Canada’s response to the COVID-19 crisis has involved all orders of government from health, public safety, border
security and finance sectors. As social isolation continues it is clear that the private sector and voluntary sector will also play key roles in addressing the challenge. Collaboration between government and the private sector is essential during this crisis to focus national manufacturing efforts, focus the surge of private services, and work toward a common objective. The voluntary sector also has a key role in providing personnel, coordinating community-based relief, and assisting people who are most vulnerable to illness or those who are socially marginalized and not well supported by other programs.
Integration is important right now, even as we enhance social distancing. Those responding need to continue responding for the health and safety of all of us. The seemingly paradoxical nature of the problem – people working to maintaining supply chains and emergency service expose themselves to risk by doing so – qualifies as what Horst Rittel called a ‘wicked problem’: something that is hard to solve because of the contradictions and connections contained in it.
Government and the private sector cannot address this challenge separately, as each have prominent roles the other cannot fulfill. An emergency Cabinet committee was activated by the federal government, along with a Federal-Provincial-Territorial committee that integrates collaboration across orders of government. The Minister of Public Services and Procurement emphasized the need for whole-of-government approach to this crisis that combines health and science-based advice, with government streamlining procurement regulations to meet the needs of that advice. This national level leadership is essential, but it is only one part of the challenge. The private sector has the manufacturing and logistics capability to provide predictable support and is responding accordingly to get through this crisis. Whether manufacturing, supply chain, or health and pharmaceutical research, we are seeing strategic level collaboration between government and the private sector to respond.
For managing local response, there are existing frameworks like the Incident Command System (ICS) that serve as a valuable baseline for organizing the response along functional lines. Operations, planning, logistics, finance, administrative, and communications functions are all integrated under a common structure that reduces uncertainty and provides a more effective basis for emergency management than ‘going it alone’. The ICS structure is organized by function, meaning private or public sector organizations – or voluntary sector organizations – can be integrated into this model to maintain cohesion in response. This is precisely the kind of unity of effort is needed during a pandemic. A common structure is very important when integrating diverse groups into large response.
The voluntary sector also plays a vital role in response, especially in small communities. Provincial and Municipal governments across Canada are seeking assistance from volunteers to provide much-needed surge capacity to support the response. We are fortunate in Canada to have a robust level of volunteerism. Statistics Canada figures show that 41 % of the population aged 55-64 volunteer in some capacity, providing an average of 233 hours a year to their communities. Canadian seniors volunteer at a slightly lower rate, with 36 % of these Canadian seniors volunteering their time in their communities. The challenge for addressing COVID-19 is that seniors are more vulnerable than others, meaning some seniors may put themselves – and therefore others – at greater risk by volunteering than by staying home.
Mobilizing the volunteer base will be vital for remote and rural communities that have fewer resources available for normal operations and little surge capacity. The surge in those communities is likely to come from the volunteers. Volunteers can provide much needed capacity for emergency response functions and provide a vital link of familiarity and credibility to the rest of the community. Public warning messaging and risk communications is likely to carry more credibility in communities where the sender of the message is known to the recipient. The social bonds between volunteers and those in the community speaks to a shared sense of crisis and working together that can absent in cities and larger communities where there is more social distance in normal times. This means volunteers in community have a detailed understanding of the landscape, the social landscape (Who needs additional support? What support do they need?), and social connections to provide effective, compassionate response.
While this provides much needed capacity, health and safety concerns remain during this time. COVID-19 will
not distinguish between those managing the response and those not. Mobilizing volunteers is vital, but new ways should be explored to managing virtual emergency operations support for all participants. This can mean call centres or e-portals for people in the community to request support or report an incident. Social distancing is important for anyone involved in the response, including volunteers. The is another example of the paradox of response and protection – all responders face an increased risk if they are responding in person, so we must limit this interaction where possible.
The COVID-19 crisis is testing all countries’ ability to sustain normal activities, testing and treating the sick, and keeping the healthy in isolation to prevent further spread. Achieving this requires an all-hands-on-deck approach between government, industry, and the voluntary sector. Each organization brings something valuable to the response. Government has the mandate, authority and resources to drive response; industry has the material and manufacturing capability to provide goods and people to sustain supply chains; and the voluntary sector bring a trusted, community-based surge capacity to provide direct support. No single organization or sector can address this crisis. Collaboration and cooperation between organizations is essential, while ensuring the safety of responders in the process.
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