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Integrating Gendered Perspectives in EM Practise

Any comprehensive understanding of disaster risk reduction (DRR) must address the lived experiences and perspectives of the populations who bear disproportionate challenges in disaster contexts. Here I’m speaking of Indigenous peoples, people of colour, people with disabilities, women and non-binary populations, including the LGBTQ2S community.

While there has been a growing amount of research that addresses the mainstreaming of gender into the recovery aspects of emergency mgmt practise, there exists a significant research gap in the integration of women and non-binary populations into response environments. 

First a couple parameters: when I speak of a gendered lens, I am talking about how a gender bias can sometimes lead to unequal treatment of individuals (increased risk) based on their gender which may deny them rights, opportunities and resources. It affects men and women negatively. This unequal treatment may further be complicated by a persons’ gender identity, or the personal sense of one’s gender, separate from sexual orientation. For many, this may correlate with the gender one is assigned at birth, or it may be different.

In order to integrate gendered perspectives into the response environment, I think we need to examine our conceptions of risk. As any emergency manager will tell you, current mitigation strategies have tended to be reactive, addressing infrastructure and other issues as they fail. In a proactive risk management model, a careful analysis of situations or and carefully analyzing a situation or assessing processes to determine the potential risks, identifying drivers of risks to understand the root cause, assessing probability and impact to prioritize risks and accordingly preparing a contingency plan.

The United Nations commissioned the Sendai Framework for DRR 2015-2030 as a set of concrete actions to guide member states and mitigate risk. The Sendai Framework takes the concept of proactive risk management further, and integrates local knowledge to build localized communities of resilience. 

The Hyogo Framework was developed that promotes inclusivity and participator DRR processes: 

  • Leadership of local governments, including prioritizing the capacity of decision makers to understand and develop a holistic approach to DRR. 
  • Involvement of other local stakeholders, ensuring accountability from decision makers and acting as facilitators during negotiation and consensus-building processes. These stakeholders may include representatives from universities and local NGOs, as well as the private sector and the media.
  • Ensuring participatory mechanisms are in place to facilitate the involvement of local actors, particularly Indigenous peoples, people of colour, people with disabilities, women and non-binary populations, including the LGBTQ2S community. 

I’d like to focus on these participatory mechanisms from a gendered lens, and make some suggestions on how we can apply this lens to the command/control paradigm.

The scholarship is clear that inclusive and participatory processes in the development of DRR frameworks “can minimize risk, set the right priorities and shape recovery in ways that strengthen local livelihoods and well-being.” (UNDRR, 2017)

In a landmark study on vulnerability authored by M.B. Anderson, she explores the differential risk and questions that can be used to identify why a certain group may be more exposed to particular hazards. In order to address these exposures, I suggest that the voices of these groups be systematically integrated into the EOC environment.

By integrating the voices of women and non-binary individuals into leadership roles in a response environment, it has been found to have a demonstrable impact on the management of the response, and the restoration to viability of the community.

Note: a version of this blog post was delivered at the Canadian Risk and Hazard Network (CRHNet) Symposium on November 19, 2020.

Are you ISO 22301 compliant? 8 Steps to Building a Robust Business Continuity Plan

Vendors, legislators and customers expect your organization to have a business continuity plan. Are you prepared?

Contingency planning is a critical aspect of doing business, particularly in mitigating the effects of disasters and emergencies. In response to the international need to protect businesses from disruption, the International Standards Organization (ISO) developed a management systems standard for business continuity management (BCM). ISO 22301 is a management systems standard that can be used by any organization to mitigate the effects of disasters and emergencies. 

Vendors, legislators, regulators and customers increasingly expect compliance and adherence to a BCM framework. Following these eight steps, as recommended by the Government of Canada can help to assure your organization is prepared for disruption:

  1. Appointing a Disaster Preparedness Team

An emergency and disaster preparedness team should comprise a stand-alone committee. The committee will be responsible for planning and implementation of the business continuity plan (BCP), related policies and procedures, and the communication of the BCP to management and staff. The committee should have sponsorship and support by a senior member of the management team. 

