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:
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.