Daniel P. Aldrich, professor and director of Northeastern’s Security and Resilience program, has dedicated much of his research career to exploring how communities around the world respond to and recover from disaster. Below, he shares his perspective on the current global crisis and how we, as a society, can respond with resilience.
As the number of people testing positive for COVID-19 around the world approaches 8 million, and the total number of deaths in North America surpasses 119,000 (at the time of publishing), much of the globe is slowly moving out from stay-in-place orders. After nearly four months of limited mobility, when only those deemed critical at work—including delivery people, janitors, chefs, nurses, and doctors—were encouraged to head to the office or work, unemployment claims have hit record highs, and many businesses remain shuttered. Our economy is likely entering a recession, and our GDP could contract as much as 40 percent.
This ongoing disaster has had devastating consequences for our health, for our economy, and even for our long-term engagement in international relations, such as our connection to the World Health Organization (WHO). This has all led to a new and different way of discussing our interactions (or lack thereof) with each other.
Initially, authorities used the novel term “social distancing” to encourage us to stop many of our routine interactions with others and remain six or more feet away. Soon after, however, the World Health Organization, California’s public authorities, the Australian Victorian government, and the Red Cross adopted a more accurate and helpful term: “physical distancing.” We need to keep a distance from each other, but we don’t want to separate socially. In fact, a growing amount of evidence shows that, during crises and disasters, it is precisely social ties that remain critical. These social connections remain essential, regardless of whether we can hug, shake hands, exchange high fives, or work next to someone in a cubicle.
Below, we provide a framework for approaching shocks and disasters focused around social ties, suggest ways to build these connections even during COVID-19, and end with more information about Northeastern’s program dedicated to this work. Let’s take a look at what other disasters and emergencies can tell us about the importance of strong social ties.
The Importance of Social Connection in Times of Crisis
Even before a disaster arrives, social ties make a difference. Analysis of three major hurricanes in North America showed that many people did not heed mandatory evacuation orders from local authorities. In Houston, Texas, and Miami, Florida, many residents ignored multiple warnings from mayors, governors, and disaster managers to leave these vulnerable areas. But some people did listen. My study with colleagues from Stanford and Facebook showed that people with broader and more diverse ties— connections that we call bridging and linking social ties—moved away from danger far earlier than those only with ties to people like them (what social scientists deem bonding social ties). Having connections to people with different ideas, approaches, and narratives can better prepare us for severe disruptions.
The Aldrich Resilience Lab also looked into who survived Japan’s 2011 tsunami, which killed more than 18,400 across its northeast region of Tohoku. Qualitative and quantitative research showed that people living in more connected and cohesive neighborhoods had a far better chance of surviving the 60-foot black waves that destroyed so many homes and businesses along the coast. People living in communities where neighbors trusted each other less, interacted only occasionally, and did little together were more at risk. We have statistical proof that stronger communities display greater resilience than those with weaker ties, and this is one of the many reasons why we want to cultivate and maintain strong ties.
Research uncovered several factors that assist with maintaining long-term mental health, especially during emergencies that force people indoors and out of their normal routines. We followed residents of the Japanese community of Futaba, located just a few miles from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plants that melted down, to examine what factors helped them reduce the anxiety and disruption they felt given the radiological contamination and forced evacuations. While health and wealth had little impact on anxiety levels, having strong connections to neighbors and friends helped people restore a sense of stability.
Building Social Resilience in Times of Crisis
Time and time again, social ties have proven to be the critical resource during and after traumas—and COVID-19 is no different. Even if we can’t get together for a basketball game, exchange high fives at our favorite sports arenas, or crowd into bars and movie theatres, we still can maintain and build social ties.
Here in Boston, for example, residents across the city have self-organized into groups that provide groceries, supplies, and medical assistance to individuals unable or unwilling to leave their homes. Churches, mosques, and synagogues have organized online prayer services while chess clubs, fan clubs, and other social activities have moved online. Even if we’re unable to close the physical distance, these social connections provide critical information and emotional support.
Security and Resiliency at Northeastern
As someone deeply engaged in efforts to study COVID-19 and past crises, I am proud to serve as the Director of Northeastern’s Security and Resilience Studies Program. For students interested in studying COVID-19, investigating cybersecurity, thinking through ways to defend against cyberattacks, and probing terrorism, our program has full-time faculty whose research flows into the classroom. We offer a variety of experiential learning opportunities including co-ops with private and public sector firms and group capstone projects, where our students provide advice to institutions ranging from Boston City Hall to the Federal Reserve to local hospitals.
Many of our students come from the armed services and from police forces eager to advance their careers. Some want to go work as analysts and policymakers in local and regional governments. Others are interested in moving into private sector positions such as business continuity, resilience officer, or logistics supply chain analyst in firms like Cadmus Group. Whatever your background, our program can help you gain the skills you’ll need to create resilience in communities and organizations for whatever adversity our communities may face in the future.
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