Crisis management in times of uncertainty

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In a webinar organized by the Climate Adaptation Forum on the 5th of June of 2020, Prof. Juliette Kayyem – a leader in safety, resiliency, and US homeland security – presented the five stages of crisis management.

Even though Coronavirus is a novel issue and raised confusion in the way of dealing with the matter, crisis management and building resilience are not new concepts. Research on crisis management was developed particularly in the 1980s following large-scale environmental and industrial disasters so that organizations can prepare and learn to deal with unexpected and disruptive threats. The centuries-old notion of resilience entailing recovering and bouncing back appeared in various disciplines such as material sciences and applied mechanics. In the last decades, this notion developed into a multidisciplinary concept to cover various fields such as psychological, economic, ecological, social, environmental, and climate resilience.

In a webinar organized by the Climate Adaptation Forum on the 5th of June of 2020, Prof. Juliette Kayyem – a leader in safety, resiliency, and US homeland security – presented the five stages of crisis management. The defined five stages to crisis management can be followed whether the crisis is a spread of a virus (Coronavirus, Ebola virus, or others), environmental crises (oil spills, hurricanes, floods, or others), or political instabilities and wars.

Firstly, to prepare and increase a system’s or a territory’s resilience to a crisis, protection is necessary requiring investments in the identification of risks, development of knowledge, developing a strong health system, and ensuring transparency. Secondly, prevention and mitigation of risks are crucial, which requires increasing the systems’ ability to withstand various threats as well as raising awareness and training and preparing the public. Thirdly, following the occurrence of any crisis, whether expected or unexpected, a prompt response is essential, this necessitates the collaboration and efforts of all parties including public and private institutions, businesses, society as well as individuals. Fourthly, an adaptive recovery is important to restore the functioning of systems to pre-disruption levels through continued efforts to manage the crisis. And Fifthly, developing resilience is vital, as the disruption should be considered a lesson for the future and an opportunity to make changes and continuous improvements.

Building resilience and preparing for future events thus necessitates the improvement of various systems such as health systems, security systems, logistics and supply chain management, economic systems, and developing greater commitments to climate change. Alonzo Plough – a distinguished scientist – stated in the webinar that “Resilience is not about bouncing back; it is about bouncing forward”. This stresses that systems should not go back to the state that made them vulnerable in the first place but should continuously adapt and improve. Disruptions should be an opportunity to make positive changes.

Kayyem highlighted that crisis management seems simple when dealing with one issue at a time. For example, addressing the issue of Coronavirus, despite uncertainties, seems rather straightforward, as it requires people to wash their hands thoroughly, stay at home, distance themselves from one another while researchers and doctors race to develop treatments or/and vaccines. However, things can get more complicated when more than one crisis overlap. She gave the example of planning for a hurricane, which requires people to leave their houses and evacuate the area. These measures contradict the guidelines emphasizing the importance of staying at home to stop the spread of the coronavirus. This issue is critical, as the Atlantic hurricane season falls between June and November 2020.

Doctor George Benjamin – an American public health official – elaborated on this idea highlighting the complexity and the importance of preparing and addressing crises occurring simultaneously. For instance, wildfires and air quality, exacerbate the risk of particles entering the respiratory system, the irritation, and inflation of the lungs which could aggravate the symptoms of the COVID-19. Moreover, infrastructure failure resulting in the disruption of essential services or functions could have adverse effects and significant harms leading in some cases to loss of life. Also, protests and mass demonstrations could spur the risk of diseases spikes. Additionally, national security problems such as wars require people to hide in bunkers or gather in different types of shelters, this conflicts with the guidelines established to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.

Lebanon is an example of a territory dealing with overlapping predicaments. This is underlined by infrastructure failure that the country has been dealing with for decades, the economic crisis that was aggravated by the imposed social distancing measures which are necessary to halt the spread of the coronavirus. Protesters are hitting the streets which increases risks of the exacerbation of the coronavirus crisis and contradict the international recommendations and guidelines to address the sanitary crisis. Conflicts in the region also need to be considered as they seem on the horizon due to existing political instabilities. Lastly, some environmental problems could occur and are unavoidable and need to be accounted for.

Governments and institutional actors should, therefore, develop their capacity to manage multiple disasters. This requires preparing for catastrophes and impediments before their occurrence employing the five stages of crisis management. It also entails collaborating not only with scientists and experts but also with people who know their communities more than others and who could influence positive changes. Dr. Benjamin emphasized the importance of providing experts and people who have the knowledge with power and leadership so that crises could be managed promptly and efficiently.

Rim Khamis graduated from the Lebanese American University with a Bachelor of Architecture degree and accomplished her masters in Environmental and Energy Management at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. Rim is currently undergoing her Ph.D. studies in Geography and Planning at the University of Pau and Pays de L’Adour in France after being selected as a laureate for the E2S Ph.D. Grant awarded for outstanding researchers in the field of Environmental and Energy Solutions. She is also working in collaboration with the Center for Environmental Policy at Imperial College London on topics related to environmental policies in urban contexts.

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