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The response to the COVID-19 crisis has mobilized all orders of government, health response, the private sector to sustain the supply chain, and the voluntary sector. Government announcements on physical distancing measures are supported by medical and public health professionals and apply broadly to prevent community transmission. Elected leaders have consistently warned against hoarding food and supplies, reminding people that the supply chain is still delivering and that there is no anticipated shortage.

The most notable thing we are seeing during this response is that “all-hands-on-deck” means organizations that don’t normally interact are engaging with each other directly. This is happening at the political level across all orders of government, with the private sector to ensure the supply chain is resilient and ensuring the voluntary sector is being leveraged accordingly. This collaboration is happening on-the-fly in the sense that organizations are not normally part of each other’s planning, training and delivery; especially not to this extent. What this really means is taking a whole-of-society approach.

Federal and provincial emergency operations centres are staffed for 24/7 operations to manage this escalating crisis. The health component is central to this effort. The federal government’s daily update briefings are typically comprised of the Chief and Deputy Public Health Officers, Dr. Theresa Tam and Dr. Howard Njoo respectively, providing detailed science-based answer to questions from the public and the press. Travel restrictions, distancing requirements and shutting down federal offices were all driven by health assessments. Ontario, Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan, British Columbia, Quebec and others regularly have their Chief Medical Officers speaking about the risks and the measures being taken. Elected leaders regularly defer to the public health authorities and remind the public that policy decisions are being made based on the science and the evidence. This applies to shutting down any non-essential businesses, recreational facilities, schools and childcare facilities. Generally, in emergency management we do not associate business hours with the response; either businesses stay open or they don’t, based on whether they are able. Mandated shutdowns are rare. Mandated closures are unprecedented on this scale in recent memory.

The political level of collaboration has also accelerated to a degree not seen in recent history. The Government of Canada has struck a cabinet committee specifically for collaboration with their provincial counterparts to manage the response. Cabinet meetings are typically for considering strategic issues and re-evaluating policy options, not for day-to-day management. While the federal government regularly works with the provinces in areas of mutual interest through the Council of the Federation, daily collaboration is something that is almost unheard of in contemporary history.

The supply chain question has become very prominent during the COVID-19 response. The Government of Canada has allowed an exemption for cross-border movement of trucks to sustain the supply chain. Provincial prohibitions on regional travel have not applied to the supply chain, underlining its importance.

The Government of Canada has also consulted with the manufacturing and defence industry to determine how much additional production capacity is available for producing medical equipment, safety devices and clothing.

The Government of British Columbia passed measures to get up-to-date information about grocery stocks and warehouse levels from grocery chains, the right to take over private spaces to support the supply chain, and the power to commandeer commercial transport. These measures are extraordinary. The Government is not typically in the business of business, beyond broad regulatory frameworks for product safety standard to protect the public.

The military is including sustaining supply chains for remote communities as part of their planning for COVID-19 and for upcoming seasonal hazards. The Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) discussed the challenge of planning for the response to spring floods and wildfires in the context of the current COVID-19 environment. The military is including medical, engineering, transport, infrastructure repair and logistics support as part of its response planning. The military has a dedicated logistics function to sustain its own operations. Providing fuel, food, ammunition and replacement equipment is essential for sustaining military operations. However, being a key provider of those functions for civilians is something typically associated with things like the Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) that respond to crises abroad. The military is the ‘force of last resort’, and in the context of COVID-19 this is likely to include more than disaster relief only (sandbagging, medical evacuation, etc.). It will likely include sustaining the supply chain to allow communities to shelter in place due to the COVID-19 risk.

The voluntary sector is providing support to those affected as best they can while still observing physical distancing requirements. The Canadian Red Cross’s support includes meals for those in quarantine at Trenton and Cornwall, offering mental health services and offering financial assistance through their national and regional networks. The Salvation Army is supporting food relief to limit food insecurity impacts on the most vulnerable members of the communities during this time. This support cannot be provided in a relief centre as we often see during disasters; it needs to be provided while observing distancing, especially with those diagnosed with COVID-19. This is an entirely new model for the voluntary sector too.

This nature of COVID-19 and its response are unprecedented in modern history. The public, private and voluntary sectors are all doing what they can in the moment to respond to this crisis. This has been a significant effort that demands a lot from the people involved. The ‘whole-of-society’ approach is showing the closest thing to maximum societal engagement we have seen since the days of the Second World War.

In our next installment we will talk about what happens after the crisis, and how we can think differently about designing organizations to meet challenges big and small, predictable and unforeseen.