We may not have been able to predict the exact details of the COVID-19 pandemic, but we’ve known for years that the risks of global pandemics has been increasing, with the potential for major disruptions across the global economy. So why does it seem as if this crisis rose out of nowhere, and what can we do about being better prepared for risks in the future? Individuals often identify risks that are readily perceptible—whether because of personal exposure, media coverage, or both—as the most threatening. Those risks not directly ahead tend to go unnoticed.
Data from the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Perception Survey of approximately 1,000 stakeholders have shown this. In the past decade, infectious diseases ranked among the top five perceived risks only once, in 2015, in the direct aftermath of the Ebola epidemic, when it ranked as second highest, in terms of impact. Even though the survey asks stakeholders to try to think through a 10-year lens, the following year, infectious disease no longer ranked among top risks. Instead, what our survey showed was that beginning in 2016, climate-related issues started to dominate the risks perception of our respondents. It is no coincidence that that year was the warmest on record.
It is human nature to feel most threatened by what feels closest. But a potential danger is that when a risk gets crowded out of our collective sightlines, it may go unaddressed, and we may be ill-prepared to address it when it does manifest.
What can we do?
To begin with, we should be aware of our blind spots. Even as there has rightly been a rise in concern about climate change in many countries in recent years, we should not fail to consider that other risks still linger. Similarly, as the world’s attention now shifts to the outbreak of COVID-19, the global community cannot allow itself to stop fighting for more ambitious action on climate change, or for solutions to challenges around cybersecurity and international security, for that matter.
Already, in the face of the coronavirus pandemic we have seen important climate summits cancelled, such as the World Oceans Summit in Japan, and difficulty in rescheduling the Convention on Biological Diversity. While we do need to account for new dangers and do need to address the pandemic, it is important that we do not cease the important work of marshalling the global community in raising ambition on climate action.
At the same time, we should pursue measures that make collective blind spots less likely to occur. Here, a strong global multi-stakeholder framework—one in which governments, businesses and international organizations work in concert—is fundamental. Since diverse actors have diverse perspectives and tend to have diverse touchpoints across societies. Ensuring that a variety of actors across geographies and industries are continually communicating offers a greater possibility that risks that have moved off the direct sightlines of one party are still accounted for collectively.
But, let’s be clear, it is impossible to foresee and be on constant guard for every potential risk around us. Therefore, we should position ourselves to be ready to address risks that do materialize. Here, again, a multi-stakeholder framework is critical. One only has to look back to 2009 to see the importance that an at-the-ready multilateral framework had in moving the global economy toward recovery. The G20, for instance, by being in a position to quickly bring governments together, was able to release the “Framework for Strong, Sustainable and Balanced Growth" that helped stave off a global depression.
At a time when the coronavirus is dominating our attention, a strong multi-stakeholder approach—through international organizations and global initiatives—is crucial for building resiliency and preparing for upcoming economic, political, and social consequences. But perhaps as important, it is also crucial for ensuring we are in a resilient position regarding the risks not directly in front of us at this moment.
The author is president of the World Economic Forum