Living with the new coronavirus: learning from pastoralists

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The COVID-19 challenges

The COVID-19 crisis challenges the main pillars of our society: it affects mobility, sociality, relationships, and exchanges. It generates uncertainties we seem unable to bear and manage. Furthermore, it illustrates the artificiality of the dichotomies that normally structure our ideas of society: in the broader picture public and private interests coincide, individual and collective behaviours affect each other, different knowledge systems need negotiation, central and localised decision-making must align, and most strategies (should) rely on neighbourhood, intergenerational and transnational empathy, coordination and complicity.

Pastoralists: inured to uncertainty

There are communities which have been living with uncertainty and related stresses and shocks for centuries: pastoralists. Pastoralism, extensive livestock rearing, is a specialised production system adapted to harsh ecosystems, where the unpredictable variability of the climate provides structural constraints to other forms of agriculture. Their economy is mobile and involves deep interdependency: these aspects make pastoralists more similar to today’s global society than what we could think at a first glance.

PASTRES believes that lessons could be learnt from pastoralists to inform the wider society about ‘living with uncertainty’.

Shared, transversal strategies

Pastoralists invest in common goods and shared values and principles, because collective compliance and joint actions are critical for facing the features of the environments where they live. Decision making is based on a mix of centralised, regional and localised governance structures, embedded with sets of rules that combine rigidity and flexibility. As adaptation is the key to survival, room for manoeuvre must be large in order to adjust to variable environmental conditions, while the principles must be shared and stable.

Pastoral communities align their governing rules, management mechanisms and social acceptance according to a well-defined strategy. Failure to comply–especially in times of crisis–can mean demise.

The COVID-19 pandemic opens important debates about which information counts; what decision-making rules, knowledge systems and power relations should apply; and about how far we can go with decentralisation, federalism and subsidiarity. Viruses clearly do not stop at the borders, and global interdependencies are overwhelming. In such a context cross-border complicity and cooperation make more sense—not shutting down frontiers.

Managing mobility

Pastoralists manage land and herd resources in ways that enhance diversity and complementarity, according to shifting conditions. Along such lines, when facing a pandemic such as COVID-19 it is likely that pastoralists would manage mobility very differently compared to what has been done, with the same objective of ‘flattening the curve’, protecting the most vulnerable groups, while safeguarding the overall economic infrastructure.

Population density is clearly a main factor in spreading an infection. Keeping the whole population locked in their houses in highly congested urban settings makes little sense in epidemiological terms. Even less so when you take into account the scarcely populated neighbouring rural areas.

This crisis has some people questioning the economic and societal model that has generated the global ‘megalopolis’… and globalisation. Should we re-think the role and relevance of rural areas? Rethinking the countryside could be an effective strategy to manage the world’s growing population and the allocation of limited resources. Better complementarity between urban and rural settings could enable more immediately applicable ‘social distancing’.

How would this apply in practice, in the current emergency? Let’s think about the evacuation programmes implemented in Europe during the two world wars. Could we get people out instead of locking them down? What if in these times of lockdown school-age children and youth– who show limited vulnerability when it comes to COVID-19 – would instead be evacuated to hotels in rural areas together with their teachers instead of being locked down in their homes for weeks or months? There would be several benefits from such a strategy (kids would continue schooling with their classmates, there would be jobs for those involved in the evacuation programmes, parents could continue working, the grandparents would be less exposed, etc.). Of course, such a strategy would need preparation, binding rules, investments in infrastructure and consent by those involved families, school staff, etc..


Overall the COVID-19 crisis reveals structural shortcomings in our global society related to resilience, as this is not a feature that can be turned on or off on demand. As we have learned from pastoralists, resilience is a systemwide set of options, processes and strategies that is embedded in a lifestyle. If we consider pastoralism as an infrastructure geared to ensure reliability, we should learn from them on how to organise our societies to be better equipped in the face of unexpected and uncertain events such as COVID-19.

Lesson one is that we should be wary and aware that our control capacities are limited. It is vital that we shall not trade uncertainties for risks or cold comfort for change, as this may leave us with ashes instead of trees. Assuming uncertainty and living accordingly creates space for adaptive action, while narrowing everything down to simplified models of risk and control might importantly constrain our responses in most critical times.

COVID-19 is changing everything: how we live, how we relate, how we engage with expertise and how states and citizens interact. Deep uncertainties and extensive ignorance, as well as contested ambiguities, necessarily reshape society and politics. Would it be worth learning from those who include uncertainty, adaptation and resilience in their daily worldview?

Michele Nori is Research Associate at the Robert Schuman Centre, where he carries out his research as part of the ERC-funded project ‘PASTRES: Pastoralism, Uncertainties and Resilience’.