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ISRM conference online: day one

The Covid-19 pandemic loomed large on the first day of the ISRM’s virtual conference – but so did crises such as climate change that were already around when the pandemic truck; and the next crisis that will come, the worldwide audience heard.

ISRM (Institute of Strategic Risk Management) founder Dr David Rubens, pictured, opened the two-hour session with an overview. He described the world as ‘a very strange place; and it’s something that would have been almost inconceivable; inconceivable; at the beginning of this year’. And yet in many ways Covid is not that terrible a pandemic, he pointed out, as its morbidity rate is two or three per cent whereas ebola’s is 40 to 50pc.

It feels as if the world has responded to Covid-19 as it it was unknowable, he said. Yet the countries of south east Asia such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea, all went through the Sars outbreak of 2003, and were much more able to recognise the threat, and earlier, and were able to develop options and respond, and then most of all to have the emotional readiness to make hard decisions for social lockdown.

A crisis, David said, is not defined by the event; but by our inability to model, and engage with it in a rational way. “Therefore the question we have to ask ourselves is, are we ready for stage two?” That might be a second stage of Covid; or it may well be another crisis – ‘we seem to have forgotten there were other crises prior to Covid-19’ – whether pollution, natural disaster, infrastructure failures, cyber or terrorism; all high on the agenda before the Covid outbreak.

Hence the objective of the ISRM three-day webinar, as a space for academics, policy-makers and practitioners to have a conversation about the serious and critical issues of our generation, he said, then introducing the first speaker, the Labour peer Lord Toby Harris, president of the Institute.

He began with the saying, or curse, ‘may you live in interesting times’ and went through how a pandemic had been risk-assessed beforehand; and shortcomings in global leadership, a theme also for David Rubens. Toby Harris also described some of the necessary features of crisis leadership such as being strategic, and transparent. Often responses are ‘threat neutral’, he said; that is, similar whether the threat is from cyber-attack, or climate change. Resilience needs to be part of society’s fabric, he said. He ended with lines from the theme song of Mel Brooks’ early film Twelve Chairs:

Hope for the best, expect the worst / the world’s a stage, we’re unrehearsed.

Also speaking were Xavier Castellanos the IFRC (International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies) Regional Director, Asia Pacific, who described the ‘devastating impact’ of Covid-19 globally, while pointing out other emergencies, such as refugees in Bangladesh and ebola in Congo; urban planner Nuha Eltinay; and Boston, US-based Prof Stephen Flynn of the Global Resilience Institute, at Northeastern University.

He ended by suggesting that the agenda has to be overcoming five barriers to resilience; for everybody thinks that resilience is a good idea. Those five are ‘risk illiteracy’; how we don’t design for resilience, but for efficiency, ‘which sets us up with very fragile systems’; the need to give incentives to be resilient; and governance – ‘not up to par’, Flynn said. ‘Let’s get on with it,’ he concluded.


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