  1. Identification of essential services or functions

In the event of a disaster or emergency, what are the essential services provided by your organization? It may be helpful to think about the essential services as those, when not delivered, could have a negative impact on health and safety of individuals, or on the viability of the business itself. Prioritize and rank these essential services in preparation for the next step in the BCM framework.

  1. Determine required skill sets and staff

Based on the prioritization and ranking exercise done in step 2, consider what skill sets are required to deliver essential services. Can single staff members take on, or be cross-trained to fill more than one role?

  1. Complete a comprehensive risk assessment

As the literature indicates, businesses and organizations were not prepared for a global pandemic. The economic impact will be felt for some time to come, and studies have shown the most resilient organizations have had pre-existing and robust BCP measures. This step includes conducting a risk assessment of identified threats, action plans for each threat and identification of designated individuals for each essential service or function.

  1. Prepare a series of strategies and action plans for each essential service or function

An action plan for each essential service or function (as identified in step 2) should include key contacts, customers, suppliers/subcontractors, business partners and other support providers. 

  1. Review Action Plans 

Once step 5 action plans and strategies have been determined, a checklist should be reviewed to ensure all issues have been addressed, as well as to identify any areas needing additional documentation. Areas to be covered should include impacts on the organization, employees and stakeholders/customers, policies to be implemented, resources to be allocated, communications and coordination with external authorities. 

  1. Senior Management Review

The senior management sponsor should be given an opportunity to respond and comment on the draft BCP before it is adopted by the executive. Ensure the BCP is consistent with organizational objectives and addresses the critical elements identified. 

  1. Revise, test, update, repeat

The BCP is a living document, and may require revision and updating as organizational priorities change. It is critical to ensure the BCP is ‘tested’ on a semi-annual basis to identify areas of improvement. 

As an accredited Business Continuity Professional, I am well-versed in the establishment of comprehensive BCPs for a variety of organizations. To learn more, feel free to reach out to me here.

Implementing the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction

Any comprehensive understanding of disaster risk reduction (DRR) must address the lived experiences and perspectives of the populations who bear disproportionate challenges in disaster contexts. Indeed, the existing challenges faced by Indigenous peoples, people of colour, people with disabilities, women and non-binary populations are more likely to be exacerbated as the effects of climate change become more pronounced.

The United Nations commissioned the Sendai Framework for DRR 2015-2030 as a set of concrete actions to guide member states and mitigate risk. The Sendai Framework recognizes that, while states have the primary responsibility to reduce disaster risk, other stakeholders and communities share in the goal of reducing losses to lives, livelihoods, health and assets of persons, businesses and countries.

The Sendai Framework guiding principles indicate, in part that: 

[DRR] requires an all-of-society engagement and partnership. It also requires empowerment and inclusive, accessible and non discriminatory participation, paying special attention to people disproportionately affected by disasters, especially the poorest. A gender, age, disability and cultural perspective should be integrated in all policies and practices, and women and youth leadership should be promoted. In this context, special attention should be paid to the improvement of organized voluntary work of citizens.

United Nations, 2015

Using this, and the remaining principles as a guide, we can evaluate the existing scholarship and determine best practises to inform future policy. In an important article by Alice Fothergill published in 1996, she formulated a paradigm that creates a more comprehensive and holistic consideration of how societal inequities contribute to the disproportionate effect of disasters. While Fothergill’s article contains a gender focus, the inequities can be broadly applied to at-risk populations identified above. 

At-risk populations, particularly those experiencing poverty are more exposed to risk. In lower-income communities in particular, structural inequalities, disproportionately higher responsibility for caregiving, a lack of mobility and limited access to resources are factors in both the effects and perception of risk. 

In the response stage, women and men are likely to conform to socialized gender norms, and women are less likely to hold leadership roles in formalized response organizations. The role of women in formal recovery organizations will be examined in depth in a future article, but is beyond the scope of this post. 

