Public PolicySoutheast AsiaWorld

It is time the world takes crisis management seriously

No one, back in December 2019, would have thought that the Coronovirus flu that started in Wuhan, China, would have taken the devastating scale it is now exacting. The virus is paralysing national economies. Normal life has been greatly disturbed by a flu pandemic never seen in modern history. Countries are still coping with great difficulty on how best to deal with the pandemic. The public is confused about the gravity of the pandemic. This is a crisis, truly an unprecedented trans-boundary crisis.

Three basic elements define a crisis. First, a crisis threatens the environment and life. Second, a crisis has an element of urgency. The heightened pace in which a crisis takes on – be it earthquakes, hurricane, volcanic eruption and a pandemic flu such as the one we are seeing now – requires large scale intervention in the shortest possible time. The third element of a crisis is the uncertainty that it produces. No one, for example, is quite sure on the scale of damages to life, the impact it will have on local communities and how the crisis should be best addressed.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a special type of crisis- a transboundary crisis. Besides the three basic elements of a crisis, a transboundary crisis has additional dimensions. For one, and as the name suggests, a transboundary crisis cuts across borders. The COVID-19 virus spread across districts, states, countries, and continents. Every continent is now affected by the virus. Another feature of a transboundary crisis is that such crisis cuts across different functions of a state. The impact of pandemic flu is now felt across many sectors of the economy, from healthcare, manufacturing, tourism to financial services. Another feature of a transboundary crisis, like the one we are experiencing now, is that we can never know when it will end and how it started. There is still a lot of guessing on how and when the virus spread and the world does not know how and when the virus would go away. This uncertainty makes planning for mitigation measures difficult. In short, transboundary crisis, such as the one we are witnessing now, has the potential to do more damage than we could imagine – damage to society, economies, infrastructure, security and trust in government.

A puzzling question is that despite the many calamities that we have seen in the last few years, the world is still unprepared for a major crisis. Why is this so? Many reasons can be given.

First, governments are usually not prepared for a crisis, because making preparations during times of no crisis can pose political and administrative challenges. During non-crisis period, citizens would naturally question on the need to dedicate resources for crisis management, especially when the returns cannot be determined. In weak democracies preparing for a crisis and using scarce resources could have political repercussions. Given the case, it is not a surprise that few countries are prepared for this pandemic. We know now that many do not have medical facilities dedicated to infectious diseases. In some countries, existing hospitals are now being re-functioned to cater to infectious diseases.

A second reason why countries are not prepared is that planning for a crisis is hard. This is because crisis can take many forms and that it is impossible for states to prepare for every kind of crisis. Given the case, there is the need to prioritise on the types of crisis and this requires a comprehensive risk assessment. There is a need for risk profiling that takes into account local conditions. In the case of the archipelagic nation-states of Southeast Asia, the possible sources of risk could come from a tsunami, earthquakes, massive flooding, uncontrolled forest fire, terrorism, infectious tropical diseases and a possible trade war between big economies that would compromise the maritime safety of the South China Sea. Still, apportioning scarce resources for such crisis planning would be politically debatable for countries still grappling with more urgent basic issues.

A third reason why countries seem unprepared is that they tend to develop less than perfect picture of the scale of the crisis. For many, the hope is that the crisis would be an isolated case. Lacking the full information, the thought of the “big picture” is usually lost to leaders. Apathy usually sets in. This is especially so when the crisis is ambiguous, complex and takes on a bewildering pace and does not fit existing administrative capacity. The early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, for instance, saw states, even the World Health Organisation, fidgeting between taking early preemptive actions or adopting a wait-and-see attitude so as not to overly upset existing administrative arrangements. For some states, the fear is that taking too early a pre-emptive measure could send a wrong signal that can invite administrative panic. Indonesia’s President Jokowi, for example, admitted that he did not disclose the full extent of the COVID-19 pandemic for fear of creating unnecessary panic.

The final reason why some states are unprepared for a crisis is that preparing for one could play into the hands of political gamesmanship. The Malaysian government was rather late to put in place a proper risk mitigation plan to control the pandemic and this has to do with the political development happening in the country at the time. The Malaysian economy was not performing at its peak and reports that the virus spread in China coud have huge impact to global economy could provide the government, at the time, enough reasons to put on hold any mitigation plans on the fear that acknowledging the impact of the virus on the economy could see political rivals taking potshots on the performance of the regime. There was the worry that recognising the extent to which the pandemic could inflict on the economy and putting in place necessary measures could invoke further questions on the legitimacy of a regime that had just swept into power less than two years ago. This is evident when ministers gave conflicting signals when asked about the gravity of the pandemic to the Malaysian economy.

While the above are valid reasons why states have been slow in addressing the transboundary crisis, it should not detract states from coming up with novel ways to address future crises. Building resilience to a crisis can take on many ways and it is left to the creativity of states to come up with plans that will not invite public skepticism. Building medical capabilities by training more medical officers, upgrading medical facilities, establishing special crisis task force and preparing critical functionaries of the bureaucracy for a crisis are sustainable policies that are good in both crisis or non-crisis period.

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