As part of its emergency planning efforts, the UK government identifies and develops capabilities and resources that can be deployed in the event of a civil emergency or disruptive event. Anything from mass evacuation and shelter to telecoms is factored into emergency planning as part of the immediate response to a crisis, but thought is also given to the capabilities needed to recover and renew society in the long term, once the initial impact has passed.
It’s vital we understand the fragility and strength of these systems, and learn lessons about where their weaknesses lie for the future.
Despite its devastating impact, we can learn a lot from the COVID-19 pandemic. For many of us over the last year, the support of our community has made us realise that we are not alone.
One year on from the nationwide lockdown - one strength has emerged in particular. Community response, while not yet formally recognised as a capability for recovery, rapidly emerged as an important lifeline during the pandemic.
What makes a community?
Communities are formed from many building blocks and include a wide range of individuals and groups. They also include organisations, SMEs, big business networks, associations, and local economic partnerships.
As we’ve seen during the pandemic, communities can raise awareness of risks, tackle the cause of problems and identify local needs swiftly. They can also mobilise quickly and harness the skills of individuals to help provide care and support to others.
But community response needs to be coordinated effectively for its power to be fully realised. The government and local authorities have worked closely with communities to co-develop processes that can help them to understand risks and vulnerabilities better, putting them in an even better place to respond in the future and to be prepared for disruptions. Communities that are aware of hazards will be engaged to spot risks and be on standby for emergencies, with the governance, knowledge, and resources to act safely and effectively if one came along.
It is important that we now work to maintain this approach beyond COVID-19.
From a local to national resilience capability
During COVID-19, we saw communities respond on a scale that was previously unthinkable. We saw invisible acts of good neighbourliness, donations and the momentum of thousands of mutual aid groups, local businesses finding ways (Covid-secure) to provide essential local services, all while parts of the voluntary sector were organising its own response.
It was impressive to see how swiftly communities rallied together – they were the heart of the response, proving their previously hidden value. Some areas around the UK (such as Essex, and Avon and Somerset) have measured the impact of their community’s response by gathering data on registered volunteers, volunteer hours, supported people, services provided, organisations involved, donations received, and deliveries made, to name a few. COVID-19 has shown the importance of communities, and harnessing this data will help them to grow in the future.
The Government’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, shines a light on the potential of our communities to mitigate and manage the effects of emergencies. This points to the need to nurture and enhance this local resilience capability to get all the parts of our communities providing resilience and working better before, during and after emergencies. This could spotlight the role of households in enhancing their own resilience, how groups and community networks can prepare and avoid the harshest impacts of emergencies, the role of local and national businesses in strengthening response, and the glue provided by local government to support communities in coming together to support each other.
Closer local government community partnerships
So, what role can local government play in bringing together the sometimes disparate and distant parts of our community to build resilient behaviours and networks? How can we develop community resilience, beyond the presence of a voluntary sector?
Not all communities react in the same way or have the same capacities – some even struggle with the notion of community altogether. This gives local government and resilience partnerships an important position at the heart of community resilience, and they can occupy a supportive, and enabling role to help communities be supportive of the integrated response to local emergencies. Local government may need to remind community leaders of their position as facilitators, identify and support community linchpins to galvanise the progress already made during COVID-19, and identify and remove barriers for community resilience to be sustained. Training may also be needed to ensure productive collaborations are possible between community members and emergency services – so that communities can be viewed as part of the solution offered by local resilience partnerships.
Many communities have demonstrated before and during COVID-19 that they can be relied upon when asked to deliver emergency response activities. Establishing community resilience as a permanent local resilience capability requires us to sustain what has already been created by communities, local government, small businesses, neighbours, individuals, social enterprises, the voluntary sector, and so many more hidden networks. Renewal is needed to ensure community resilience is here to stay as a local resilience capability.
Duncan Shaw is a professor of operations and critical systems at Alliance Manchester Business School and David Powell is principal advisor to the Recovery, Renewal, Resilience project and The Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute