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Memorial Day

This article is a slightly edited version of one I posted in 2019.

This past week we honored those who died while in military service.  Parades were held, their graves were decorated, and speeches honoring them were made.  We were told in a variety of ways that they died so that we could live to enjoy the freedoms they fought for.  And that’s almost true – their deaths and the sacrifices of all of those in the services and their families have preserved and protected the freedom we enjoy today.  But too seldom do we ask why – why did they serve; what motivated them to endure the discipline, the danger and the drudgery of serving in the military day after day. 

Pat Tillman graduated from Arizona State University, recognized as one of the best linebackers in the country.  He became an all-pro safety in the NFL.  After 9/11, he turned down a multi-million-dollar contract to continue playing football and enlisted in the Army instead.  He participated in the invasion of Iraq, became an Army Ranger, and was then sent to Afghanistan.  He became increasingly uneasy with the war, and intended to speak out after his tour was over.  He died due to friendly fire before he could. 

The key question to me is why did a Pat Tillman – and the myriad others who doubted the rightness of the wars they fought – continue on until they paid the ultimate price.  Clearly he – as did so many others – joined the military because of his idealism.  But as one who’s been there I can tell you:  there are few idealists in foxholes.  My own experience (backed up by a fair amount of research) says that in those moments of crisis when the shooting starts the one thing that drives us is the thought that we can’t let our buddies down. 

We have been bound together by common circumstances.  We’ve all undergone the same bullying by drill sergeants.  We’ve all had to leave family and loved ones behind.  We’re all in some misbegotten hellhole and have to rely on each other for our very survival.  In short, we’ve formed a community.

And within that community, we recognize that we have responsibilities to each other.  Our local news ran a poignant story of a combat photographer who had died in Afghanistan.  Her last picture was of the explosion that took her life.  But it was the tearful words of her company commander that resonated so strongly:  “She was my responsibility. I sent her there and I didn’t bring her home.”

In our own communities, too many protest real or imagined violations of their rights while seeming to forget the responsibilities those rights entail.  No one should argue against anyone’s right to “speak truth to power.”   But those who speak – whether ordinary citizens or especially those in the press – have a responsibility to be sure that their “truth” is factual.  We’ve had way too many instances of the press on one side or the other twisting the facts (and sometimes making things up) to discredit people with whom they disagree. 

No one should argue against anyone’s right to worship their gods – or not – as they choose.  But that right brings with it a responsibility to respect others’ practice of their religion.  Just as atheists and agnostics should not be forced to participate in prayer, those who are religious should not be forced to take actions that are inconsistent with their beliefs.  Our Second Amendment gives us the right to own a gun.  But that right brings with it a responsibility to use and store that gun safely, and to ensure that it is not misused by someone else. 

It is fitting that we honor the fallen by decorating their graves.  But perhaps it is more fitting to follow their examples.  They died doing their duty as they saw it, carrying out their responsibilities to their comrades in arms – their community – as best they could.  As each of us enjoy the rights and privileges of being a member of our community, let us also accept the responsibilities those rights entail.  We honor them best by doing as they did – accepting our responsibility to our community.

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1 AC: Crisis Communications

When the trust account is high, communication is easy, instant, and effective.

Steven Covey

We have just completed Year 1 AC – After Covid. Clearly, we don’t know all we need to know. Conversely, we are awash in data and probably know more – collectively – than we think we do. In this series of posts (way too much material for just one!), I’m going to lay out my observations, preliminary conclusions they’ve led me to, and what might be a better approach to future pandemics. Of necessity, this will be focused on the US experience; sadly, these observations seem to apply to the rest of the Western world as well.

In this post, I want to examine how communications to the public have been handled. Quite rightly, President Trump has been criticized for poor communications in 1 AC. Unfortunately (at least to me), most of the criticisms seem to be of the general “Orange Man Bad” variety, i.e., anything he did is wrong a priori. While perhaps satisfying to some, it doesn’t provide any guidance about what we should do the next time – Trump won’t be around then.

At its heart, effective crisis communication is very simple: the leadership develops a message and delivers it to the public who receive it and act on it. As with most things in real life, the devil is in the details.

• First and foremost, leadership must identify the target audience(s). This will always include those most affected by the crisis, as well as all they’re connected to. The goal of crisis communications is not delivery of a message but action. Leadership should identify what the target audience knows, and what actions it can take. If there is more than one target audience, their ability to assimilate information about the crisis may vary, as will their ability to take action. Messaging should take this into consideration.

