Be prepared

C&I Issue 7, 2020

Read time: 3 mins

Neil Eisberg | Editor

The famous Scout motto continues to ring true today, and is perhaps even more relevant. And it certainly should not be ignored despite other concerns about where and from whom it originated.

As Ilan Kelman, professor of disasters and health at University College London, UK, recently pointed out in C&I, disasters are caused by our own decisions (C&I, 2020, 84, 40). And while it is surely incumbent on governments to ensure the safety of their populations, attention has been somewhat lacking.

Kelman suggests that as well as warning signs being ignored, inadequate planning and preparation have played a major role. He believes that most disasters are, in fact, entirely due to human failings.

This view is reinforced, for example, by continued construction on flood plains and along earthquake fault lines, as well as the ignoring of recommendations from disaster exercises and failure to take action despite previous warnings like those about so-called ‘wet markets’ and previous epidemics.

The impact of Nature has also been examined by Alex Berezow, VP of scientific communications at the non-profit consumer advocate, American Council on Science and Health, who points out : ‘Throughout history, Mother Nature has radically altered the course of events, far beyond simply causing structural and economic damage and personal hardship…Geological catastrophes aren’t the only trick Mother Nature can use to influence geopolitics. Biology provides fertile ground for meddling in international affairs.’ (

‘When severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2) – the virus that causes Covid-19 – first emerged in Wuhan, China, in December 2019, even the most experienced international public health experts did not anticipate that it would rapidly spread to create the worst global public health crisis in over 100 years. By January 2020, a few public health officials began sounding the alarm, but it wasn’t until March 11, 2020, that the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic.

‘By then, we now know, it was too late. The virus was everywhere. In the flash of an eye, Mother Nature commandeered the global agenda, ruthlessly and inconsiderately upsetting the lives of billions, indiscriminately wrecking democracies and dictatorships alike,’ according to Berezow.

In a recent study of the global Covid-19 pandemic by the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, the spread of the disease has been detailed as having six causes: the exponential infection rate; international integration or globalisation; the insufficient capacity of health care systems in many countries; conflicts of competence and a lack of foresight by many government agencies; the need to grapple with the economic impacts of the shutdown parallel to the health crisis; as well as weaknesses in capital markets resulting from the financial crisis of 2008.

The team from the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies has used a framework developed by the International Risk Governance Council to look at the Covid-19 crisis. Five aspects of the risk governance described in the framework are particularly relevant, according to the study authors.

The importance of increasing global capacities for the scientific and technical appraisal of risks is emphasised to provide early warning systems, supplemented by an analysis of the perceived risk, the awareness of which facilitates effective crisis communication and enables authorities to issue effective public health guidelines. The study authors came up with ten recommendations:

Address risks at source – to reduce the possibility of viruses being transmitted from animals to humans.

Respond to warnings – reviewing national and international risk assessments, and the development of better safeguards for risks with serious impacts.

Acknowledge trade-offs – as measures to reduce one risk will impact other risks.

Consider the role of technology – for example, can machine learning and other technologies be applied to support the assessment, preparedness and responses.

Invest in resilience – where possible reducing dependencies on important products and services.

Concentrate on the most important nodes in the system – for example, early air travel restrictions have proved effective in combatting Covid-19.

Strengthen links between science and policy-making – science-based policy-making has been shown to be successful in combatting the pandemic.

Build state capacities – tackling systemic risks should be viewed as an integral aspect of good governance that should be applied on a continuing basis rather than just in emergency situations.

Improve communications – possibly through the formation of national and international risk information systems.

Reflect on social disruption – people and organisations have had to experiment with new work and life patterns that should be examined to see which of these changes should be maintained in the future.

As far as future disasters go, we need to remember that the outcomes lay, to a large extent, within our own hands. We need to be more prepared and learn from our mistakes.