Doga Atalay and Umut Korkut


What can a former football superstar or an ordinary lorry driver from Turkey tell us about resilience at the face of coronavirus crisis? The former Ukrainian football legend Andriy Shevchenko compares his Chernobyl experience to the COVID-19 outbreak. The Turkish lorry driver, Malik Baran Yılmaz, says he prefers coronavirus infection rather stop working and starve to death.


What is the strongest sign of resilience during the COVID-19 outbreak then? Past experiences? Keep going to pay the costs? or staying at home?


Resilience is how individuals react when they faced with crisis and/or uncertainties whereby state action fails to resolve the situation. Hence, resilience assumes that people as individuals can cope with crises despite limited external support. The resilient subjects are not passive onlookers. They adapt rather than resist. However, considering the diverse responses to the coronavirus crisis around the world, what we see is that while the state capacity can generate an environment for coping up, societal narratives and the individual’s earlier life stories enhance how people adapt to this environment.


Knowing the story


It is hard to predict at the moment how the outbreak is affecting human lives given the uncertainty. However, knowing people’s stories can explain how they will experience the lock down and the uncertainty involved. The former Ukrainian football star Andriy Shevchenko says that he experienced a very similar situation when he was nine years old amid the Chernobyl power plant disaster.


He says: "the only solution is to respect the rules laid out by the government, stay at home and give doctors the opportunity to do their job”. Then, an important determinant of resilience, according to him, is earlier experiences in the past.


Yet, people tend to ignore the risks if they think the reasons behind the problems do not exist in their lives. Lacking a knowledge or the narrative of a similar crisis make people ignore or disdain the reality REF. Societies set the narrative to carry their experiences and knowledge in various ways to the next generations. The stories of earlier experiences make us assess our current situation.


As Shevchenko did, we might then also know how to respond to the current crisis in light of past experiences. Then, having the narratives of similar events makes us more resilient against crises. This is why the countries that experienced SARS or Ebola epidemics may come out as more resilient at the face of the coronavirus crisis.


How about the West?


Until the numbers started to explode in Italy, the West remained in an ignorance is bliss mood at the face of coronavirus crisis. The TEFAF refused to cancel its 2020 art fair in Maastricht in the Netherlands in March. The Spring breakers in America say that the coronavirus was not going to make them cancel their plans. In the end, Tefaf had to shut its doors four days early when an exhibitor tested positive for the virus. More than 40 students tested positive when they returned to Texas from their Spring break in Florida. They travelled there against all government advice


A much conspicuous discussion among social scientists is whether it is authoritarianism that responds to crises better? We argue having the narrative of an earlier crisis that make people more resilient. Yet, where is state capacity in this whole picture?


Making society more resilient


It is true that authoritarian regimes, with economic powers, can impose strict measures and force people to stay at home. In more absurd examples such as Turkmenistan, the presidency banned mentioning ‘coronavirus’ in public, possibly, to prevent its spread. However, not all authoritarian regimes can enforce lockdown.


If states lack, particularly economic capacity, then they cannot afford a lockdown. Western states can impose a lockdown and generate an incentive to follow the orders with economic support. It is then not being an authoritarian state but having the capacity to impose a lockdown that matters. In the absence of both, then the societal narrative or individual’s earlier experience should matter.


Turkey is one of the cases, where state fails to impose a lockdown even if the state and its security forces have been notorious with being ever present and violent to suppress dissent. Last week one lorry driver uploaded his video on the TikTok app, and this went viral in Turkey. In the video driver says ‘ok, let’s stay at home’, but then asks ‘how?’. He continues that he prefers the virus to starving.


Can we say that Mr. Yilmaz is not a resilient individual? His story is a story of survival amidst all crises. His preferred resilience is against the economic system that demands that he works despite all. It is therefore his individual story that makes him resilient in the absence of a state capacity provide the conditions for resilience. Hence, we endorse that resilience is important in uncertain times. But then the question remains what makes it matter?


Author biographies

Umut Korkut is a Professor in International Politics at Glasgow Caledonian University. The research for this piece is facilitated by the EU AMIF funded project VOLPOWER (2019-2021) - Volunteer and Empower: Enhancing Community Building and Social Integration through Dialogue and Collaboration amongst Young Europeans and Third Country Nationals. 


Doga Atalay is a PhD candidate at Glasgow Caledonian University and a PSA member. His research focuses on narrative and meaning-making processes and their relation with identity construction and resiliency. His research is gathering different disciplines from sociology and anthropology to political science. Image credit: Republic of Korea/Flickr.