• Once the audience is identified, leadership must formulate messages that clearly point to the actions that need to be taken. As more is learned about the crisis, messages should change to reflect any additional or different actions. In the early response phases of a crisis, leaders inform the public how they should respond, i.e., do this, don’t do that – “wash your hands,” “maintain your distance from each other.” It is crucial early in a crisis that the public is also told what is known and what’s being done by the leadership to respond to the crisis. In later stages, when more is known, the focus shifts to recovery – “get the vaccine.” At every stage, the message to the public needs to be clear, timely, concise and – most importantly – accurate. Early in a crisis, there will be much that is not known and that fact must be honestly conveyed, but in a way that shows that the leadership is actively looking for the answers. The basis for the actions the public should take ought to be laid out clearly; as additional/different actions are called for, the public should be told what’s changed.

It is inevitable that mistakes will be made, especially in the early stages of a crisis. It is way too easy to play the Blame Game, but leadership needs to avoid this. Acknowledge the source of the error – incomplete data from the states, for example, and then describe the actions that have been taken to rectify the mistake.

• Next, the messenger(s) must be identified. People won’t act if they don’t trust the messenger. Thus, in a crisis, the face the public sees and the voice it hears must be ones they trust. Further, if more than one voice is to be heard, it is absolutely essential that all are conveying the same message. Different messages lead to public distrust and a belief that no one really knows what’s going on. This encourages rumors to spring up like weeds, further confusing the public and diffusing the message. And we all know how hard it is to get rid of weeds!

• The modes of delivery of messages must be determined. For major crises, the mass media will act as intermediaries for many people. Live press briefings are important, especially if recorded and made available for later playback, but special care must be taken to get the media to understand and accurately convey the intended message. Social media can also be useful, but it must be remembered that many people aren’t on social media. The poor – the homeless! – may not have access to digital devices; the elderly and the ill may not be physically able to use these devices. If all parts of the public need to act, then messages need to go where the people are. That means churches, homeless shelters and grocery stores in addition to press briefings.

• Once the message is formulated, and the messenger and mode of delivery determined, the message must be delivered. Ideally, the messenger conveys the messages with seriousness, empathy and confidence. Questions should be encouraged, and honestly answered. If the desired information isn’t known, a promise should be made to address the ignorance, and then kept by following up, ideally at the next briefing. Mayor Joe Riley of Charleston, SC, essentially wrote the book on this. After the SC Low Country was devastated by Hurricane Hugo, he delivered daily briefings in a brilliantly effective manner. Even in the early days when the situation was especially dire, he made it a point to have at least one accomplishment to report in each briefing. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi was an absolute master at admitting when he didn’t have the answer to a question, but then providing rapid followup. This points to the fact that followup is an important part of delivering the message.

• Finally, it is important that public action is monitored. Too often, communications effectiveness is evaluated in terms of the frequency of delivery. If the goal is action, then action should be monitored, and messaging altered as necessary.

With this as background, let me lay out a few considerations for what we should do the next time. I’ll point to what was done and – in many cases – suggest something different. These are not intended as criticisms of those who were thrust into the breach ill-prepared, but rather to illustrate how different choices might have been more effective.

Audiences. Pandemic communications of necessity are more challenging than those for a hurricane. In a pandemic, the entire country is potentially impacted; in a hurricane, the target audience is those who are in its path. At the early stages of the pandemic, everyone was potentially at risk; everyone needed to take appropriate actions. However, America’s diversity poses huge challenges in getting that message out. We have people jammed together in big cities, and people spread out in wide open spaces. We have regional differences, often coupled with cultural differences. America as melting pot means there are linguistic challenges. And there are huge educational differences.

On top of all of that, our country is politically polarized. Many on the Left had (and still have) a visceral dislike – even hatred – and distrust of President Trump. Conversely, many on the Right almost worshipped the President. And the Great Middle was politically halved as well. This polarization doesn’t seem to have been considered enough at either the federal or state level.

Further, the bureaucrats should have recognized (as I believe that the President did) that Americans generally don’t react well to dictates. We’re congenitally independent; many of us won’t take action unless you “show me” (OK, I was born in Missouri) in terms I’ll understand and believe. In the middle of winter I want a hearty soup, not a pale broth – telling me that I should do something on the basis of a model’s projections from incomplete data is not very nourishing: or convincing, if I have no conception of what mathematical models are.

