The Covid-19 crisis – reflections on dealing with risks

Photo: Jakob Rhyner

Jakob Rhyner, ©ICB

The Covid-19 crisis has us all under its spell. In the last four weeks, fears have been constantly surpassed and action plans have been turned upside down. There is a lack of data for solid predictions. We run the risk of reaching the capacity limits of the health care system and we are trying to avoid this with major restrictions on public life and the economy. There is uncertainty and different opinions exist as on what an appropriate combination of measures to partially normalize the situation might be. What is certain is that the ideal, problem-free combination does not exist.

This situation demands the utmost from decision-makers at many levels and in many areas. And it is giving rise to many voices – those of trivializations, dramatizations, conspiracy theories, even of prophecies of the end of humankind, or at least of great upheavals to come. In this situation it is perhaps good to remind ourselves that humankind has learned to deal with many dangers and uncertainties over history in a quite successful way – and to ask ourselves how we actually do it.

One area in which great progress has been made in the last 200 years, but especially in the last few decades, is the management of so-called natural hazards – storms, floods, droughts, landslides, snow and ice avalanches, etc. The number of fatalities due to these hazards on the globe has decreased by more than 70% since the beginning of the last century, even with a strong population growth. It is not possible to transfer these findings 1:1 to Covid-19. But certain basic questions and approaches to answering them seem to be the same.

There is extensive literature on the management of risks from natural hazards, both in terms of research and practice. The term “natural hazard” is usually used in the literature to refer to the process itself, for example to an ice avalanche. The risk is the damage that may be inflicted on humans. An ice avalanche in an uninhabited, untraveled and unused area, which therefore does not represent a risk according to this definition. The so-called risk circle is often used to describe the way natural hazard risks are dealt with. It is shown below in its simplest form.

Graphic: Risk circle

3 main pillars of risk management

The risk circle describes the three main phases or pillars of risk management: prevention, crisis intervention and aftercare, or reconstruction. At the center of the risk circle are fundamental social boundary conditions that are decisive for dealing with risks. These include, for example, the question of what safety requirements we have, i.e. what we want to take precautions for and what we are not prepared to do, or what compromises we are prepared to make in combating a crisis in terms of restricting fundamental rights. The most important characteristic of the risk circle, however, is that it is a circle. After a crisis, the work is not finished, but the preparation for the next one begins. “After the crisis is before the crisis.” This does not mean that we need to be in a permanent crisis mode, but that we systematically use the experience from previous problem situations. This requires that the memory is still present. In Europe, we remember the last regional flood, but probably not the last epidemic. It may be the other way around in other parts of the world.

1. Precaution – “Prevention is better than cure. But not always.”

The precautionary phase is the basis for dealing with natural hazard risks. The example of flooding shows that it consists of very different components. To name but a few: technical measures, e.g. dams; political measures, e.g. intergovernmental agreements in the case of transboundary water bodies; economic measures, e.g. insurance; organizational measures, e.g. early warning systems and rescue organizations. The successful interaction of these measures requires intensive cooperation across states, ministries and scientific disciplines. Experience shows, however, that the willingness to cooperate is not enough. Many significant advances have only been achieved with the experience of previous crises.

Prevention is better than cure. But not always. Why not always? Because for floods beyond a certain size, the measures are too costly and would constitute an unacceptable intervention, and prevention could therefore have more painful consequences than the outbreak of the disease. This can be illustrated with an example. The “Madgdalen Flood” in 1342 affected various water bodies in Germany, but the Rhine catchment area was hit hardest.  It was the largest documented flood in the region, a real millennium event (statistically speaking even a 10,000-year event). The flow rate was by far higher than that of all floods in modern times. The Magdalene Flood may be an event that happened in the distant past, but it is obviously a possible one. If it happened now, it would cause tremendous damage with current land use practices. Preventive measures taken against an event of this magnitude would, however, require massive interventions in the settlement and economy of the region, which hardly anyone would advocate. In the practical planning of measures, depending on national legislation and the object to be protected, “model events with annualities, i.e. statistical return intervals, between 30 and 300 years are usually taken into account. These annualities may need to be reviewed and adjusted in view of climate change. Such “model events”, in whatever way they are defined in detail, are also important for pandemic preparedness planning.

2. Crisis intervention – “It’s difficult to make predictions, especially about the future”

Precautionary measures cannot always prevent critical situations. For example, in mountain regions not all avalanches can be prevented by defense structures. So-called temporary measures are another pillar of risk management. They can range from sandbags (in the event of floods), evacuations, to the closure of traffic routes or local curfews. Although these are much more limited in time and space than in the current Covid-19 situation, they are just as restrictive and threatening for those affected. A similarity between the danger of Covid-19 and avalanches (but in contrast to floods) is that the initiation of restrictions (the “lockdown”), e.g. the closing of traffic routes, is easier in terms of both decision-making and communication than the subsequent easing of restrictions (the “exit”). Roads are usually closed during periods of intense snowfall, when the danger is understandable even to non-experts. Under such circumstances, the actions of a community avalanche service are gratefully accepted, while patience may diminish in case the safety service needs to wait with the re-opening even if the weather has improved again.

