What is a polycrisis and how can we protect the most vulnerable?

The World Economic Forum warns of a polycrisis that could affect us all in the near future. We’re stepping in to protect vulnerable people from its far-reaching impacts. 

We live in an increasingly interconnected world. 

When a crisis occurs in one part of the complex web that makes up the global economy, it can interact with and ultimately amplify crises elsewhere in the world. 

In its Global Risks Report 2023, the World Economic Forum calls this a polycrisis. We experienced this in 2022 with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its knock-on effect on food and fuel prices. And the report warns that there could be more to come. 

So, what are the intersecting risks on the horizon? And perhaps most importantly: how can we respond? The good news in a daunting outlook is that, if risks are connected, so too are solutions. 


Intersecting global challenges 

It is no longer enough to consider factors like conflict, social inequity and mental wellbeing individually.  

Take conflict, for example. Wars pose an immediate threat to people’s lives but they also cause mass migration, destroy infrastructure and cut supply chains. This in turn drives up commodity prices and inflation, sparking economic shocks in other countries. We have seen this following the war in Ukraine, where a sudden jump in the prices of energy, fertilizer and grain brought on a cost-of-living crisis across the world. 

This cascade of events is deepening existing inequalities. In both advanced and developing economies, rising costs of basic necessities have disproportionately affected those on lower incomes. Young people and women – who tend to have the weakest financial security – are particularly vulnerable.  
Interlocking social and economic crises also have a profound impact on mental wellbeing. 66% of therapists in a recent UK study said that the current cost-of-living crisis is causing a decline in people’s mental health. It's a prime example of how one issue can be the catalyst for others. 

What can we do? 

Global risks may be ever-more interconnected, but so are the approaches we can take to tackle them. 

Vulnerable people and communities are at greatest risk from the impact of a polycrisis. International efforts should take this into account with a more holistic long-term approach that builds resilience to multiple risks. 

In nine countries across Africa, for example, the Z Zurich Foundation is supporting Junior Achievement’s (JA) social equity program that empowers young people to secure work or build their own business. JA helps to equip youth with skills to help them access work opportunities, build resilience to the cost-of-living crisis and uplift their communities. 
The program is also geared towards the future by creating an ecosystem of local partners who can take responsibility for the project beyond Z Zurich Foundation funding. This long-term focus means multiple generations will benefit from the positive systems-level change. 

"This collaboration recognizes the importance of mental wellbeing in addressing societal challenges,” says Adriana Poglia, Z Zurich Foundation’s Social Equity Partnership Manager. “It combines both education and mental wellbeing to ensure young people have the tools and confidence they need to achieve their full potential.” 
Just as the magnitude of a crisis can spiral exponentially, so can the solution. 

Everyone must be involved 

Identifying a risk early can greatly reduce its impact. Think of the benefits of spotting a medical condition before it can spread or identifying a vulnerable young person who needs emotional support. 

The benefits of this can be seen in Portugal with the ‘For You’ program we’re running alongside EPIS - Empresários Pela Inclusão Social. It's promoting mental wellbeing in schools by reaching out to 42,000 students and their families with strategies to help regulate their emotions in times of stress. Teachers, meanwhile, are receiving tailored training too. The program helps them identify mental wellbeing issues early and cope with any emotional difficulties they face when dealing with distressing situations. 

The program will also feed directly into scientific research by the University of Coimbra to assess how well these strategies are helping to boost mental wellbeing. That way, it can help inform approaches to support vulnerable young people in wider society.   

Collaboration is key  

Building resilience to crises can only be achieved if we pull together. That’s why we are forging alliances between the private sector, NGOs and political decision-makers; sharing resources, technology and knowledge. 

Diversity is a strength. We must continue to listen to vulnerable individuals and communities, wherever they are in the world. The increasing frequency of polycrises is in itself proof that nobody is completely insulated from risk – no matter how far removed its beginnings may seem. It is up to all of us to ensure that everyone, and everything, is taken into account.