Messages. Actions should be formulated that are appropriate to each group. Instead, the initial messaging during the pandemic was boiled down to the lowest common denominator – cover your mouth and wash your hands. We knew more and should have communicated that better. We were informed that the immuno-compromised and the elderly were at highest risk (scaring the tar out of us in those categories), but they weren’t told what they could co to protect themselves. Forceful statements early on stressing the importance of sunlight, exercise and social distancing of those at risk might have prevented tens of thousands of deaths. One of the great missed opportunities was when Dr. Fauci was asked what he personally did, and he mentioned taking Vitamin C and D supplements – intended to strengthen the immune system. Strengthen your immune system – this message should have been hammered home again and again; this is the health care equivalent of fortifying your home agains a hurricane.

Messengers. Ideally, there should be a trusted voice for each target audience. During the pandemic, we didn’t really have that: we had the CDC contingent (Fauci and Birx) and President Trump. And, too often, oil and water. In January-February, 2020, the President took forceful action closing the borders; Fauci downplayed its importance. At the same time, the President was portraying the coming surge as a bump in the road (then why close the borders?), not the washout it became. Throughout the first surge, the President would seem to zig while the CDC spokespersons zagged. Little or no message discipline on his part; while the CDC damaged its credibility by first saying “no” to masks, then “yes” to masks and then admitting that its initial “no” was sort of a white lie intended to avoid a public rush on PPE needed by the health care community. And only another scientist would really be interested in the nuances of mathematical models telling us how bad it could be – we needed more actionable information than to just wash our hands. As the pandemic ramped up, the public was confused by two message streams that seemed to randomly approach and diverge from each other.

One of the early actions taken by the President was to name the VP as head of the government task force dealing with the crisis – this was a good move – there were lots of other things going on that the President needed to pay attention to. It would have been even better if the head of the task force was also the primary spokesperson. It is almost a certainty that Mr Pence would have had more message discipline than the President. As head of the task force, he was also much better placed to develop a unified and consistent message with all of the players. And he would not have triggered the visceral rejection by the Left of any message delivered by Mr Trump.

We also would have benefited if messages were better targeted. A “big city” message and an “out in the country” message each tailored to that group could have increased credibility and ultimately compliance as we started to recover. Messages seemed to be aimed at an educated middle class – what about those living in inadequate housing (4.5X more likely to be infected than their middle class peers), with poor water or unemployed (twice as likely), or the homeless? Poor messaging and choice of messengers early on is likely one of the root causes of the “vaccine hesitancy” we’re seeing now.

Delivery. The public’s primary sources of information were press briefings, social media – and rumors. One of the biggest problems with the press briefings was that there didn’t seem to be any medical or scientific reporters. The political activists reporters seemed to be more interested in playing “gotcha games” than asking the tough technical questions that needed to be addressed. For example, they might have questioned the validity of the models that seemed to be guiding policy during much of the early surge, or they might have asked what had changed between the end of January (Dr. Fauci: “There’s no chance in the world that we could do that [lockdowns] to Chicago or to New York or to San Francisco”) to 265 M Americans in lockdown by the end of March. They might have questioned whether state orders placing the infected among the most vulnerable (those in nursing homes) made sense.

The less said about the messaging on social media the better. The former Tweeter-in-Chief is a prolific user, but he’s never met a situation he couldn’t confuse. The messages on social media from the press primarily focused on how wrong the Administration’s response to the crisis was (the impression left was that it bordered on criminal stupidity) rather than on informing the public about what the approach really was.

As a result of the Administration’s poor messaging and the press’s mangling of what message there was, rumors abounded. The public’s initial response – as might be expected – was confusion. Should we wear masks? Should we not go on Spring Break? Eventually those questions were answered affirmatively. And then the protests and riots began.

Now, all of a sudden, everything the public had been told was necessary was found to be – no longer necessary. The CDC – seemingly politicized – mainly was silent on what they had been calling potential “super-spreader” events. Even the President seemed to ignore the potential health impacts and responded instead to the protesters’ and rioters’ politics. This cost him precious credibility with those on the Right.

Monitoring. Finally, there is no apparent evidence that anyone was trying to monitor the effectiveness of the communications. If communications had been monitored, one would hope that messaging would have improved over time, along with message discipline.

