We analyzed the qualities of good preparation among countries. It turns out that these qualities are good rules of thumb for any company or organization.
As of this writing, there are over 100,000 identified cases of the novel coronavirus COVID 19. Which countries were best prepared?
To answer the question: No country prepared well, according to the 2019 Global Health Security Index. Instead, the survey of the health security of 95 countries concluded that “National health security is fundamentally weak around the world. No country is fully prepared for epidemics or pandemics, and every country has important gaps to address.”
Still, some countries were more prepared than others. Governments that did prepare shared at least some of the following five characteristic
- A strong network of key stakeholders
- Strategic Foresight and /or the ability to leverage prior experience
- Culture of agility and innovation
- Early warning systems
- Trusted communications channels
This list of actions provides a good checklist for any institution seeking to prepare for unexpected crises: businesses, community leaders, and other institutional leaders.
Yet, COVID-19 won’t be the last public health crisis or calamity to emerge in our complex, globally interconnected world.
So now might be a good time to review this basic outline of preparedness qualities in areas you foresee potential future risks. Where are the gaps and where are opportunities to develop the capacity to respond before crisis strikes?
A Strong Network, ready to coordinate a response
Countries with networks of important stakeholders, such as hospitals or other health care providers, mobilized responses more easily. The European Centre for Disease Prevention & Control (ECDC), a pan-European agency, could communicate with many countries at once, for example. Germany has a strong system to send out recommendations and information to localities.
When considering a potential crisis:
- Who are critical stakeholders with whom you may need to coordinate?
- What can you do now to establish lines of communication between these stakeholders?
Foresight & Ability to Leverage Experience
The readiness to imagine an undesirable event is critical. No one ever wants to think about what could go wrong. Most institutional leaders already navigate hard problems in the hear-and-now. It can seem too much to ask to also develop future scenarios for high-risk, but low probability events.
In the United States, medical responders improvised solutions, making it clear there had been little if any advance planning. In the early days of the US outbreak, doctors treated patients in parking because they lacked protocols to bring them into emergency rooms, and exposing other patients to them.
Prior experience can help hasten the process of getting up to speed. Authorities in the United States are consulting existing plans for SARS and MERS, earlier forms of a coronavirus, for insight. Some African countries are usefully repurposing their experience with Ebola to COVID-19, such as “no touching” policies and targeted quarantines.
When considering a potential crisis:
- Is your organizational leadership ready to develop scenarios about a potential crisis, no matter how impossible or difficult it is to imagine right now?
- If not, what are the cultural roadblocks to honest conversations about what to do if the worst happens? How can you move these out of the way?
Culture of Agility
The novelty of COVID-19 is one of its key characteristics. The world has never dealt with a quickly spreading disease which in many people produces only light symptoms. The ability to be agile, rather than rigid, and alter course as conditions evolve is important in the face of a novel event.
China’s measures to contain the disease were severe, and Italy has now followed suit with lock-downs of its own. The discussion over whether the lock-down of entire cities and other extreme measures is a good idea will probably not end soon.
Yet, for China — with its 1 billion + population — it worked. “China has rolled out perhaps the most ambitious, agile, and aggressive disease containment effort in history,” according to the World Health Organization team.
A culture of agility is not something a company can build in a day. But agility can be practiced in many areas of an organization, of which crisis planning is only one. As you think about future risks in your organization:
- You may want to audit past experiences of novel events. What were the organizational tendencies? Could leaders make decisions and have them executed quickly?
- Could leaders and teams deal with a changing landscape? If not, consider beginning with the basics: developing a leadership mindset that can manage and function in ambiguity
- Are there mechanisms for shifting gears in changing conditions?
- If not, how can efficiencies that will serve in the case of a crisis be authorized now?
Early Warning Systems
Early warning systems of all sorts have two functions: intelligence and reporting. The intelligence function gathers secondary indications of a possible event. The reporting function ensures that authorities receive that information, so they can investigate or take action. In the case of the coronavirus, the use of an early warning system to detect disease is clear but is also mostly a story of lost opportunity.
China developed a strong early warning system after the SARS crisis. This system works when medical personnel input anomalous or alarming situations into the system, which then elevates the information to the China Center for Disease Control.
Yet, several reports have indicated that this process did not work as it should have for the coronavirus outbreak. First, the reporting system did not work, and second, political considerations interfered and resulted in hampering the system’s smooth operation.
- Do you have an established system for noticing at an early stage when conditions are changing for you, or if they might?
- If not, to develop one, consider what secondary information you would need to show that a problem may be emerging.
- Are the politics of your organization healthy? If there were a problem, would people at every level feel safe reporting an issue? If not, what can you do to begin addressing this serious challenge?
Learn more about how to identify signals of change in the external environment.
Trusted communications channels
There is a great deal that needs to be communicated with the public in an epidemic situation. It is critical that countries accurately and openly communicate the spread of the disease. It is important to communicate with the public new and emerging guidelines: such as those to clean our hands and to employees about how to take time off and who should self-quarantine.
This is especially the case while the many facts about the virus spread remain uncertain. In this environment, according to CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy Distinguished Lecturer Scott Ratzan. “Unfortunately, this uncertainty creates a ripe environment for both fear and misinformation.”
As you prepare for any future potential crisis:
- Are your communications in good order?
- Do your employees or stakeholders know where to go to learn more about your plans or policies?
- Do your stakeholders trust the information you produce? And do you trust them to be able to manage or respond to information about a crisis?