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Growing Resilience Through Crisis: Building Community on the Run

April 20, 2020
By: 
Milton J. Friesen
Program Director
Social Cities at Cardus

Is it possible that a global pandemic can deepen our local ties and even strengthen our communities? There seems to be a lot of discussion about this possibility. A pandemic may touch every country, but as with nearly all aspects of our lives, the day-to-day effects immediately around us are primary and deeply significant.

We are actively responding as local communities, and the limits on travel, calls for social (physical) distancing, and the cancellation of many of our common collecting points require us to take stock of what we have available nearby. How much of what you need is within walking distance? Short driving distance? Or maybe, in the case of self-quarantine, within distance of your slippered feet?

Local disasters like flooding, fires, and tornadoes have often left behind local communities both deeply damaged but also more cooperative, aware of each other, and resilient. We’re experiencing something much more than a local flood or weather event as states of emergency are announced.

The ability to recover from a shock and to adapt is a factor of the pre-crisis resilience of our social systems, including the strength of local community groups that serve many formal and informal group activities. We know from studies of complex adaptive systems that some aspects of resilience might grow as both individuals and groups respond to a crisis.

We are not powerless.

The power of governments and large corporate entities like sports leagues means they can cancel, suspend, and limit various functions and activities. In a crisis leading to chaos and disorder, strong top-down intervention can bring an immediate sense of order. That same top-down approach may become a disaster of its own if needed directives are not carefully integrated with local people and organizations. This will become particularly important if the crisis extends over a long period of time.

We need ranges of response at a street and community level. We need the dialed-in sensibilities of charities, places of worship, neighbourhood clubs, hobby circles, and our actual street-level neighbours. Governments and corporations simply can’t get that level of fit.

Our responses can shift the balance in ways that strengthen local communities. Canada can’t hold a referendum on whether to suspend international travel and how we should direct our limited medical resources. Our participation, however, is vital as citizens – we do need local communities, streets, and neighbours to cooperate.

That cooperation can be as simple as choosing to limit our own movements, to self-quarantine, not simply for our benefit, but as a means of caring for others. Our changed habits could serve some aspect of a common good. A crisis may nudge us past the usual social barriers into a mode of watching out for each other, sharing what we have or checking in on those who need extra care even if that is by phone or email.

The actions of large scale organizations are vital. If they do well, operating with transparency, with the common good in mind, our trust in them will increase. This will build our institutional social capital – stock that will be needed beyond the crisis. If greed and power are primary drivers, we will remember that long after the crisis.

One of the safeguards against misuse of power lies between the very big and the very local - the institutional spaces of small businesses, community organizations, and charities. Imagine Canada has flagged the essential nature of these organizations in a recent letter to the Government of Canada. We will need these civil society organizations as brokers that run both ways, advocating upward where needed, and serving among our communities where individual efforts are not enough.

This pandemic has brought, and will bring, suffering. But we can be actively hopeful, bridging the gaps and supporting those around us, especially if they might fall through the cracks. True resilience comes from coordinated responses at all levels so that everyone’s unique capabilities – from government down to you and me – are able to meet the escalating demands we’re facing.