Ultimately, the lesson I think we should take away from all of this is that effective crisis communications requires planning. Such a plan should identify target audiences, the desired actions for each audience, and the messages – and messengers – to each. The plan should include delivery of the messages by several means and monitoring of the messages’ effectiveness. Most importantly, the “trust account” should be considered at each step.

In 2010, I gave a talk in New Orleans memorializing Katrina’s fifth anniversary. One of the points I made was that the next crisis won’t be the same as the one before. But if we don’t better plan our communications with the public, the outcome of that next crisis may turn out much the same – lives lost, businesses ruined, and a badly frayed social fabric. And if that planning does not have “trust” front and center then the public won’t act. Who are the target audiences? What actions do we want them to take? Who has earned their trust and can deliver the message? How can we get the message to them in a way they will heed it? Trust is interwoven into all of these, and thus should be a cornerstone of our planning. Certainly building trust and planning both take time. But over half a million dead offer mute testimony to the cost of not doing so. A grim lesson of 1 AC.


For any of you who might be interested, our paper on stress testing communities is now available online at:
https://www.degruyter.com/document/doi/10.1515/jhsem-2020-0012/html

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Resilience in the Age of Stupid

The Age of Stupid: A world where dialogue is dead; a world where we have stopped engaging with those with whom we don’t agree; a world where we no longer have to listen or expose ourselves to other ideas that may challenge our confirmation bias. Social media has made the promotion of ignorance much easier. With a simple block, unfriend or ban click, we can ensure that the only information we are exposed to comes from our trusted tribe of like-minded thinkers.

The Risk-Monger

Like most of you, I’m sure, I care deeply about the issues of the day. But I know that our media echo chambers (whether MSNBC or OANN) give me – at best – only a part of any story. Over the last couple of years I’ve turned to blogs, trying to see ascertain the actual situation to draw intelligent conclusions. So I read the Recovery Diva and Pointman; Living on the Real World and Climate, Etc; and most recently, the Risk-Monger.

In the passage above the Risk-Monger has provided an all-too-accurate description of the times we live in. The Left and Right are united only in their disdain for everyone else. Their shouted invectives and imprecations of their opponents drown out the more civil voices of those in the Great Middle. Their hysteria is almost cult-like – they sound like modern-day miniature Grand Inquisitors enforcing impossible doctrines.

According to the Pew Trust, a majority of Republican voters are afraid to voice their political beliefs (approximately one-third of Americans). In the wake of the election, we have seen people whose only sin was to work for the White House demonized and denied jobs. Is this the unity and mutual regard our new President promised?

Ultimately, a community’s resilience – its ability to recover from disruption – comes down to the ability of its leaders to work together to achieve common goals. That requires trust, and an ability to communicate with each other. Too often, however, we seem to be living the following parable:

In a land far, far away…

There lived two kinds of people. One was red and could see only red, the other was blue and could see only blue. They spoke different languages. The Reds were great at tasks involving red objects, OK at tasks involving orange objects, but couldn’t even see green or blue objects.

Conversely, the Blues were great if only Blue objects were involved, OK with most green tasks, but were hopeless if orange or red objects were involved.

What one would build – even if good – the other could not see, and would unwittingly blunder into and destroy. Since they couldn’t see each other or understand each other, they never could agree on anything. So no problems were ever solved.

Trust is an essential ingredient for working together, but trust fades where fear treads. This lack of trust in each other – borne of the political cacophany and covid’s woes – seriously compromises our ability to pull together in time of crisis. Thus those of us who care about our communities must ask how resilient they can be in this Age of Stupid.

As for most things in this real world, the answer is – it depends. If disasters have a direction, recovery has a context. The type and magnitude of a disruption; the community’s topology; the resources available for recovery; and the community’s leadership itself will combine to form the context for recovery. Taken together, they will determine how far and how fast a community can come back after disruption. And while I’ve couched this in terms of disaster, it is just as true for communities trying to seize opportunities or to forge new ones.

Disruption. The type of disruption is important because it determines what forms of community capital are lost or damaged and thus what needs to be replenished or repaired. Thus, covid has severely strained our social capital accounts; our responses to it have reduced our financial capital. The magnitude of the disruption sets a minimum level of resources needed for recovery.

