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Collectively combating coronavirus: suggestions for the COVID situation room

Pandemic will be a trial of resilience for Pakistan’s leadership

SAMAA | - Posted: Mar 28, 2020 | Last Updated: 8 months ago
Posted: Mar 28, 2020 | Last Updated: 8 months ago
Collectively combating coronavirus: suggestions for the COVID situation room

A screenshot of the Johns Hopkins coronavirus resource hub at https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html taken 9am on Saturday.

Despite predecessors like SARS and MERS, and despite warnings from several health professionals of the potential emergence of even more severe strains, the Coronavirus has caught the world off-guard.

It has put to test the capacities and resilience of nations, even those that have “long established” policies, and governance frameworks in place to manage such threats, emergencies and crises.

To put it in perspective, a country should develop and maintain a national plan or framework to manage different types of emergency and crisis situations. One such situation is a pandemic. A type of pandemic that we are living through right now is the Coronavirus.

So, if a country has enough time to put in place such an emergency and crisis management framework, what would it look like?

A national emergency and crisis management framework is a highly collaborative, apolitical effort to safeguard a country against a spectrum of existing or potential major threats that might culminate into emergencies or crisis situations. There are three key features of an effective framework.

Firstly, it is foresight driven. The entire premise of strategic planning is to shift governance from reactive to proactive. Putting this in action means developing an understanding of what the future threat landscape looks like, given the geopolitical, social, economic and technological context of the country. It entails assessing which of these threats are most critical and likely and then effectively zooming in to prioritize and counter those. This sets the foundation for anticipatory decision-making.

Secondly, it is a ‘whole-of-nation’ effort. This means that national emergency and crisis management – by definition – leverages nationwide capabilities (e.g. social services including healthcare, military and defense, planning, finance, food and water security, law enforcement, power generation, media and communications, emergency response, etc.) to maximize a country’s readiness towards any major threats. It also involves businesses and citizenry by clarifying their role during emergency and crisis management. During an emergency, such as the current one, this would include observing lock-down rules, self-isolating, applying work-from-home policies, promptly reporting any suspected cases, among others. What is critical is that both businesses and citizenry have absolute clarity on which public institution(s) to reach out to for support and guidance in an emergency, and that interface has been strongly established.

It is also worth underlining that this is very much an apolitical effort. Effective and efficient emergency and crisis management cannot take place with the nation divided into provincial or other silos. After the devastating earthquake of 2005 and the sobering loss of lives, Pakistan proved its resiliency by making an impressive recovery. Operation Zarb-e-Azb launched in 2014 has gone down in history as a benchmark of excellence in joint military operations. Yet, the Coronavirus is relatively unique because it is not bound to a specific geographic region (or national borders for that matter; it is a global crisis) and it requires pre-emptive, collaborative and rapid counter measures.

And finally, the backbone of such a framework is a well-defined governance and coordination structure that enables agile and disciplined decision-making and rapid mobilization. Such a structure will string together the country’ leadership and all relevant institutions from the national level, cascading to the regional or provincial level, and then further to local levels. Once an emergency or crisis situation is officially declared, this singular and comprehensive structure immediately comes into effect to drive response, resolution and recovery.

In short, with a well-oiled national emergency and crisis management framework in place, when the big red ‘emergency’ button is pressed, all relevant agencies and institutions from the federal to the local level know exactly what they are supposed to do, and mobilize themselves rapidly to that end.

