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The response to COVID-19 has taken an “all-hands-on-deck” approach. All orders of government, the health sector, the armed forces, the private sector and the voluntary sector are all contributing to help effectively manage the response. This has required a re-think on roles and responsibilities for the national response. Government is not typically involved in the supply chain for safety equipment; the military is not typically involved in planning domestic logistics; the Government of Canada is not typically having daily calls with the Premiers. And yet, all of this is happening during COVID-19, leveraging the digital means necessary to keep lines of communication and collaborative efforts moving forward.

This raises some questions for the future, once the COVID-19 crisis has passed. It would be a mistake to re-orient all emergency management design for something of this scope and scale. Equally, it would be a mistake to revert back to previous concepts that focus only on first responders and evacuation. The full range of potential threats, from localized industrial accidents up to national level response should be evaluated from a capability perspective to see if we have the right mix and the ability to surge. Not everything will be another COVID-19. In fact, it almost certainly will not be the same; but there will undoubtedly be future crisis.

So where to start? How to organize reconsidering roles and responsibilities? A useful model for re-visiting emergency needs is to group the types of crises we may face, using the size of the crisis, and whether or not it will be predictable or unforeseen.

This matrix (at right) is a useful tool to considering where the lessons of COVID-19 will apply most. Small, geographically defined crises are the kind of things that first responders at the municipal level respond to regularly. They still require multi-agency response, depending on the nature of the crisis. Medical teams may need to surge to treat casualties, the voluntary sector may engage in outreach to ensure vulnerable people are safe, and some public facilities may be temporarily closed. Generally, these are over quickly, so not much reconsideration is necessary.

Larger, geographically defined crises have the benefit of being able to do geographically-bound risk modelling. This is in no way meant to minimize the impact on families and communities of massive flooding like we saw on the Ottawa river in the past few years, or the wildfire that engulfed most of Fort McMurray. These events are devastating to communities, some of which will never be the same. However, risk models show these events are made possible based on terrain, weather and other factors. In that sense, they were not totally unforeseen. The lessons learned from those events have highlighted the need for more regular planning for annual impacts, and the need to iterate based on new risk information. These crises are large, which means evacuation of communities may be required. Evacuation means getting people safely out of the area and then sustaining them in a new space. This means food, shelter, medical support, family support, considerations for children, the elderly and vulnerable populations. Evacuations may require military assistance and the activation of voluntary sector organizations. There is value in reconsidering the planning and response for this kind of event.

Large, non-geographically defined are more challenging. The idea that a pandemic could happen was not unimaginable and not unforeseen. We saw SARS, MERS and Ebola. We know what the overall threat is (illness), but we are not always certain about how and when the crisis materializes. We can only identify the geographic vectors after the fact – before hand, any port of entry is theoretically a vector. The central feature is the long duration of the crisis and the permanence of the impact while they unfold. There is no work-around to a global pandemic or a systems-level failure. As we are seeing with COVID-19, all activity that does directly support response becomes a secondary consideration at the societal level. The basic system is not the problem; it’s the capacity and endurance that requires a ‘whole-of-society’ approach. In fact, short of nationalizing the private sector, there is no other way.

We are seeing real concerns about personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages, concerns about enough medical professionals, enough medical facilities, and having the manufacturing and human capital. The Minister of Health underlined this point in stating that investment in preparation for an emergency response has been lagging for decades since the end of the Cold War. The idea is not to simply rebuild Cold War plans. Too much has changed since then. Digital and wireless technology enables tracking and information management that would have been unthinking during the Cold War.

Internet-of-Things enabled supply chain tracking offers the promise of greater visibility systems wide, providing near-real-time business intelligence on supplies and stock, and where they are in transit to facilities that needs then. Additive printing – or 3D printing – means that some things can be produced close to the point of use. There is potential to rely less on traditional supply chains for some challenges, allowing facilities to produce some material on-site or near-site to meet changing needs. Robotics and autonomous vehicles provide the promise of some human-based tasks being enhanced or made more efficient, allowing humans to do more testing, move more material, or whatever else is required. The use of robotic and autonomous vehicles can greater reduce the risk profile by removing some physical human elements from the response space.

Another challenge for integrating 21st century technology into a whole-of-society approach is that doing so mid-crisis risks creating more confusion and creating gaps in delivery. We should aim to limit experimentation during a crisis. Gaps in delivery are not something we can afford when the stakes are this high. Once the crisis has passed, a bigger discussion about how we can mobilize all of society more efficiently for a range of possible scenarios is necessary. Design efforts will need to see beyond just orders of government. Integrating supply chains – from raw materials, through to production, and delivery – into response is showing itself vital for the endurance of the response. The voluntary sector serves an important role, especially for the most vulnerable in society who are disproportionately impacted by any emergency.

This isn’t about rethinking everything about emergency management: this is about re-focusing on how all elements of society can work better together before an emergency occurs to create more resilient systems.