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  • Writer's pictureAlistair Nicholas

Lessons from the coronavirus crisis: Why crisis drills and war games fail but shouldn’t

The 1 April 2020 issue of Foreign Policy looks at a US war game conducted in 2001 to look at the country’s readiness to deal with an epidemic situation not unlike the coronavirus crisis.

As the simulated epidemic devolved into a pandemic, Canada and Mexico closed their borders with the US as Americans started heading for the hills.

Called “Dark Winter” that war game ended badly with mass civil disturbances in the streets of US cities and the National Guard mobilised to deal with a rapidly deteriorating situation.

But that isn’t the alarming thing about the Dark Winter exercise. War games and crisis scenario drills are usually designed to end badly for the participants. At least that is the way I design my drills. The reason is to enable participants to get maximum benefit from the exercise – that they can take away lessons on what to improve in their crisis management systems and processes.

What is truly alarming from the Dark Winter exercise and subsequent “follow on” exercises over the past two decades that were conducted around pandemics hitting the US is that lessons do not seem to have affected policy changes to better prepare the US for the Covid19 outbreak. Indeed, you’d think the US should have been better prepared given that the “Event 201” exercise of last year was built around a new “high-impact respiratory pathogen pandemic” not unlike the novel coronavirus. Event 201 even looked at the strain on global supply chains and the economic impact on countries of such an outbreak.

Foreign Policy’s full report on these exercises can be read here.

Learning from a crisis simulation

Crisis simulation exercises are crucial. But you need to act on the findings from drills and address the gaps in systems and processes that are highlighted during a simulation. Otherwise they are nothing more than a fun exercise.

One of the other lessons from the Covid19 situation we are now facing is the problem of complacency. One of the things I often tell clients at the conclusion of a crisis drill is the importance of learning to listen. Reports from the field are critical intelligence and often enable management to pick up early warnings of an issue that might be snowballing towards a crisis. When senior management fails to take notice of what they are hearing from the field (or worse, they sweep it under the carpet) they are setting the organisation up for a crisis.

That is very much what has happened in the case of the coronavirus in several ways. First, China’s authorities failed to take notice of the “intel” of a new type of deadly pneumonia coming out of Wuhan. Indeed, the authorities in Wuhan and Beijing worked to sweep the “rumours” of a new respiratory disease under the carpet, especially censoring the reports emerging on social media including from medical professionals. This was surprising given China’s experience of SARS in 2002. If the authorities had taken notice – and social media is a great listening tool – they could have avoided a local epidemic and spared the world the pandemic we are now dealing with.

More importantly, the world also failed to take much notice of what was happening in China for months. Other than daily news reports about the harsh lockdown imposed on 60 million Chinese in Hubei Province and some other key cities of China, very little was done in terms of preparation for a major outbreak in Western countries – even after we saw outbreaks taking place in Japan, South Korea and other Asian countries, and on at least one cruise ship. Rome, Paris, Madrid, London, Washington and Canberra did little if anything to prepare their nations for what was coming their way. America’s President was even calling it a hoax until a few weeks ago. Brazil’s President still refers to it as a “little flu.”

As Gigi Kwik Gronvall, a researcher at the Centre for Health Security, quoted by Foreign Policy article said, “The truth of this, the lesson, is that we just didn’t take the coronavirus reports coming out of China seriously enough soon enough. We just weren’t quick enough, and now we’re scrambling to catch up. It is a real problem for hospitals, which are bearing the brunt of this mistake. We needed to surge help into our nation’s hospitals right away. And we didn’t. [This crisis] didn’t need to happen.”

To be sure, crises don’t need to happen. If countries and organisations keep an ear to the ground and respond to the intel being gathered they can better manage even a snowballing situation before it rolls over them.

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