In considering the implementation of the Sendai Framework, including the development of national resilience action plans, a ‘Words into Action’ set of guidelines were developed. Based on these guidelines, a series of ‘enabling factors’ were developed that will assist in the development of a resilience action plan in an inclusive and participatory process: 

  1. Leadership of local governments, including prioritizing the capacity of decision makers to understand and develop a holistic approach to DRR. 
  2. Involvement of other local stakeholders, ensuring accountability from decision makers and acting as facilitators during negotiation and consensus-building processes. These stakeholders may include representatives from universities and local NGOs, as well as the private sector and the media.
  3. Ensuring participatory mechanisms are in place to facilitate the involvement of local actors, particularly Indigenous peoples, people of colour, people with disabilities, women and non-binary populations. 

The scholarship is clear that inclusive and participatory processes in the development of DRR frameworks “can minimize risk, set the right priorities and shape recovery in ways that strengthen local livelihoods and well-being.” (UNDRR, 2017)

Using Principles of Influence to Enhance Emergency Preparedness

In a previous post, I touched on the science of persuasion and the concept of social proofing as a way in which people and groups respond to uncertainty. Robert Cialdini pioneered the study of influence in his books Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion and Influence: Science and Practise

Recent studies have shown that fewer than half of U.S. and Canadian households have emergency preparedness plans in place, despite their proven effect in assisting both the speed and quality of recovery. Using Cialdini’s study of influence may provide additional understanding and insight into how organizations and governments (particularly EM agencies) can increase household participation in emergency preparedness plans.

The six principles of influence are reciprocation, commitment and consistency, social proof, liking, authority and scarcity. These principles have been studied extensively and are backed up by empirical studies in the fields of psychology, marketing, economics, anthropology and social sciences. Each of these principles must be employed with the strongest ethical standards as a fundamental guiding philosophy. 

The first three principles are examined below in the context of emergency preparedness, with part 2 to be posted next week:

Reciprocation. As a general rule, people feel obligated to return favours offered to them. As with all the principles of influence, this trait is common across all human cultures. An example of this is when a small gift is provided by a salesperson to a potential customer. Even if the gift is unwanted, it will influence the receiver to reciprocate in some way. 

How could the principle of reciprocation be used to convince individuals and households to prepare for emergencies? A small gift, like a detailed ‘personal preparedness plan’ booklet, customized to the specific hazards of the geographic location may encourage participation. Recipients of the booklet could ‘reciprocate’ by posting about their plans as part of an integrated campaign. 

Commitment and Consistency. Appearing to be consistent in behaviour and action is a strongly held desire, as is the desire to stand by commitments made. This is why some retail outlets may offer an attractive, or “low ball” offer to consumers, in order to get them into the store, then using these techniques to upsell, or make the initial (lower) offer appear less favourable to the customer.

This principle used in the context of emergency preparedness can also help the organization assess the effectiveness of an initiative. Using the example of the booklet above, commitment to ‘practising the plan’ could be sought and obtained through methodical followup, targeted social and traditional media campaigns.

Social Proof. The principle of social proof holds that people will look to those similar to themselves when making decisions, particularly in times of uncertainty. Unfortunately, this principle of persuasion is sometimes used to exploit often vulnerable populations, through deliberate disinformation campaigns or ‘infomercials’ claiming to provide proof of a biased claim.

Used ethically, social proof can be a powerful technique to persuade people in a homogenous group to adopt a set of behaviours. In an emergency preparedness context, a small sign prominently displayed in a front window, may encourage others to follow suit. 

As always, it is important to remember these techniques must be employed to the highest ethical standards.

Stay tuned for part two of this series. Should you or your organization wish to learn more, please feel free to contact me directly. 

Room for the River: Applying Dutch Flood Mitigation Strategies in Canada

Image source: High River RCMP (retrieved from http://www.calgaryherald.com/)

During the catastrophic flooding which impacted southern Alberta in June 2013, the Town of High River, located 76 km south of Calgary, was particularly hard hit. The flooding required the evacuation of the town of 13,000, and the displacement of over 100,000 across southern Alberta. 

