By Emily Nonko and Victoria Salinas
The numbers are staggering. More than 26 million people have filed for unemployment in the US during a five-week period since the government started responding in earnest to the COVID-19 crisis. Small businesses exhausted the US$349 billion Paycheck Protection Program in just 14 days, and as of today, the total number of coronavirus cases in the US added up to 1.2 million – all the while bringing to light the disproportionate effect the virus is having on people of colour. The same disproportionate impact has been felt in other countries, with people of black Caribbean heritage dying at triple the rate of white Britons in the UK according to a report published last Friday by the UK’s Institute for Fiscal Studies.
As communities and government agencies tend to the urgency of the immediate COVID-19 crisis, it’s also time to plan for long-term resilience and recovery. But this type of planning will be challenging in ways never experienced before by governments. Unlike natural disasters such as storms and earthquakes, which have beginning and endpoints, there’s no clear blueprint for recovery in the face of this open-ended, ever-changing crisis. At the same time, governments have an unprecedented opportunity to commit to recoveries grounded in equity, sustainability and collaboration.
This crisis is different
Recovery typically consists of an emergency response followed by stabilisation, adaptive recovery and the institutionalisation of changes. But that blueprint will not apply in the same way to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Jeff Hebert, vice chair of FUSE and partner at HR&A Advisors, which specialises in resilience planning. “We’re in a protracted response period,” he says.
The response must address two parallel crises: “The global public health emergency, and the fastest economic decline on record, which is not only impacting business and people, but also government and government agencies.”
Public and private institutions should still organise efforts around emergency response — which we’re currently in — followed by stabilisation, adaptive recovery and institutionalisation. Emergency response, however, will be longer and more unpredictable, requiring flexibility from government agencies to help mitigate different challenges.
The longer response period should be used to prepare for adaptation, which will be crucial as cities start rebuilding in a more equitable way. “We should be rebuilding differently, and not going back to the way that we existed previously,” says Hebert. “Because what we have seen, time and time again, is that disaster exacerbates the issues [of inequity] that are already present.
“Particularly in this disaster, we really need to focus on those who are most vulnerable and most impacted, and continue to build their resilience so that they come out of this with more capacity not just for this disaster, but for all the future disasters that may come their way in the future.”
Transformative and equitable recovery starts in the response phase
The prolonged emergency response that city governments find themselves in should be considered the first step of long-term recovery. “We have this period in which it’s more like a chronic stress, so the impact is unfolding over time, but we also have an opportunity to mitigate that impact,” says Laurie Johnson, an urban planner specialising in disaster recovery and catastrophe risk management, and principal of Laurie Johnson Consulting. “We have an opportunity to design adaptive and transformative strategies now.”
Understanding the local ecosystem and how different parts affect each other will be critical. “We need to recognise, for example, that if we give money to restaurants to keep going, particularly if we get them to acquire a lot of debt, but we don’t restore their ecosystem, we’re only putting them more at risk of not recovering,” she adds. Johnson observed this while helping New Orleans with its recovery efforts following Hurricane Katrina. “People got small business administration loans early on — a dry-cleaner, a neighbourhood restaurant — but they weren’t really able to restore their business until people started coming back to New Orleans, which took a year or two. You may not be able to heal a business sector if you’re only working at one end of the system. So gearing up and sorting out, taking this time as the impact is happening to really understand what that impact is, is crucial.”
Now is also the time to consider response and recovery strategies that provide co-benefits to the broader economic system — like safely restarting construction, which has a large supply chain — or co-benefits for hazard resilience, such as fast-tracking infrastructure projects that also help with climate adaptation.
Equity must be part of the recovery framework from the start as well. San Francisco, for example, created an economic recovery task force, and one of its priorities is equity for vulnerable populations. In Oakland, California, equity is a central tenet of its Economic Recovery Task Force, as well. In King County, Washington, an equity officer is part of central leadership within its emergency response structure. The county also formed a Pandemic Community Advisory Group to ensure diverse voices inform longer-term community-based decisions. In Houston, the Emergency Operations Center started an at-risk and vulnerable populations working group.
Build on prior work on recovery and resiliency
Just because COVID-19 presents unique challenges doesn’t mean cities can’t refer to past recovery preparedness plans. Johnson suggested that US cities refer to the National Disaster Recovery Framework to help identify lead and supporting agencies during recovery and start building task forces to respond to the current crisis. California took the lead on building its own framework, starting economic and infrastructure recovery groups.
