have negative far-reaching consequences.23 For regulatory regimes that primarily look out for present-day consumers, long-term resilience should be a central tenet and capability underpinning the development and implementation of major critical infrastructure capital investment plans.24 Stronger cross-sector regulatory hubs could sharpen debate and help reconcile differing agendas of bodies with separate statutory powers.25
Third, data-sharing arrangements must be adjusted in a way that enables both pre-emptive resilience building and sharper crisis management. There are good reasons for constraining some flows of data and intelligence, including national security, commercial confidentiality, antitrust constraints and personal privacy. Acknowledging this, governments may seek to identify crisis circumstances—such as a cybersecurity lapse—in which they should compel critical infrastructure operators to provide data to government bodies. In other situations, such as an earthquake, they might permit, or even encourage, competing firms to share data with each other to ensure strategic supplies for the nation. Prior to crises, governments should consider how to develop more collaborative approaches to scenario and impact analyses, build semi-accessible and proprietary data into resilience analytics and crisis decision-making, and better facilitate pre-competitive data sharing by companies for innovations that will benefit both participants and the national good.26
Many companies have sought to understand how they can contribute to the resilience of the countries in which they operate. They recognize that better national-level preparedness leads to shock events having smaller impacts on the economy and stability of government policy, creating a better environment in which to plan, invest and execute.
Opportunities fall into four groups. First, large firms already look intensively at business interruption risks across supply chains, managed service providers, utilities and customers with a view to softening the impact of bottlenecks and outages; smaller firms could do the same with a lighter touch.27 Second, nationally important companies worked with each other where permitted during the pandemic; more broadly scoped codes of conduct could set out best-practice behaviours per industry for future crises.28 Third, the pandemic spurred companies to look harder at the resilience of their workforces and the communities in which they are located; large employers could build a resilience dimension into health and benefits offerings.29 Fourth, some firms have been seeking to take a more active role in addressing large-scale public policy challenges that affect their business but can not be resolved by government alone; more of that effort could be directly positioned in support of public goods.30
While public funds have traditionally directed resilience efforts, there is a growing imperative for businesses to take up the mantle of driving innovation in order to reduce blind spots and counter stovepiping tendencies within government. Greater private sector participation in strategic forums can allow experts and practitioners to contribute to and challenge government agendas. Dynamic cross-sectoral interactions around priorities, policies and operating practices can also help uncover efficient and efficacious solutions as well as generate broader traction for fresh initiatives.31
Both the pandemic and extreme weather events have highlighted areas where central governments and local bodies can combine more effectively. Failure to join up policy agendas across national government departments can have devastating impacts at the local level, where crises play out and disconnects are exposed. Similarly, “airgaps” between central and local governments—often due to struggles for authority or weaknesses in liaison networks—have compromised data flows, the effectiveness of initiatives, and local trust.32 Improved communication processes, better devolution of decision-making authorities, stronger coordination of on-the-ground efforts between central government specialist agencies and local administrations and better capacity-building at local and national levels would go a long way in supporting resilience.
There is scope for central and local governments to do more to support resilience efforts at the community level, often in partnership with non-governmental organizations and businesses. Local resilience forums can galvanize communities to provide detailed intelligence on situational vulnerabilities and likely impacts of key risks, helping to prioritize resilience measures. Enhancing awareness and participation, empowering local actors and building capabilities are vital for the cultural shift that is essential for sustaining resilience programmes over the long term.
There are multiple opportunities to enrich interfaces between academic communities and government agendas at local, national, and international levels, especially for the provision of expertise and evidence on matters of science and technology.33 Collaborative exploration of risk and resilience issues—before, during, and after a crisis—would benefit from stronger, more flexible communication channels and higher levels of trust (see Box 6.1).
1: Bloomberg. 2021. “The Best and Worst Places to Be as Winter Meets Omicron”. 30 November 2021. https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/covid-resilience-ranking/
2: Tan, Y. 2021. “What went wrong in Singapore and Taiwan?” BBC News. 20 May 2021.
3: 2021.“WHO warns Omicron could overwhelm health systems as cases rise to record highs in Europe”. The Guardian. 29 December 2021.
4: Crow, D. 2021. “How mRNA became a vaccine game-changer”. Financial Times. 13 May 2021. https://www.ft.com/content/b2978026-4bc2-439c-a561-a1972eeba940
5: Our World in Data. Share of the population fully vaccinated against COVID-19. https://github.com/owid/covid-19-data/tree/master/public/data, accessed15 December 2021.
6: Kurlantzick, J. 2021. “Lessons ASEAN could learn from Malaysia’s pandemic success”. The Japan Times. 5 November 2021.
7: Freelon, K. 2021. “In Brazil’s successful vaccine campaign, a lesson for the U.S.” Undark Magazine. 14 October 2021.
8: Fleming, S., Mancini, P.D. and Pilling, D. 2021. “‘Erratic’ European Covid vaccine donations hamper African jabs rollout”. Financial Times. 9 December 2021. https://www.ft.com/content/d0b53ea4-5eef-4bc7-814c-a69b0dfa1c06
9: The Economist. 2021. “There have been 7m-13m excess deaths worldwide during the pandemic”. The Economist. 15 May 2021.