Following the flooding, as a part of future flood mitigation efforts, Mayor Craig Snodgrass announced that the Wallaceville district of High River, would be “returned to its natural state as a measure aimed at providing increased flood protection to the town.” The Province of Alberta developed a floodway buyout program for affected residents, and removed all structures and infrastructure in subsequent months. 

This highlights an emerging trend in DRR scholarship, regarding ‘building back better’ following a disaster. Paradoxically, in many cases, ‘building back better’ means not building back at all. Additional mitigation efforts, including the Springbank Reservoir west of Calgary, continue to be the source of much debate among area residents.

As the cost of extreme weather events continues to rise, emergency management professionals are working with municipal planners on how to minimize vulnerability via a risk-based approach. Unfortunately, knowing the risks has not prevented municipalities continuing to allow development in high-risk areas such as floodplains, wildland-urban interphase or areas prone to erosion and settling. 

In a 2019 doctoral thesis written by Lynne Njeri Mbajiorgu for the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Alberta, she studied how four small to medium sized municipalities implemented resilience programs for flood, wildfire and drought risks. In particular, Mbajiorgu notes inconsistency in the application of risk-based, and risk avoidance measures with respect to flood plain management. Any such efforts should err on the side of reducing future risk exposure and vulnerability.

To remedy these inconsistencies, Mbajiorgu recommends a proactive prioritization of land-use planning as a mitigation measure. She argues that land-use planners have a particular responsibility to work closely with municipal officials “to influence, guide and advice decision-makers about risk mitigation measures throughout the land-use development process, starting from bare undeveloped land to the issuance of development permits.” (Mbajiorgu, 2019). 

In a bid to reduce risk and mitigate the impact of severe flood damage, in 2007 the Netherlands embarked on the ‘Room for the River Programme’ (RFRP) to manage and restore the rivers’ natural flood plain. The 30 projects completed to date have resulted in measures to give the river the space to flood safely, while improving the quality of the immediate surroundings. 

In a study done by Eva A. Bogdan at the University of Alberta, she compared and contrasted flood mitigation approaches adopted by the Netherlands and the Alberta government. Similar to the conclusions reached by Mbajiorgu, the report concluded that while many Albertans support the RFRP approach, there is a misalignment in governance frameworks that would enable greater collaboration. As Bogdan states: “Extensive technical advances have been made in flood management, but to effectively address this wicked problem, better understanding and innovations are also needed in the social dimensions, including coordination of policies and practices as well as collaboration between stakeholders.” Bogdan identifies an existing knowledge gap in the current literature, requiring further and systematic comparative analysis. 

What are your thoughts? How have your governments addressed the need for greater flood mitigation to protect homes and properties? I look forward to hearing your thoughts about how the Dutch approach can be applied to other jurisdictions.

Adapting ICS in a Knowledge-Based Response

Learning from the 2003 SARS pandemic to inform pandemic response

In a prior post, I made reference to a study completed by the IBM Centre for the Business of Government, Adapting the Incident Command Model for Knowledge-Based Crises. That report drew on lessons learned during prior pandemic responses, including the 2002 outbreak of West Nile Virus and the 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

The 2003 outbreak of SARS saw the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP) rely on a team-based approach composed of subject matter experts in nine areas, with additional teams added on an ad hoc basis. Notably, this structure did not incorporate the ICS principle of “span of control” (the number of personnel to be supervised by a manager), and the scope of the leadership team increased to 15 teams, plus several ad hoc groups. In essence, “the CDCP viewed its emergency operations staff as filling an advisory role rather than a leadership role during the [2003 SARS outbreak] crisis.” (Ansell and Keller, 2014).

During the SARS response, the average staffing level (span of control) was 18. Learning from the challenges experienced as a result of the scale of the outbreak led the CDCP to incorporate ICS during its response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. However, the lack of training throughout all parts of the CDCP led to organizational confusion. My colleague Timothy Riecker has written extensively on how the current ICS training curriculum can be improved, with a focus on application as opposed to rote theory-based learning. 