Community topology. A community’s topology – how the various people and community organizations are arranged and interrelated – is one of the least studied but most important aspects of a community’s context. The connections – or lack of connections due to conflicts – obviously play important roles in communications and resource flows.* If a disaster sets a minimum level of resources needed for recovery, then conflicts (or the lack of connections between resources and where they’re needed) can raise the resource bar significantly. The rebuilding of the World Trade Center provides a telling example. Deep disagreements among the various regional “partners” increased both the cost (perhaps by as much as $10 billion!) and the duration (by over a decade) of the recovery.

Resources. The resources needed for recovery go beyond the financial costs. Each of the capital accounts impacted by the disruption have to be replenished. After Katrina, the physical damage had to be repaired. This required financial capital as well as human capital – construction professionals – who were in short supply even before the disaster.

Leadership. One of the facets of the Age of Stupid that should be glaringly obvious is that leadership at the national and community levels is not unitary. While the federal government can claim some credit for mobilizing the resources to develop vaccines so rapidly, it was Big Pharma and its resources that actually did it. The mayors of our riot-torn cities – Portland, Seattle, Kenosha and others – can lead the cheers and can remove bureaucratic barriers, but ultimately businesses, non-profits, associations and “just folks” will have to work together if these cities are to recover. And connections from a community’s leadership to external sources of support (federal aid; expertise in recovery of specific types of businesses – think tourism, for example) will also be crucial.

Resilience is possible in the Age of Stupid, if the context for recovery is right. As the parable illustrates, however, we need people working together to provide lasting solutions to the multi-hued problems we face. Neither the Reds nor the Blues have a monopoly on the Truth – or on Mendacity. We should not trust either side working alone to solve our problems, but only both working together.


* I cannot stress enough the impact on my thinking of the work done by Erica Kuligowski and Christine Bevc, under Kathleen Tierney’s guidance, in this regard. Looking at regional emergency management organizations (UASIs), their work clearly showed that some topologies were more effective at mobilizing resources than others.

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A New Birth of Freedom

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Abraham Lincoln

One hundred fifty seven years ago, in a little over two minutes, Abraham Lincoln delivered the most powerful speech ever given on this continent. In these 272 words, he reminded all of us of what has made the American concept exceptional.

In 1863, Mr. Lincoln had taken the first step toward ending slavery in this country. Undoubtedly, this was part of what inspired his “new birth of freedom.” But just below the surface of his words, we can find the face of Freedom’s homely twin – responsibility – “who here gave their lives that that nation might live.”

In our highly polarized politics at the national level, both sides claim to be for “Freedom,” although they seem to be worlds apart in what they think Freedom is. This polarization is filtering down to our communities, impacting their resilience. To me, our Bill of Rights provides an excellent operational definition of Freedom, especially the First Amendment. We must be free to worship (or not) as we wish. We must be free to peaceably assemble. We must be free to believe as we wish and to express those beliefs. In the Constitution, these are couched in terms of prohibiting the federal government from denying these rights.

But it is just as important that we recognize that no individual or group has the right to abridge those freedoms either. “Cancel culture” does not exist in a society that values freedom. A recent survey found that one third of Americans are unwilling – even afraid – to express their political beliefs. This week, two poll watchers in Michigan were vilified, their families threatened, and were finally browbeaten into accepting election results that they believed were tainted. Communities where one side does not allow opposing views to be expressed cannot engender the trust needed for resilience.

Events such as the one in Michigan happen because some of us have forgotten Freedom’s twin – Responsibility. There’s nothing sexy about Responsibility, but it is essential for community resilience. By accepting the good things that come from being a part of my community, I incur a responsibility to the community, especially in times of crisis. Over the last few years, but especially in this time of Covid, too many of us have forgotten that our freedoms bring with them responsibilities. I am free to express my beliefs as long as they don’t harm others, but I also have a responsibility to protect others’ freedoms even if I don’t agree with them. I am free to express my opinions (e.g., that lockdowns are essentially worthless), but I can’t yell “Fire” in a crowded theater. And while I might not want to wear a mask or a condom, I have a responsibility to avoid passing on whatever I might have to the rest of the community.

Just as in 1863, many of our communities – and our country – are riven by very different conceptions of government and governance. If our communities are to be truly resilient, we must repair our social fabric, and bind our communities’ wounds. Let us heed Lincoln’s words and be midwives to a new birth of freedom, and responsibility.