10: Stieg, C.2021. “New data says you should get a Covid vaccine booster shot as soon as you’re eligible — here’s why”. CNBC. 10 November 2021.
11: Aravindan, A and Lin, C. 2021. “Vaccinated people make up 75% of recent COVID-19 cases in Singapore, but few fall ill”. Reuters. 23 July 2021. https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/vaccinated-people-singapore-make-up-three-quarters-recent-covid-19-cases-2021-07-23/; Mathieu, E. and Roser, M. 2021. “How do death rates from COVID-19 differ between people who are vaccinated and those who are not?” Our World in Data. 23 November 2021; updated 10 December 2021. https://ourworldindata.org/covid-deaths-by-vaccination
12: DW. 2021. “COVID curbs spark protests worldwide”. Deutsche Welle. 21 November 2021. https://www.dw.com/en/covid-curbs-spark-protests-worldwide/a-59892484
13: See, e.g., Thompson, D. 2021. “Millions are saying no to the vaccines. What are they thinking?” The Atlantic. 4 May 2021. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/05/the-people-who-wont-get-the-vaccine/618765/Calonzo, A. and Tan, K. 2021.” Anti-Vaxxer Propaganda Spreads in Asia, Endangering Millions”. Bloomberg. 1 July 2021. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-06-30/anti-vaxxer-disinformation-spreads-in-asia-endangering-millions
14: Hartwig, R. and Hoffmann, L. 2021. Challenging Trust in Government: COVID in Sub-Saharan Africa. GIGA Focus Afrika.
15: Onishi, N. and Casey, N. 2021. “Crack Down Hard, or Wait and See? Europe Splits on Omicron Response”. The New York Times. 20 December 2021.
16: Fleming, S. and Chazan, G. 2021. “Von der Leyen calls for EU ‘discussion’ on mandatory vaccination”. Financial Times. 1 December 2021. https://www.ft.com/content/3e96d309-0283-4a33-9fc0-2bc5de22cb5f; Henley, J. 2021. “Germany: Mandatory Covid jabs a step closer as unvaccinated face lockdown”. The Guardian. 2 December 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/dec/02/germany-could-make-covid-vaccination-mandatory-says-merkel; Shear, M.D. and Scheiber, N. 2021. “Biden tests limits of presidential power in pushing vaccinations”. New York Times. 4 November 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/10/us/politics/biden-vaccines.html
17: OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). 2014. Recommendation of the Council on the Governance of Critical Risks.
18: Smith-Bingham, R. 2021. Partnering with purpose: Strengthening national-level resilience in the UK through more dynamic public-private interactions. National Preparedness Commission & Marsh McLennan.
19: OECD. 2018. Assessing Global Progress in the Governance of Critical Risks. OECD Reviews of Risk Management Policies.
20: OECD. 2020. Stocktaking report on immediate public procurement and infrastructure responses to COVID-19. Updated 24 June.
21: Caminiti, S.2021. “What cybersecurity leaders say they need from the federal government”. CNBC. 25 August 2021.
22: EIOPA (European Insurance and Occupational Pensions Authority). 2021. “EIOPA staff paper on measures to improve the insurability of business interruption risk in light of pandemics”. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.
23: Smith-Bingham, R. 2021. Op. Cit.
24: OECD. 2021. Building Resilience: New Strategies for Strengthening Infrastructure Resilience and Maintenance.
25: Financial Services Regulatory Initiatives Forum. 2021. Regulatory Initiatives Grid.November 2021.
26: World Economic Forum. 2021. “Data-Driven Economies: Foundations for Our Common Future”. White Paper. April 2021.
27: Asseri, A.H., Abilkasimov, M., Frio, D. and Beato, F. 2021. “Managing third-party risks? Here's how a holistic approach can help”. World Economic Forum Agenda. 30 September 2021.
28: MedTech Europe. 2020. “MedTech Europe Code Guidance on COVID-19 Emergency Support”. 27 March 2020.
29: Hariharan, K., Rudoy, J. and Friedman, L. 2021. “How businesses can improve the health of societies”. BRINK. 13 July 2021.
30: Rosenberg, S. and Fried, I. 2021. “The government-industry cyberdefense dance”. Axios. 26 August 2021.
31: See, e.g., Zurich Insurance Group. 2021. “The Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance”. https://floodresilience.net/zurich-flood-resilience-alliance/
32: Dilanian, K.and De Luce, D. 2020. “Trump administration's lack of a unified coronavirus strategy will cost lives, say a dozen experts”. NBC News. 3 April 2020. https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/donald-trump/trump-administration-s-lack-unified-coronavirus-strategy-will-cost-lives-n1175126
33: Rojas, C.R., Richards, C. and Rhodes, C. 2021. Pathways to Linking Science and Policy in the Field of Global Risk. Centre for the Study of Existential Risk. University of Cambridge. 23 April 2021.