Now that we are in the midst of containing this virulent outbreak, let’s shift our focus from ‘what could have been’ to ‘what needs to be done now”. While several ongoing efforts indeed deserve high praise, there are five key suggestions for the Coronavirus ‘situation rooms’ leading Pakistan’s effort to combat this challenge:

  1. Immediately and most critically, initiate purposeful and holistic coordination. As elementary as it sounds, miscommunication and lack of proper coordination is usually the primary bottleneck in effective emergency management. At a time like this, the ‘business as usual’ version of everyday politicking and state-running, simply put, goes out the window. Pakistan’s resources, abilities and efforts are singularly focused on overcoming this mammoth challenge. It only makes intuitive sense that it be dealt with by its decision-making institutions acting as a singular, self-reinforced unit. To combat it effectively, political parties will have to unite, unequivocally, under a singular strategic direction. Decisions will need to be made rapidly and unambiguously, and cascaded across the nation.
  2. Run the numbers. Forecast potential scenarios of how the spread might evolve in the coming weeks (or months), identify the most desirable/least damaging future scenario, break it down into what is most critically required to achieve that scenario (immediate pre-emptive interventions such as lockdown or self-isolation, as well as rapid response enablers such as medical supplies, testing kits, make-shift hospitals and clinics, sufficient medical staff, quarantine facilities, food supplies, etc.). This has to be a nationwide exercise. The nature of the threat ensures that we are as strong as our weakest link.
  3. Establish the ‘value chain’ as creatively as needed. Once it is clear what is required and what scenario everyone is working towards, secure the supply of critical requirements, be that testing kits, medicines, medical staff or food supply for the general population. If it is not available in the country, identify the shortfall and reach out to international partners and donor agencies for purposeful support on specific requirements immediately. Identify facilities that can be converted to makeshift medical centers rapidly, and what local production capabilities can be fast converted to making high-usage medical supplies such as masks, gloves, coats, utensils, etc. An excellent example of this is the speedy decision to convert the Expo center in Karachi into a field hospital with the help of Pakistan Army. Next, map out how to distribute food rations, medicine, and other supplies to the population. Leverage agencies such as courier service providers, Pakistan post, hospitals clinics, and emergency service providers. Providing relief and supplies to people is where the disciplined machinery of the army supported law enforcement can play a pivotal role.
  4. Communicate clearly and coherently during this time, the people of Pakistan are looking to their national leaders to provide unambiguous and clear guidance. They are looking for reassurance and guidance right from the top. And most importantly, they are looking for singularity. Keeping the people informed on timely interventions nation-wide and making them aware of why they are being implemented is critical. For instance, homogeneous communication on lockdown from the federal to the provincial levels would have sent a clear signal to Pakistanis of the government’s seriousness of intent. At the same time, people may not immediately understand the need for lockdown or curfew. After all, it is a huge dent in the livelihood of many, perhaps irreparably. It is important to make the reasons for such strategic interventions abundantly clear. Additionally, such a time is a ripe opportunity to create panic and discord. Fake news is rampant. The Pakistani media bears the sizeable responsibility of ensuring that only factually correct information reaches people’s home. Clear communication is typically a major deterrent to a decline towards chaos.
  5. Monitor, monitor, monitor. This is critical not just to keep pace with how the pandemic evolves and spread in the coming days but also because we cannot wait months or years to see the effectiveness of interventions to combat the virus. We are down to mere hours. The cycle of plan-implement-monitor-review has to be extremely disciplined. National databases such as NADRA and those maintained by telecommunication service providers, as well as businesses and employers can be leveraged to reach out to people and establish a network for monitoring and reporting. We need to quickly course correct or scale-up successes as and where needed. Despite our best efforts, there will undoubtedly be extensive learning-by-doing due to the unprecedented nature of the challenge.

Looking to the future, Pakistan will turn the tide on this challenge. Once we do so, we will need to move rapidly from response to recovery. It is important that we start thinking already about what that recovery will look like and plan to achieve it in the shortest possible time.

This pandemic will be a true trial of resilience for Pakistan’s leadership, institutions, capabilities and, above all, its people. It will test our understanding and commitment towards the three pillars on which our nation was founded – Unity of thought, intent and motivation selflessly, Faith in each other, and Discipline in overcoming this unique and large-scale challenge together.

Aania Alam is a policy advisor, as well as a senior manager for the global consulting firm Kearney in its Government and Economic Development practice.

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