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Covid-19: Disasters Have Direction

You can be sure of succeeding in your attacks if you only attack places which are undefended. You can ensure the safety of your defense if you only hold positions that cannot be attacked.

Sun Tzu

This is an updating of an old post.  The original did not have any specific examples; I think Covid-19 provides a good one.  I’m sure the concept “Disasters Have Direction” is obvious to many of you, but I’ve never seen it articulated.  As I try to show in the discussion of the pandemic, it can be a useful construct as we think about a community’s resilience.

For a few years, FEMA and DHS have championed the idea of an “All Hazards – Maximum of Maxima” approach to planning.  The basic premise is that if a community plans for the worst of the worst, then it will be prepared for whatever may actually happen. This is a deceptively simple tautology that I think deserves a little more analysis than it usually receives, especially in terms of community resilience.

Let’s start by looking at an idealized community.   A community can be thought of as an ecosystem.  There is a “human layer,” made up of individuals and families.  There is an institutional layer, consisting of private businesses and other economic institutions, and all of the other “human-serving” organizations in the community.  Then there is the physical, environmental, layer – containing the built and natural environment.  All of these are held together by the social capital within the community (some may argue whether the physical layer is bound to the community by its social capital, but that’s a subject for another post!).

Of course, this is an ideal community; real communities may have a strong economy but be weak in the human element.  Some have a decaying infrastructure but a flourishing natural environment.  Thus, we can depict a real community as follows.  This real community would be relatively weak in terms of its community institutions, have a somewhat stressed natural environment, but have a robust built environment.

Now let’s assume the community is hit by a pandemic.  There is no immediate physical damage.  Any that occurs most likely happens because the humans who normally maintain things –infrastructure, for example – are not able to do so.  This disaster has attacked individuals and families, and – because they are closely tied to the human layer – the community organizations that meet social needs.  For a pandemic, hospitals, clinics and the public health department would certainly be included.  Since, in this case, there is relatively little capacity in the community institutions (e.g., a rural community), they will be particularly hard hit – most likely overwhelmed. 

But what happens in a natural disaster?  The initial impact on the community is going to be on the physical layer; buildings are going to be blown down, debris will be strewn about, flooding may occur. The other parts of the community will be impacted because of these physical blows.  In our notional real community depicted above, there would be relatively little damage done to the built environment, but the natural environment would experience much greater damage (at least in relative terms) because it is weaker. 

A severe economic downturn attacks the community from another direction.  Businesses lay off workers; some close.  Many individuals and families experience severe economic hardship.  There is no immediate impact on the other parts of the community ecosystem.  Eventually, however, all will be affected.  In our example community, the economic impacts are less severe than for a community with a weak economy, or already burdened individuals and families.

Thus, disasters have a direction, as shown in the next graphic. It must be stressed that the graphic points out the initial point of attack.  If the magnitude of the initial impact is huge, or other parts of the community are weak, then the disaster is likely to ripple throughout the community with cascading impacts.

This simple concept is consistent with the idea that vulnerability to a threat depends on weakness at the point of attack.  This is shown in the next figure.  Threat X indicates a potential health crisis (e.g., a pandemic), while Threat Y is primarily a threat to the community’s economy.  As depicted, Threat X is more likely to lead to disaster than Threat Y because the greater relative strength of the community to withstand an economic downturn.

This simple picture of a community also has meaning in terms of recovery and community resilience.  If community resilience is measured by how fast – and effectively – resources are deployed to achieve community restoration and recovery, then the social capital within the community plays a crucial role.  Suppose Threat X above actually materializes.  The vulnerable part of the community has few available resources.  It is the community’s social capital – its connectedness – that provides the pathways for resources to be shifted within the community.  It is the community’s social capital that determines whether resources from outside the community are effectively brought to bear.  In a very real sense, it is the community’s social capital that determines whether the community actually recovers from disaster.

If we look at Covid-19 through this lens, clearly the pandemic attacked individuals and families, and community health organizations.  Its magnitude varied from community to community, but – initially – dealing with the pandemic exceeded the resources (e.g., PPE, ventilators) available to most communities, i.e., it was a disaster and it had a direction.  Communities had to rely on their connections (bridging and linking social capital) to others in the region and to the state (and, for the biggest cities, to the federal government) to get the resources they needed.  In a later post, I’ll outline a methodology that, if used, could have reduced the impact of the pandemic at the community level.

