Community resilience: Responding to and recovering from disasters together

The Bottom Line

  • Many factors affect people's ability to be resilient to disasters, such as age, health status, social support and the communication channels used to inform them.
  • But it is not only individuals who are struck by disasters, it is entire communities that are shaken.
  • Implementing a community resilience plan, a community can come together and overcome any disaster, while rebuilding socially, physically and economically.
  • Nine key elements have been identified to foster community resilience in the face of disasters: knowledge, networks and community relations, communication, health, governance and leadership, resources, economic investment, preparedness and mental attitudes.

The COVID-19 pandemic reveals how vulnerable some individuals are when disaster strikes. Whether it is a vulnerability to illness, or a vulnerability to the health, social and economic consequences of the illness.(1; 2) Think of our frail older adults who often have complex health and social care needs, and who are often dependent on paid and unpaid caregivers.

The pandemic also reveals how shaken the whole community can be in such circumstances, not just individuals. Death toll rising, confinement and isolation limiting our ability to see and help our loved ones, massive job losses, problems with infrastructure, or problems with access to the health and social care we need are just a few examples. A pandemic poses considerable challenges to communities over long periods ranging from weeks to months. Communities must therefore develop means to respond, resist and recover from such events.

We often talk about the importance of "community resilience". This community resilience would allow better adaptation in order to minimize the impact of a disaster, which would make it easier to return to normal life. By implementing a community resilience plan, a community can come together and overcome any disaster, while rebuilding socially, physically and economically.

But community resilience may be a seemingly abstract idea. What is it exactly?

What Research Tells Us

A recent, moderate-quality systematic review examined 80 articles to explore the different definitions of community resilience,(3) which can be considered in turn as:
1. an ongoing process of adaptation to manage and respond to extraordinary resource demands and losses associated with disasters;
2. the absence of negative effects, that is, the ability to maintain relatively stable and healthy levels of psychological and physical functioning; or
3. the ability to harness local resources and expertize to participate fully in community recovery from disasters, in a way that complements the response of emergency services.

9 key elements of community resilience

Although definitions vary greatly, the systematic review identified nine key elements of community resilience:
1. Improving knowledge and educating the public through public communications to mitigate the effects of a disaster and support responses to emergencies.

2. Fostering social cohesion to create strong community bounds and deal with post-crisis uncertainty. As the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed, maintaining these links through alternative means (by video conference, telephone or social media) is vital.

3. Communicating effectively and transparently to help a community articulate, coordinate and understand the risks and effects of disasters.

4. Maintaining the health of communities, to address physical health problems, but also mental-health problems to counter the anxiety, stress and depression generated by traumatic events.

5. Showing strong leadership before, during and after the disaster.

6. Having the necessary resources and allocating them appropriately in the community. These resources can be food (water, food), technical (masks and essential medical devices), human, financial and social.

7. Investing in the economy such as supporting the development of infrastructure to mitigate future risks and diversifying the economy.

8. Planning effective response processes before a disaster strikes to reduce risks.

9. Valuing positive thoughts and mental attitudes by emphasizing the hope that things will improve and that we have to accept that things will be different after the crisis, we reduce uncertainty and anxiety among communities.

Take part in strengthening your community

Learning from past events is essential to face future disasters (and perhaps a second wave of COVID-19). You can play an active role in that regard, and toolkits available to help you:
- Learn more about community resilience so that you can teach others about it; and
- Tell others about community resilience, but also share your stories and ideas to improve how your community can respond, resist and recover from disasters.

Get the latest content first. Sign up for free weekly email alerts.
Author Details


  1. Timalsina R & Songwathana P. Factors enhancing resilience among older adults experiencing disaster: A systematic review. Australasian Emergency Care. 2020.

  2. Kwan C, Walsh CA. Seniors' disaster resilience: A scoping review of the literature. International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction. 2017;25:259-273.

  3. Patel SS, Rogers MB, Amlôt R, Rubin GJ. What do we mean by 'community resilience'? A systematic literature review of how it is defined in the literature. PLoS Currents. 2017;1.

DISCLAIMER: These summaries are provided for informational purposes only. They are not a substitute for advice from your own health care professional. The summaries may be reproduced for not-for-profit educational purposes only. Any other uses must be approved by the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal (

Many of our Blog Posts were written before the COVID-19 pandemic and thus do not necessarily reflect the latest public health recommendations. While the content of new and old blogs identify activities that support optimal aging, it is important to defer to the most current public health recommendations. Some of the activities suggested within these blogs may need to be modified or avoided altogether to comply with changing public health recommendations. To view the latest updates from the Public Health Agency of Canada, please visit their website.