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Renaissance of Resilience: A Buzzword or a New Ideal?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 September 2020

Yanjun Cai*
Sun Yat-sen University, China
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Dialogue, Debate, and Discussion
Copyright © The Author(s), 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of The International Association for Chinese Management Research

The COVID-19 pandemic, an unprecedented public health crisis in the 21st century, demonstrates how risks are unequally distributed among different socioeconomic groups, how bureaucratic systems can be ineffectively adapting to the fast-paced changing dynamics, and how multi-level governance frameworks may lack coordination between national and regional sectors. The pandemic does not cause the unjust prerogatives to quarantine, testing kits, and even potential vaccines. The injustice, ineffectiveness, and a lack of coordination existed before the pandemic and are more noticeably presented by this public health disaster. No hazards are ‘natural’. The coronavirus may originate from nature, but the adverse effects are mostly generated and magnified by current socioeconomic orders.

The elderly (Armitage & Nellums, Reference Armitage and Nellums2020), gender-based violence victims (Chandan et al., Reference Chandan, Taylor, Bradbury-Jones, Nirantharakumar, Kane and Bandyopadhyay2020), people living with disabilities (Pereira-Sanchez et al., Reference Pereira-Sanchez, Adiukwu, Hayek, Bytyçi, Gonzalez-Diaz, Kundadak, Larnaout, Nofal, Orsolini, Ramalho, Ransing, Shalbafan, Soler-Vidal, Syarif, Teixeira and Costa2020), immigrants (Keller & Wagner, Reference Keller and Wagner2020), and children in poverty (Lancker & Parolin, Reference Lancker and Parolin2020) are more exposed to the increased morbidity and mortality. Globally, low-income and middle-income countries are at higher risks of the pandemic's negative effects, worsening existing structural inequalities, such as food security (Health, Reference Health2020; Hopman, Allegranzi, & Mehtar, Reference Hopman, Allegranzi and Mehtar2020; Kelley et al., Reference Kelley, Ferrand, Muraya, Chigudu, Molyneux, Pai and Barasa2020).

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, when uncertainty becomes the new normal, the notion of resilience has frequently been mentioned among researchers, policymakers, and practitioners from various fields, including public health, urban planning, emergency management, and economics. Is such renaissance of resilience useful in the face of the pandemic?


In the past few decades, there have been incoherent definitions, interpretations, and analytical models proposed to understand, apply, and assess the notion of resilience and its related concepts (Béné et al., Reference Béné, Mehta, McGranahan, Cannon, Gupte and Tanner2018; Berke, Malecha, & Cooper, Reference Berke, Yu, Malecha and Cooper2019; Chuang et al., Reference Chuang, Garmestani, Eason, Spanbauer, Fried-Petersen, Roberts, Sundstrom, Burnett, Angeler, Chaffin, Gunderson, Twidwell and Allen2018; Pizzo, Reference Pizzo2015). The majority of such efforts focus on quantifying indicators to technically guide practitioners and policymakers to achieve resilience as a goal, paying insufficient attention to the complexity, informality, and unpredictability of social dynamics; these linear quantitative approaches also fail to explore the core value of resilience, including justice and inclusiveness (Fainstein, Reference Fainstein2018; Weichselgartner & Kelman, Reference Weichselgartner and Kelman2015; Wisner, Reference Wisner2016). Critical scholars object to the notion of a faster or stronger rebound as the value of resilience in the aftermath of disturbance (Coaffee & Clarke, Reference Coaffee and Clarke2017; Davoudi, Reference Davoudi2012). For example, facing the current pandemic, the engineering notion of resilience, quickly ‘returning to normal’, is problematic; ongoing changes have instead become the new normal.

Meanwhile, the disturbance can be an opportunity to address systematic weaknesses and create innovative solutions (Folke, Reference Folke2006). Specifically, the potential of transformation, from individuals to transnational organizations, is not fully realized when the political aspect of resilience is mostly ignored (Elmqvist et al., Reference Elmqvist, Andersson, Frantzeskaki, McPhearson, Olsson, Gaffney, Takeuchi and Folke2019; Tschakert, van Oort, St Clair, & LaMadrid, Reference Tschakert, van Oort, St Clair and LaMadrid2013). Under this light, resilience would not be truly achieved when financial, political, and social resources are concentrated on so-called risk reduction without recognizing that risks have been disproportionally generated through structural inequalities.

