Rethink Resilience for the Era of COVID-19 and Climate Change

Next City discusses rethinking resilience for the era of COVID-19 and climate change.

Last month, unusually heavy rain breached two aging dams in Midland, Michigan, forcing thousands to flee their homes. As the waters rose, displaced residents had to choose between risking exposure to COVID-19 in a shelter and sleeping in their cars. Further south in Detroit, where my mother lives, heavy rains and failing infrastructure caused sewage backups — yet another public health threat in an African-American neighborhood ravaged by the coronavirus.

Michigan is not unique. Across the U.S., climate change and COVID-19 are playing out in tandem. The warming planet drives increasingly extreme weather, compounding the pandemic’s impacts and complicating disaster response. At the same time, these dual threats have exposed the profound inequities that divide and weaken us.

In the midst of these crises, Americans have been lauded for their resilience. But the praise rings hollow as we are asked to recover from tragedies that could have been prevented, and when the most vulnerable are asked to shoulder the heaviest burden. It’s time to rethink resilience for the era of COVID-19 and climate change.

Resilience is typically defined as the capacity to bounce back after a crisis. A better definition comes from an organization called Dignity & Power Now in their Healing Justice Toolkit: “The purpose of resilience is not to build the capacity to endure more harm,” they write. “We build resilience to be more skillful in confronting the systems that have harmed us.”

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