Are we prepared for the next big crisis?
First in a four-part series.
The next major crisis facing the American people may be larger than the current pandemic.
What makes the current pandemic unique is that it is accompanied by a parallel economic crisis. There was, as a practical matter, no anticipation that the pandemic would tripwire the U.S. economy into a major depression.
To date, federal government decision makers deserve a failing grade for their response to the pandemic. Their ability to manage the economic downturn and maintain a sufficient flow of resources to households, small businesses and municipalities exhibits similar characteristics — conflicting agendas and objectives across agencies, inability to manage to the scale of the problem and lack of a clear, unified message and strategy.
Both the pandemic and the resulting economic fallout are system-changing events in which many existing plans of governments and other institutions are rendered ineffective or obsolete. That is to say, different phenomena emerge that require new knowledge and capacities for crisis management; newer or less understood co-risks emerge that greatly complicate the communication of risks that require different decisions and behavioral adaptation; and the heightened complexity of system-level crises challenge the development of unified response strategies across many types of organizations.
Managing a single system-changing crisis is a herculean objective. Based upon the current response to twin pandemic and economic crises, there should be grave concern over our ability to address two or more such crises simultaneously in the future. And yet that is the scenario that awaits us and merits substantial re-thinking and new investments across multiple public and private institutions.
Looking to the future, we are likely to encounter multiple, simultaneous, system-level crises that threaten public health, disable critical infrastructure, require massive population evacuations, disrupt major supply chains for food and other key products and de-stabilize public confidence in the integrity of the financial and political systems. Such crises could emerge from cyber warfare, climate change, newer and more virile pandemics or large-scale refugee migrations (to name a few) — individually or in combination.
Imagine, for example, that a major hurricane with multiple times the storm surge of 2012’s Hurricane Sandy struck the eastern United States from Miami to Boston. This event would be catastrophic for people and infrastructure. If followed by a major cyberattack from China, Iran or Russia that disabled the electricity grid and the financial system, the risks of physical and social destruction would rise dramatically. Such scenarios are not hypothetical as all three nations have introduced malware or conducted disruptions on a smaller scale to achieve these outcomes.
How can we better prepare for this next potential set of game-changing risks that could undermine life as we have known it? Five steps are essential.
- First, invest in research and analysis of high-probability risk scenarios and strengthen evidence-based systems that convert constantly changing information into options for policymakers and the public.
- Second, formally train business executives and policymakers at all levels of government so they understand how such probability-based scenarios work and know how to practice and apply them.
- Third, upgrade the capacity of public health and emergency response, financial and supply-chain institutions to test their individual resilience and ability to collaborate effectively.
- Fourth, re-examine incentives and policies that currently make us more vulnerable to risks (residences in floodplains, aging water supply systems, location of industrial facilities near high-risk coastal areas).
- Fifth, educate school children and adults to understand current and future risks as an elementary part of citizenship. In some regions, this may necessitate civil defense exercises or other initiatives that bind the individual decisions of citizens to the public imperatives of effective preparation and protective actions.
Anticipating and effectively responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and other future crises requires a new way of thinking about how best to prepare and behave. Instead of developing isolated solutions to individual problems (pollution or disease), it’s imperative to invest in developing new kinds of expertise and designing systems and tools that can address one or more crises simultaneously across economic, environmental, social and technological boundaries.
New resources also will be needed so that the current practice of reducing investments in climate resilience of infrastructure (in New York and San Francisco, for example) to pay for pandemic response requirements becomes unnecessary.
These steps will require leadership that can de-politicize our multiple and sometimes conflicting objectives and initiate credible and effective collaborations that work for all of our citizens. Our future as a nation will depend upon it.