The COVID-19 pandemic shattered so many of our planning assumptions. Not only assumptions on how a virus would act, spread, and react, but also assumptions on human behavior. Many of our plans accounted for security in the transportation and distribution of vaccines to address theft and violence caused by people who would commit these acts to get their hands on the vaccine (perhaps too many apocalyptic movies led us to this assumption?), we also falsely assumed that everyone would want the vaccine. The political divisiveness, faux science, misinformation, disinformation, and members of the public simply not caring enough for each other to take simple actions to prevent spread were largely unanticipated.
I think that had the virus been different, we would have seen things align better with our assumptions. Had the symptoms of the virus been more apparent, and had the mortality rate been higher, I think we would have seen more people wanting to protect themselves and each other. Would this have been fully aligned with our earlier assumptions? No. I think that we’ve learned that human behaviors aren’t as easy to generalize, but also the societal and political climate we are in, not just in the US but in many other nations around the world would have still perpetuated many of the problems we have and continue to see during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Where to from here? I’m not a sociologist, but I’m a firm believer that much of what we do in emergency management is rooted in sociology. I’m sure an abundance of papers have already been authored on sociological and societal behaviors during the pandemic, with many more to come. I’m sure there are even some that are aligned to support and inform practices of emergency management, with valuable insights that we can use in planning and other activities. I look forward to having some time to discover what’s out there (and always welcome recommendations from colleagues). Speaking of implementation, what I do know is that we shouldn’t necessarily throw away the assumptions we had pre-COVID-19. Most of those assumptions may still be valid, under the right circumstances. The challenge is that there are many variables in play that will dictate what assumptions will apply. We do need to learn from what we have/are experiencing in the current pandemic, but this doesn’t hit the reset button in any way. This doesn’t necessarily invalidate what we thought to be true. It simply offers an alternative scenario. The next pandemic may yet align with a third set of truths.
While it makes things much more complex to not know which assumptions we will see the next time around, at least we know there are a range of possibilities, and we can devise strategies to address what is needed when it’s needed. What also adds complexity is the reinforcement of plans needing to be in place for various aspects of a pandemic and written to an appropriate level of detail. Most pandemic plans (and other related plans) that were in place prior to the COVID-19 pandemic simply weren’t written to the level of detail necessary to get the job done. Yes, there is a matter of variables, such as assumptions, but the fundamental activities largely remain the same. As with many disasters, jurisdictions were scrambling to figure out not only what they needed to do but how, because their plans were written at too high a level. As always, we are challenged to ensure the right amount of flexibility in our plans while still providing enough detail.
© 2022 Tim Riecker, CEDP