Thus, the transformative notion of resilience systematically emphasizes the capacity for proactive learning, the ability to self-correct and innovate, and adaptability to change in anticipating uncertain and complex future (Allen & Holling, Reference Allen and Holling2010; Berkes, Reference Berkes2007; Mehmood, Reference Mehmood2016). In this way, resilience is not only a goal for the one-time test; it should also be considered as long-term systematic thinking and process for any organization when climate hazards, changing international relations, and unpredictable technological innovations become the new normal.


Scholars and practitioners increasingly understand that resilience is a multi-level, multi-faceted concept involving various dimensions, including politics, economics, and social development (Chelleri, Waters, Olazabal, & Minucci, Reference Chelleri, Waters, Olazabal and Minucci2015; Di Gregorio et al., Reference Di Gregorio, Fatorelli, Paavola, Locatelli, Pramova, Nurrochmat, May, Brockhaus, Sari and Kusumadewi2019). For instance, countering the pandemic requires joint effort from multi-level governments, enterprises, academic institutions, and citizens to act on a crisis filled with unpredictability. Among them, coordinated efforts among different communities have been crucial for relocating limited health services (Julia et al., Reference Julia, Saynac, Joubioux, Cailhol, Lombrail and Bouchaud2020); country responses remarkedly vary due to distinctions in institutional structures, cultural orientations, political systems, economic conditions, and geopolitical factors (Weible et al., Reference Weible, Nohrstedt, Cairney, Carter, Crow, Durnová, Heikkila, Ingold, McConnell and Stone2020). However, community, municipal, provincial, and country responses are intrinsically linked, reflecting the connected socioeconomic structures.

Specifically, policymakers who devise and implement country responses have to consider a great variety of socioeconomic indicators in addition to lowering the number of infected cases and fatality rates. The cost-benefit analysis is conducted based on different priorities of different organizations. In China, Korea, and Singapore, there have been different levels of rigor or even aggressive control measures applied to contain the rapid spread of the virus; some of the extreme efforts are controversial (Kupferschmidt & Cohen, Reference Kupferschmidt and Cohen2020). For example, the coronavirus contact tracing system is viewed to carry the risk of privacy invasion but critical to preventing further community transmissions. In a more neoliberal context, maintaining or restarting the economy is the priority for policymakers, more crucial than public health considerations.


There has been insufficient attention to the maldevelopment embedded in existing socioeconomic orders that structurally reproduce injustice and disproportional risks, such as racial and ethnic disparities in health care. Specifically, the COVID-19 pandemic manifests the injustice rooted in existing structures, instead of creating messy systematic problems. More tragically, some politicians exploit the situation for political gain instead of solving societal problems along with this unprecedented crisis.

The ideal of resilience, as both a process and goal, transforms barriers into strengths, emphasizing socioeconomic injustice in the face of precarity and complexity. In the globalized era, the COVID-19 pandemic is an urgent crisis facing all humankind, exposing different organizations’ disadvantages, and testing their governance mechanisms. The pandemic is not a battle between capitalism and socialism, not a divide between the East and the West. There should be coordinated actions, instead of empty talks and blame games.

More importantly, the pandemic offers an opportunity for different organizations to transform their technological, social, economic, and political structures to save lives, avoid socioeconomic crises, and even obtain new strengths to address justice and inclusiveness. Thus, the ideal of resilience, not getting back to normal but ongoing anticipatory learning and organizational innovation, is critical in guiding such response, adaptation, and transformation. Resilience is not necessarily a buzzword, a dead end; it is urgently needed to embrace the renaissance of resilience for inclusive collaboration and transformative innovation at the time of crisis.


Accepted by: Deputy Editor Liisa Välikangas

This paper is supported by the Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities, Sun Yat-sen University (20wkpy18). The author would like to thank MOR's reviewers and editors for their constructive support, especially Professor Liisa Välikangas. Additionally, the author would like to acknowledge the work of Song Han for the revision.



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