Fast forward to the 2009 H1N1 pandemic response. In the second phase of the 2009 H1N1 pandemic response, the CDCP incorporated a number of key changes to the traditional ICS model:

  • The role of the Incident Commander has been relegated to a supporting role to the CDCP Director, a position appointed by the U.S. President
  • Two roles, the Chief of Staff and the Deputy Incident Manager were created – reporting to the Incident Manager.
  • The operations, planning, logistics and finance/administration functions reported to a Chief of Staff rather than to the Incident Manager (IM).
  • The technical specialty unit, (traditionally a part of the planning section), formed the core of the incident management structure, reporting to the IM. These five “task forces” were Epidemiology/Lab, Community mitigation, Medical care and countermeasures, Vaccine and State coordination.
  • A plans decision unit was created, under the direction of a Deputy Incident Manager in order to “vet” incoming information. A “B” team was also added to provide a second set of eyes in vetting CDCP decisions.
  • A joint information center was elevated. Managed by the Deputy IM, the role of information center was expanded.
  • The policy unit was created 

As I have written previously, in my view ICS does not require adaptation, and can scale to any scenario. Having said that, I believe it is worth examining alternate approaches to continually refine and perfect our field. 

While I have a number of critiques of the changes incorporated by the CDCP, I am particularly interested to hear your thoughts. What changes would you keep (if any?) 

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Learning from the 2009 H1N1 Pandemic Response


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The ICS model remains a universal command and control standard for crisis response. In contrast to traditional operations-based response, the COVID-19 pandemic has required a ‘knowledge based’ framework. 

A fundamental element of ICS is the rapid establishment of a single chain of command. Once established, a basic organization is put in place including the core functions of operations, planning, logistics and finance/administration. In the face of a major incident, there is potential for people and institutions to work at cross purposes. The ICS model avoids this by rapidly integrating people and institutions into a single, integrated response organization preserving the unity of command and span of control. Support to the Incident Commander (the Command Staff) includes a Public Information Officer (PIO), a Liaison Officer and a Safety Officer.

In a study done by Chris Ansell and Ann Keller for the IBM Center for the Business of Government in 2014, the response of the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP) to the 2009 H1N1 Pandemic was examined in depth. In examining the response, a number of prior outbreak responses were reviewed. Prior to the widespread adoption of ICS, “the CDCP viewed its emergency operations staff as filling an advisory role rather than a leadership role during the crisis” (Ansell and Keller, 2014). This advisory function was the operating principle of the 2003 SARS outbreak response.

ICS was created to coordinate responses that often extend beyond the boundaries of any individual organizations’ capacity to respond. Considering the 2009 H1N1 pandemic response, the authors outline three features complicated the use of the traditional ICS paradigm:

  • The overall mission in a pandemic response is to create authoritative knowledge rather than the delivery of an operational response;
  • The use of specialized knowledge from a wide and dispersed range of sources; and 
  • The use of resources to manage external perceptions of the CDCP’s response.

In response to these unique features, the authors of the study have advocated seven adaptations to the ‘traditional’ ICS structure. These adaptations will be examined in depth in a future post.

Notwithstanding the unique challenges of a ‘knowledge-based’ response, the ‘traditional’ ICS structure is well-equipped to adapt and scale to the needs of any incident. While it is true that a ‘knowledge-based’ response differs from an operational one, this is not inconsistent with the two top priorities of the ICS model: #1: Life Safety and #2: Incident (Pandemic) Stabilization. The objectives of the incident will determine the size of the organization. Secondly, the modular ICS organization is able to rapidly incorporate specialized knowledge and expand/contract as the demands of the incident evolve. Finally, assigning resources to monitor external communications will remain the purview of the PIO as a member of Command Staff.

When the studies are written on the use of ICS in the COVID-19 pandemic, what do you think will be the key take-aways? As always, I’m interested to hear your thoughts and ideas for future topics.

version of this post was previously featured on the Exploring Emergency Management & Homeland Security Blog by Timothy Riecker, CEDP.

Preparing for the ‘Next Normal’

Five shifts that will impact post-pandemic Business Continuity Planning

In the current turbulent disaster landscape, the requirement for organizations to have a comprehensive business continuity management (BCM) framework in place has never been greater. While it may be too soon to assess the impact of COVID-19 on the economy, the study of prior pandemics offers some useful statistics. In a Globe and Mail article published November 12, 2009, the ‘worst case scenario’ impact of the H1N1 pandemic was discussed.