In February, the city of Houston released the Houston Resilience Strategy. Houston’s chief resilience officer, Marissa Aho, has taken that framework to write an addendum focused on COVID-19. “We’re showing how all of the roles in the existing framework in the resilience strategy apply to our COVID response and recovery,” she explains.
Get a governance structure in place and resist calls for a czar
The National Disaster Recovery Framework lays out a structure of governance and management during recovery that can be applied to the local level. Such a structure could manage task forces, hold assessments, coordinate advocacy and oversee the institutionalisation phase of recovery.
One challenge not addressed in the framework, however, is how to streamline decision-making. Johnson recommended establishing a manager or director alongside an advisory committee.
“Too often what we see is the idea of the czar,” she said. A single decision-maker at the top can stifle the process and discourage the type of collaborative response Johnson has found most effective across a number of disasters.
Forecast and mobilise the skills needed for recovery
In the creation of a governance structure, identify the skills and roles required to make it work. What skills already exist within government agencies, and what will need outside expertise?
Hebert referred to setting up New Orleans as a host city for FUSE fellows, who helped build leadership capacity within local government. FUSE is a national non-profit which partners with local governments across the US to provide them with executive-level professionals (FUSE fellows) who assist those communities over year-long projects.
In New Orleans, FUSE fellows worked on a range of projects, from modernising the city’s fleet and police department operations to building a resilient utility service to developing a climate action plan. “I think cities and counties across the country need more capacity and skills to continue to build those strategies and move forward in this really unprecedented time that we see ourselves in today,” he says.
Daniel Zarrilli, chief climate policy advisor and OneNYC director in the New York City Office of the Mayor, noted that cities must create space for long-term thinking to figure out what they will need. “As we’re getting past the crisis, we still need to do a real diagnostic on what actually happened, what we need to learn from it, and what the key insights are. Right now, what it all actually means is a bit of a foggy mess,” he comments. “We also need to be able to focus on not just the things that we have the power to do ourselves, but what are the things this city needs in building the partnerships and the political power in order to get those things to happen at either different levels of government or in the private sector. Those are critical.”
Use recovery to further drive equity
When COVID-19 struck the US, almost 40 percent of American households were unable to afford an emergency expense of US$400. Across the country, black Americans are becoming infected and dying from COVID-19 at a disproportionately high rate, as shown by an analysis done by The Washington Post.
“What these emergencies really show us is where the broken parts are,” says Atyia Martin, CEO and founder of diversity and inclusion partner All Aces. “Whenever you see people of colour or any underestimated group in our society disproportionately bearing the burden of anything — pre-disaster, during disaster, post-disaster — it actually means that there is a larger problem with the systems that we depend on. The system is broken for a lot of people, not just those people who are disproportionately bearing the burden. So as we think about equity, and what it means to look at the data, to see where those distributions are, we need to be thinking about what it means to embed equity into our work.”
Martin suggested recovery that focuses on data to identify who is hardest hit and how resources are being distributed. As money pours in for COVID-19 response, recovery structures should be in place to ensure funding reaches marginalised communities. One way to do this is for Emergency Operations Centers to create a role or task force specifically for equity, as King County, Washington, has done. “The reality is that equity does not happen by accident,” Martin explains. “So if we are not being intentional about how we’re leveraging those resources, then it will not happen.”
Martin also echoed Johnson in urging for a collaborative decision-making process that represents a diversity of voices. “How we make decisions, and who is part of that decision-making process, matters. When we don’t have the combination of different voices at tables, we are missing an important part of the considerations for how we think about the problem itself, as well as what we should be doing to address the problems.”
Seize unexpected opportunities
Local governments face both a monumental challenge and unprecedented opportunity to push for bold, transformational change during recovery. With fewer people driving cars and more people riding bicycles, opportunities arise for programmes like Oakland Slow Streets, which has closed 10 percent of city streets to car traffic. The urgent issue of the digital divide pushed libraries and schools to offer new resources that could be funded for longer-term outcomes. It can also be used to build trust in government. In Pittsburgh, police are helping immigrant communities learn how to put on masks through different languages.
In addition to these insights, the focus on resilience reinforces a promising trend — local government leaders are finding new ways to bring equity into the centre of the recovery process as a result of this pandemic. In the midst of urgency and unpredictability, they are beginning to put the structures and processes in place to move out of emergency response. The key to a strong recovery is to assess the holistic impacts to systems and people created by the disaster, and create policies and programmes with benefits for communities, while being open to honest assessments of what isn’t (and wasn’t) working, then moving forward collaboratively to a stronger, more resilient, place. The road to recovery from this pandemic will be long, but our local government leaders can help us get there.