In contrast to the Covid 19 crisis, in the situation where danger is posed by avalanches it is not politics but professional organizations that are responsible for the decision on and implementation of measures. This is probably a consequence of the experience that has been gradually gained in the course of many crisis situations and the “best practice” procedures that have been developed. Although these measures are always discussed after an intervention (among experts and with politicians where necessary) and improved where possible, they are intended to enable the safety organizations to initiate measures swiftly and adapt them to the local conditions in an imminent crisis situation. In cases where a crisis exceeds the limits of the precautionary planning design, however, political leadership becomes indispensable.

Crisis management, however detailed, is based on the ability to assess future developments. The witticism “It’s difficult to make predictions, especially about the future” is attributed to Niels Bohr, one of the founders of quantum theory, as well as to the writer Mark Twain. It describes one of the basic difficulties safety services face: The compulsion to make decisions under time pressure and uncertainty, based on often incomplete, sometimes contradictory data. It goes without saying that inappropriate decisions are possibly made in such situations. The question of what can and cannot be decided with available data (i.e. the road remains closed even with good weather) is important not only for decision-making but also for the public communication of decisions. In recent years, the greatest progress has been achieved through improved data and models, as well as better communication technologies and more emphasis on communication as an essential part of risk management. Here again, the parallels to Covid-19 are obvious.

3. Aftercare – “Hindsight is (almost) always easier than foresight” ; “Never let a serious crisis go to waste”

These two “mnemonics” (the second of which is attributed to both Winston Churchill and Rahm Emanuel, the White House Chief of Staff under President Obama) should not be understood sarcastically but should be included in any risk management manual. Somewhat less casually, they translate into the questions “What insights can be gained from the crisis”, “(how) can these insights contribute to the prevention of similar future crises or, if they cannot be prevented, to an improved handling”?

An “event analysis” at a certain distance in terms of time can provide the necessary input. There are two groups of questions to which answers must be found. The first group comprises “technical”, process-related aspects: What went well and what didn’t? Which developments could have been identified earlier? Were the capacities sufficient? Was the data and model basis sufficient? Were the organizational structures adapted? Did reduction of one risk lead to the increase of others? These questions refer to the “outside” of the risk circle. However, major or unexpected crises also raise a second group of questions which concern the “inside” of the risk circle, the “overall societal” aspects: What development strategies do we want to base our handling of risks on? What possible events do we want to take precautions against (see Magdalene Flood above)? Which measures may be inacceptable in dealing with risks (e.g. curfews, telephone tracking)? The two groups of questions are not independent of each other. For example, the demands on safety (inside the circle) have steadily increased with the scientific and technical possibilities (outside the circle).

The United Nations, with the “Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (2015-2030)”, have coined this comprehensive follow-up approach to with the term “Build Back Better”. This includes not only the reconstruction of damaged structures (often with the reflex “everything has to look the same as before as quickly as possible”), but also a possible conversion or new construction. One should check whether the structures are still up-to-date and use the crisis as an opportunity to adapt and develop them further in response to changing conditions or future aspirations. The history of hydraulic engineering in Germany over the last 300 years shows this impressively: Until the beginning of the 19th century, malaria was a major problem in Germany, with many swamp areas as sources of the disease. By steadily draining these swamps and building canals and rivers, not only malaria was contained, but land was gained for agriculture and thus for food production. Malaria and the lack of food are no longer a problem in Germany today. On the other hand, new flood risks have arisen in many places due to the denser settlement and “constriction” of waterways. These, and also concerns about biodiversity, are more and more leading to efforts to give rivers and their ecosystems more space again. These two “opposing” strategies, both suitable in the context of their time, show that the post-crisis phase always offers opportunities for rethinking and adapting structures in the light of social developments.

In this context, the concept of “resilience” is often used to describe a system’s ability to maintain “systemically-relevant” functions during a crisis. This maintenance or restoring of functions is often equated with the idea that the system emerges from the crisis unchanged, “unscathed”, i.e. “returns to normality”. However, the historical development of hydraulic engineering outlined before suggests that it is change rather than preservation that makes a system resilient in the long run – a “transformative” understanding of resilience. The Covid 19 crisis will provide much “food for thought” in this respect.

The author is Professor for Global Change and Systemic Risks at the University of Bonn and Scientific Director of the Bonn Alliance for Sustainability Research/ Innovation Campus Bonn (ICB).

This text was first published on the website of the Bonn Alliance for Sustainability Research / Innovation Campus Bonn (ICB).

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