Preparing for the Next Big Ones: The Moral Responsibility of Seeing the Big Picture by Ian I Mitroff
Given the appalling overall response to the Coronavirus, plus the highly disconcerting fact that virtually all of the systems that were supposed to protect us failed miserably, what do we need to do to better prepare ourselves for the next big Pandemic and major crises whatever they are?
One of the best ways is conducting crisis simulations that are up to the task. It means anticipating and planning for as many things that can and will go wrong. It demands exposing as many of the latent defects and fatal flaws in the current system as we can, and then doing everything we can to correct them, indeed make them better.
While computer simulations are absolutely necessary to manipulate scores of variables and a wide variety of conditions, they are not enough. It’s necessary to gauge how real people will perform under the actual conditions they will face. Thus, simulations that feature real people role playing the actual jobs and positions that are involved in managing a crisis are essential. It includes jobs in both the public and private arenas.
Let me discuss briefly each of the factors that are necessary if a simulation is to be of any assistance in preparing for the next Big Ones.
First, it has to involve the simultaneous occurrence of multiple crises. The Coronavirus was not a single, well-contained, and isolated crisis. Indeed, it unleashed a whole system of calamities. Yes, it was primarily a major Public Health Crisis, but it quickly became a prime Economic Crisis, Food, Nursing Home, Vulnerable Population, Education Crisis, and so on. To my knowledge, there were no simulations for an unfolding catastrophe of this extent and magnitude.
One cannot emphasize enough that because we were not prepared for a whole system of interrelated crises, the initial crisis quickly spiraled out of control setting off a chain reaction of other equally horrific crises. This is in fact one of the primary characteristic features of all major crises. This cannot be allowed to happen again. We have to expect that whatever the initial crisis, it will impact the whole system and thus cause other equally damaging crises.
Second, we have to assume that like the Coronavirus, the Early Warning Signals of the next crises will be blocked and ignored. Epidemiologists and Infectious Disease Specialists have been warning for years of a Global Pandemic, but the warnings were not taken seriously, and worse, they were deliberately ignored and suppressed by the Trump Administration. That multiple actors up and down the line can and will ignore and deliberately suppress future Signals has to be a prime component of future simulations. In other words, what can be done when the Signals are deliberately ignored and blocked? Can other actors and institutions be alerted and take action? In other words, what backup mechanisms need to be in place?
Third, we also have to assume that the appropriate actions that are absolutely necessary such as the stockpiling of Personal Protective Equipment will be curtailed as well. Further, such actions will be “roundly justified.” In other words, key rationalizations also have to be essential parts of the simulations, certainly crucial aspects of the role playing exercises. In addition, key authorities and major officials can be expected to shirk their responsibilities and do and say irresponsible things. What can be done to work around this? What institutions can step in to play responsible roles?
Fourth, because they will unfortunately curtail public activities, and exact a severe burden, we also have to assume that there will be widespread public pushbacks against Public Health measures designed to protect people. We’ve even seen the worst with armed shows of resistance in Michigan and Texas so we should expect it again and prepare for it. In short, the pressures to resume normal activities will be enormous. Indeed, why wasn’t this a basic part of prior simulations?
Like the Coronavirus, we also have to prepare for the unwelcome possibility that a cure for the next one will take as long, if not longer, and therefore will be as prolonged.
Fifth, we need to simulate all the scams, disinformation, and conspiracy theories that will abound.
And sixth, we have to assume that like the present case, the credibility of major players will be called into question, the worst being the reputation and reliability of the major players, i.e., Public Health Officials, Governors, and of course, the President him or herself.
Finally, it requires a very different type of organization to conduct the simulations. It cannot be an organization that is heavily rooted in one of the academic disciplines or professions. They are not up to task of thinking broadly and systemically. It has to be an organization that is fundamentally grounded in interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary thinking.
All of these and more are needed if we are to be better prepared for the Next Big Ones. There are no good reasons to believe that we’ve seen the last of it. It’s only wishful thinking. Look how far that has gotten us.
Ian I. Mitroff is credited as being one of the principal founders of the modern field of Crisis Management.
He has a BS, MS, and a PhD in Engineering and the Philosophy of Social Systems Science from UC Berkeley.
He Is Professor Emeritus from the Marshall School of Business and the Annenberg School of Communication at USC.
Currently, he is a Senior Research Affiliate in the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management, UC Berkeley.
He is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Academy of Management.
He has an honorary Doctorate from the University of Stockholm, and a Gold Medal from the UK Systems Society for his lifelong contributions to Systems Thinking.
He has published 38 books, his most recent is:
Techlash: The Future of the Socially Responsible Tech Organization, Springer, New York, 2020.