In the 2009 H1N1 virus outbreak for example, the existence of BCM plans and remote-working models were credited with an overall minor disruption in economic activity. Considering the much more pronounced impact of the Coronavirus, world trade has been estimated to contract by 13% to 32% in 2020, according to the World Trade Organization

In a study examining the ‘next normal’, McKinsey & Company has considered five shifts that will impact businesses and organizations post-pandemic:

A shift in demand. Predictably, consumers have been reconfiguring their spending on discretionary purchases towards digital options. The study indicates that those jurisdictions that have reopened prior to the peak of the infection curve have experienced greater volatility in consumer spending.

A shift in the workforce. As consumers and businesses transition to ‘remote working’ models, an erosion of culture and a greater ‘siloing’ effect has been observed. The report authors predict that the potential for two ‘cultures’ – one for those onsite, another for those virtual – could form. In assessing all the risks to which your organization may be vulnerable, it’s important to ask what role corporate culture plays.

A shift in expectations. The pandemic has highlighted the need for a stable, resilient supply chain. These needs have been demonstrated by the greater expectation for suppliers to demonstrate the presence and implementation of a BCM framework.

A shift in regulatory uncertainty. The pandemic has resulted in increased political pressure to enact protectionist regulations and legislation. What risk does this present to businesses and organizations relying on cross-border trade? What ripple effects on government policy, supply chains and consumer behaviours need to be taken into account in developing an effective BCM plan?

A shift in virus intelligence. As safety interventions and tools continue to evolve to protect citizens, exhaustion is setting in – demonstrated by those refusing to follow public health guidelines. Paradoxically, this exhaustion is likely to lead to additional ‘waves’ of transmission and the capacity of authorities to contain it.

A comprehensive BCM framework is needed by all organizations, including specialized mechanisms for assessing risk. Exercise and evaluation programs are critical to ensuring the efficacy of the plan. By exercising the BCM in a low risk environment, challenges and improvements can be identified while avoiding losses to critical data and infrastructure. As an accredited Business Continuity Professional, I can help your organization answer and develop these frameworks.

What do you think? How has COVID-19 impacted your organizations’ BCM planning efforts? As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Managing the Unthinkable

Disasters do not simply overlap: they compound. Often exponentially.

The role of the emergency management function is to deal with the unexpected, unpredictable and often unthinkable. Pandemic planning has long been considered, but not in the context of a concurrent natural disaster.

As I write this, Hurricane Laura is set to bring a “catastrophic storm surge” to the Gulf Coast, and California is battling 370 wildfires, a heat wave and rolling blackouts – all while simultaneously managing a pandemic. As Jacob Stern points out in The Atlantic, these disasters do not simply overlap: they compound. Often exponentially.

In California for example, firefighting forces heavily rely on inmate labour to supplement their ranks. Polluted air has been shown to increase vulnerability to the coronavirus, which inmates may then spread into the close-quarters environment of a correctional institution. Choosing to limit firefighting efforts as a result unleashes a secondary cascade of events beyond the capacities of any one agency.

A civil engineering professor at Vanderbilt University, Mark Abkowitz likens emergency management capacity to a reservoir. Multiple ‘draws’ from the reservoir may lead to insufficient resources getting to where they are needed. In an article for the Vanderbilt Center for Transportation and Operational Resiliency, Mr. Abkowitz shares concepts needing clarity by emergency managers when managing multiple simultaneous disasters:

Effective Planning

While risk assessment is a basic tenet of emergency planning, it has not previously been considered for simultaneous disasters. In the event of a natural disaster, how does an organization ensure social distancing protocols are in place in an emergency shelter or in a reception centre? In the event of reduced stakeholder capacity, how are resources allocated? In the current climate, officials need to consider any possible scenario. Business continuity planning is a critical resource to ensure these risks can be effectively planned and managed. 