Our response to the pandemic triggered an economic disaster.  For those of you who remember my old post “Of Ice Storms, Interdependencies and their Impacts on Running a Bar” I pointed out that the number of businesses which could reopen after a disaster depended on how long they were closed.  In some places, the Covid-19 lockdowns lasted for months – and the economic consequences have been devastating.  I intend to update that post as well and expand upon it a little based on the knowledge we’ve gained from the pandemic.

Dan Alesch once said that we recall a disaster by the name of its triggering event, but remember it because of its impacts.  If that’s the case, Covid-19 will join the Dishonor Roll with Katrina, Deep Water Horizon, the Great Recession and so many others.  Each of these disasters were daggers that first pierced specific parts of the community, i.e., they had a direction.  Their impacts were determined by communities’ strengths at the point of attack and the force of the dagger’s thrust.  A community’s social capital determines how rapidly resources can be brought to bear to heal the wounds.  However, those who are not connected – without significant social capital – have to recover on their own:  resources won’t flow where messages don’t go.  In this way, the community’s social capital plays a crucial role in its recovery – and thus is a key component of the community’s resilience.

Once the parties start again

We’re now in the third month of dealing with the coronavirus pandemic in the US. In some ways our collective response to this has been effective (e.g., closing the borders), in some ways not (e.g., politicizing the pandemic). We are clearly learning as we go – as we should – and our response efforts are getting better focused. But the pandemic is both causing problems that will last long after we have the pandemic under control, as well as shining new light on existing problems that we haven’t solved.

Taiwan has done exceedingly well in dealing with the pandemic. Even though next door to China, only two deaths have been reported so far (By comparison, Italy’s per capita death rate from the virus is almost 1000 times higher.). Taiwan’s success is due in large part to their taking a hard look at their response to SARS in 2004. They built a crisis plan based on what they learned and have successfully implemented it. Their approach to the crisis has been different from ours and other countries (See here for a nice summary article and to get to a list of the actions they’ve taken.). I hope we in the US will do the same after this crisis passes. In this post, I want to pose some questions that I hope will be considered (starting with gathering appropriate data). I’m focusing on impacts to our communities; there are many others that need to be considered as well.

What is the “aim point” for our response in the future? The current strategy in the US is aimed at limiting the number of deaths from the virus. Thus, we’re not really trying to prevent the virus from occurring; rather we’re accepting that people will catch the virus but trying to slow down its spread. If we are unsuccessful, then people will needlessly die because we don’t have enough ICU hospital beds, respirators and ventilators to treat the potential spike in cases. If we had a cure OR a vaccine OR more hospital beds and needed equipment, we could potentially employ a different strategy.

How will those who live in cities and those in rural areas do? I must admit I have often been bemused by our country’s lurch toward urbanization. Cities concentrate risk – you’re more likely to be exposed to the virus if you live in a city (New York City is currently experiencing a death every hour.). Conversely, cities also concentrate resources – there are more hospitals, medical equipment and medicines in cities to deal with the sick. In the Spanish flu epidemics of 1917-19, mortality was less than 1% in urban areas (probably due to partial immunity from previous influenza outbreaks) compared to up to 90% in some rural communities. Right now, we have too few ICUs in rural communities and too many cases in some of our cities. We need to recognize that rural and urban health care needs are different and develop better means to address both. But to do that we need to have a better handle on what those needs are.

How will the homeless fare? Most of the permanently homeless are in poor physical and mental health. Most of them are men. Drugs, alcohol, and poor environments have compromised their immune systems. They are likely at high risk. I’m fairly certain that our communications with the homeless are – at best – spotty. We need to consider what actions we ought to take to both communicate with and care for this slice of the homeless population.

How useful were our models of the virus’ spread and mortality? As George Box famously said, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” Our models for the spread of a pandemic are generally pretty good BUT like all models their accuracy depends on their input parameters. The ones we’re using are based on the Chinese experience, or what they’ve indicated was their experience. We don’t know how well that translates to American demographics or the American health care system.

Is the approach we’re taking to social distancing the best overall? Taiwan, South Korea have taken a different approach to achieve the same ends as our draconian shutdowns of businesses and schools. While our approach may be best for containment of the virus, we need to know how it impacts other aspects of community life, e.g., businesses, education and other social facets. We are taking action to determine the impacts on small businesses and the economy at large; we need to have the same urgency about the pandemic’s impacts on our kids’ education and our communities’ social fabric.