Logistical Challenges

Not managed effectively, lifesaving resources may be diverted to the wrong locations, and may inadvertently expose more people to harm. In establishing a unified command, consistent with ICS principles, effective coordination of a centralized supply chain can be ensured. As I wrote in a previous post about the Italian response to coronavirus, partial solutions are to be avoided like … well, you know. 

These questions, previously ‘unexpected and unthinkable’ are going to increasingly become commonplace as disasters become more complex and frequent, often overlapping. 

Does your organization have continuity planning in place to handle multiple simultaneous disasters? Let me know in the comments, or feel free to contact me here.

What Literature can teach us about the Response to Coronavirus

While the history books have yet to be written on the worldwide response to COVID-19, a recent article by Anne Applebaum, Senior Fellow at Johns Hopkins University has provided an interesting take on the response to the coronavirus. 

In 1947, Albert Camus, a French philosopher and journalist published a novel called The Plague. Like other novels of its decade, including Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, the novel is allegorical. That is, while it is purportedly about the occupation of France, it really seeks to illuminate the unseen. As the primary character, Dr. Bernard Rieux bears primary responsibility for treating the afflicted in his town of 200,000, while vainly exhorting authorities to take measures to address the spread before it was too late. 

In modern Italy, the virus first appeared in the northern provinces of Lombardy and Veneto, a region heavily represented by the Northern League, a far-right political party led by Matteo Salvini. As Daniel Trilling reports in The Guardian, the defining feature of populism, namely the mistrust of elites and widely circulated conspiracy theories find the most fertile ground in times of uncertainty. 

[The quarantined town] continued with business, with making arrangements for travel and holding opinions. Why should they have thought about the plague, which negates the future, negates journeys and debates?

from The Plague, by Albert Camus (1947)

In an article published in the Harvard Business Review, four lessons have been considered that may have helped to mitigate the failure to contain COVID-19 in Lombardy and Veneto:

Skepticism and cognitive bias. Despite warnings that had been weeks in the making, Italian authorities engaged in confirmation bias and viewed with skepticism any position that did not align with their preferred position. This systematic refusal to listen to subject matter experts in the early days of the outbreak (defined from February 21 to March 22) resulted in the region being impacted by an “incessant stream of deaths.” (Pisano, et. al., 2020)

Avoiding partial measures. In response to the initial wave of COVID-19 cases, the Italian government issued decrees concerning lockdown areas (‘red zones’). These red zones were then expanded until they were applied to the whole country. This partial-measure approach backfired for two major reasons. Firstly, the known facts were non-predictive of the situation, so the partial lockdown followed the virus rather than prevented its spread. Secondly, partial lockdowns may have helped to accelerate the spread of the virus as Italians relocated to ‘non-lockdown’ regions, inadvertently spreading the virus to regions it had not been before.

Rapid learning is essential. A feature of ICS is the ability for it to rapidly scale up or down in response to changes in the facts. The Italian health care system is highly decentralized, and newly acquired knowledge was not given the priority it deserved. The article looks at the policy decisions of Lombardy and Veneto officials in depth as the two regions share similar socioeconomic traits, however experienced far different outcomes. Lombardy opted for a more conservative approach, with a strong focus on symptomatic cases whereas Veneto’s strategy was proactive and varied. As of March 26, 2020, the Lombardy region suffered 5,000 deaths in a population of 10 million, whereas Veneto experienced 287 deaths (in a population of 5 million) during the same period.    

Collection and distribution of data. As a corollary to the third lesson, the lack of data dissemination and standardization of virus statistics should be a priority. Documenting both macro (state) and micro (hospital) levels would help authorities to allocate available (often limited) resources accordingly. 

In the uncertain environment in which we find ourselves, both emergency management professionals and policymakers can benefit from the ‘fast tracked’ lessons being developed in real time.

Perhaps fittingly, the heroes of Camus’ novel remain the doctors and the volunteers who use science to contain and control the disease, without indulging fear-based hysteria. According to Dr. Rieux, “[it] may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.” (Camus, 1947).

As always, I look forward to reading your thoughts and insights.