Can we track contacts more effectively? Tracking the contacts of those potentially infected is a key part of the strategy followed by Taiwan. This is much harder to do in our country with its patchwork of health departments at community, county, state and national levels. But I’m sick and tired of hearing the phrase “community spread” as a sort of code for “we don’t have a clue how Grandma was infected.” We can do better, but it will require that each of us takes a hard look at the balance between individual privacy and community health security.Along those same lines, we need to begin using Big Data techniques to determine potential future hot spots. There is all sorts of data indicating people flows; we need to start using them for future casting. We undoubtedly will initially stumble – make bad calls – but we can’t do better unless we start doing.

How should we deal with those crossing our nation’s borders? Our immigration policy – such as it is – is a mess. Was and is, but we need to fix it for the future. Further, many of us Americans (like She Who Must Be Obeyed) have a lot of unsatisfied wanderlust. The government took what appears to be appropriate and relatively effective action to selectively close our borders but it is clear that foreign visitors or returning Americans triggered at least some of the hot spots. While I hate to contemplate it, we need to consider actions such as required medical screening at every border entry for anyone coming into the country.

This is a difficult time for all of us. The approach we’re taking toward the virus in the US is the one most likely to deplete our social capital, at least for a while. As I’ve often said, never underestimate the power of a party – I hope the human love of partying will help us to recapitalize our social infrastructure. But once the parties start again, we need to look back honestly at the crisis past, and be better prepared for the next one – knowing full well that it won’t be like the last one.

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In my next post, I’ll turn from crisis planning to putting together a plan for coming back. Given our approach to the pandemic, what sorts of things ought to be considered in planning for our communities’ recovery?

One more thing. With all of the guidance on hand washing and use of sanitizers, we tend to overlook the obvious: healthy people are going to fare better than those who aren’t, no matter their age. All of us need to find ways to keep fit while we’re isolated. During the week, I’m usually out by 630am walking 3-4 miles. Others are using video exercise or tai chi classes. Whatever you do, please make sure you, your elderly parents and your kids find ways to stay active even while avoiding unnecessary contacts.

The challenged and community resilience

Several years ago, CARRI embarked on a massive undertaking focused on developing – and then testing – a community resilience system.  During a meeting of its Community Leaders Working Group, I was asked why we had included “The community works to maximize the value of those with special challenges” as one of our important community functions.  In fact, two of the most in-my-face questioners (both former mayors of sizable cities) actually accused me of being politically correct (If this were true, it would come as a huge shock to anyone who has ever worked with me, not to mention my wife!).

I thought it would be worthwhile to talk about who are the challenged, and why it makes practical sense for communities to treat them as potential assets, not liabilities.

If we look at our communities today, 5-10 % of the population have some debilitating mental or physical condition.  One in eight Americans receive at least part of their food through food stamps; one in five of our children lives in poverty or extreme poverty.  Those with disabilities are 1.5 to 3 times more likely to live in poverty than those with no disabilities. Fully one-third of those who could be employed have exited the labor force.

After a community is hit by a disaster, recovery makes huge demands on the permanent personnel who actually keep the community running.  More people are needed to remove debris.  More people are needed to handle the flood of permits for rebuilding.  People are needed to reconnect families and to help get services to those who need them.  Many communities meet these needs by hiring “outsiders” to provide these services, but if they do so, they lose in at least two ways. 

  • These communities send the resources to pay for these services outside the community.  Since the federal government will pay for many kinds of temporary workers after a disaster, it makes good sense to hire these workers from within the community – to keep as many precious dollars within the community as possible.  The challenged – particularly the employable unemployed – should be the first resource tapped by a community (To their credit, BP agreed to do just that in southern Louisiana communities affected by the oil spill.).
  • These communities have to spend more of their resources helping the challenged recover from the disaster than they otherwise would. That means much less accomplished with limited resources and possibly a longer recovery period.

In other words, communities who don’t use the challenged to aid in the extraordinary challenges of recovery are turning potential assets into real liabilities.

Thus, by making use of its members who face significant challenges to meet the extraordinary demands of recovery from a disaster, a community can keep dollars in the community while maintaining a more productive and motivated permanent staff.  This isn’t political correctness but enlightened self-interest.