Nova Coronavirus – Lessons Learned from a Crisis Management Perspective

by David Rubens

In recent years, the globalisation of crisis events has been a constant thread in all aspects of discussions around the new generation of emerging threats. The world itsel is undoubtedly more interconnected, whether that is from the perspective of corporate organisational structures, communications, global finance, critical infrastructure, travel, terrorism, data management, supply chains or any other of a myriad of highly complex and deeply inter-interdependent overlapping systems that act as the foundation on which our personal and global activities take place.

It is a truism of crisis management that you learn more from large-scale events than you do from small ones. It is often the ‘great’ event of each generation that defines what exactly crisis management is within the context of that period’s risk environment, and what is required in order to maintain an effectiveness and relevance within the new reality that those environments create.

In the last twenty years the two outstanding mega events from the perspective of creating a new understanding of the requirements of crisis management have been 9/11 (2001) and Hurricane Katrina and the impact that had on New Orleans (2005). Other significant crisis management events from which lessons have been learned include BP and the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico (2010), Fukushima tsunami and the effect that had both though physical damage but also through the impacts of the radiological cloud that leaked from the Daiichi nuclear reactors (2011), and the terrorist attacks in Madrid (2004), London (2005), Paris (2015) and other major cities that have created a greater understanding of the need for joined up multi-agency interoperability, and information sharing and joint command networks.

There have been other incidents that have become models for various aspects of specific areas of crisis management. The New York storms and subsequent evacuation in 2011 (Hurricane Irene) and 2012 (Hurricane Sandy), response to natural disasters in Haiti, Nepal and Caribbean, and even the response to the global financial crash (2008). Previous global pandemic scares have included SARS, Ebola, Zika and H1N1, each of which, at the time, was seen as having the potential to become a global pandemic, and which encouraged the development of both national and transnational pandemic management frameworks.

‘The issue with the coronavirus is not purely a national health issue, or even a global health issue, but is one of modelling, understanding and governance in the face of something that has gone beyond what was previously in our risk register’.

However, from many aspects, it could be said that the nova coronavirus is the first truly global crisis event, in term of its geographic scale, the impact on both global and local crisis management systems, and the fact that the secondary and tertiary consequences of the initial events are still being revealed. As such, there are undoubtedly lessons that can be learned from the coronavirus pandemic, which will help us develop an understanding of the challenges associated with this new generation of global threats as well as giving us the opportunity to prepare our crisis management systems appropriately for future events of this nature.

Crises as ‘Unprecedented Events’

The background to the coronavirus situation is a seemingly unending series of recent events, each of which has significant impact on the world that we live in and the lives that we lead, and each of which are in themselves described as ‘unprecedented’. Recent authoritative reports that have described the situations they are reporting on as unprecedented include the UN report on the denudation of natural environments and the increasing rate of species extinction; the terminal decline of the great Barrier Reef; critical national infrastructure failures across large parts of South America; drought and bush fires in Australia; heat waves across large parts of the world; arctic ice cap seasonal melting, flooding in US and water shortages in major cities (and particularly in the Cape Town Day Zero scenario). There is a growing feeling that all of these issues are inter-connected and that, in some way, they develop from the human activity that has destroyed the stability of the underlying eco-systems on which human society is constructed.

The use of the word ‘unprecedented’ is not only descriptive, but is also symbolic. The significance of the word is that it implies a simple fact – ‘We don’t know what this means’. Unprecedented implies that we are entering unknown territory, that the mental maps that we have used to create an understanding of the world in which we operate, as well as to build the fundamental risk and crisis management methodologies that have supported and protected us for the last two hundred years (since the start of the Industrial Revolution), are no longer fit for purpose.

Klaus Schwab, Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, describes a new reality in which the world stands on the brink of a mass political, technological and social shift which will transform our existence in ways we cannot yet possible know. (1)

Patrick Lagadec, the leading crisis management conceptualist, put it more prosaically in a series of papers he published in the years following 9/11.

‘For serious events, a “more of the same” logic was applied: more detailed plans, more powerful tools, more coordination, and often more centralization. This vision is now outdated, to a large extent. The problem we face is that crises have evolved past the bounds of compartmentalized emergency into the vastness of unstable and chaotic Terrae Incognitae’. (2, 3)

The nature of unprecedented events is not, as Lagadec puts it, that it is ‘more of the same’. In that sense, the underlying problem that we are facing, at least from the response management perspective, is as much one of taxonomy as it is of technical response management. If our understanding of the classification of the class of threats that we are facing is false, then the solutions that we will develop to respond to and engage with those situations will by their very nature be inapplicable. If we treat the new generation of unprecedented threats as ‘same as before, but bigger’, then the nature of the discussion and the underlying conceptual models we bring are false. If Lagadec and Schwab (and all of the other reports that use the word ‘unprecedented’) are to be believed, then the nature of the changes that we are seeing, both in terms of the risks and threats but also of the response management framework, is not evolutionary or revolutionary, but rather ‘mutational’. Just as a virus is dangerous because of its ability to mutate, so the mutational nature of the unprecedented threats that we are facing are in fact their foundational quality which we must learn to engage with.

The issue with the coronavirus, for example, is not purely a national health issue, or even a global health issue, but is one of modelling, understanding and governance in the face of something that has gone beyond what was previously in our risk register.

It has already become clear that the fundamental frameworks that have been developed to deal with ‘health scares’ and even pandemics, are not standing up to the nature of the challenges that the corona virus situation is causing. This is no longer (only) an issue of scarce resources or a lack of trained personnel or management skills, but rather that the concept of what a pandemic is, or could be, has been challenged.

Scale And Scope

Two of the defining characteristics that differentiate a crisis from a major event are the scale and scope. The reason that the bush fires in Australia are a crisis is because of their scale and scope. The reason that the financial crash of 2008 was a crisis was because of its scale and scope. The reason that the flooding in Texas in 2018 was a crisis was because of its scale and scope. The first sign that a situation is escalating into a crisis event is that the people and agencies that are tasked with the responsibility of preparing for and managing the response to the situation look at the oncoming event, and much like the people in a Hollywood disaster movie watching the tsunami wave approach them, go ‘I didn’t think it would be like that’.

In other words, whatever they thought that the crisis event would be, and whatever preparations that had put in place to deal with it, the response management frameworks and protocols that they had presumed would manage and respond to that event are about to be swept away by the scale and scope of the reality in front of them.

Texas, 2018: Texas city planners undoubtedly had a ‘flood management programme’. The scale and scope of the actual event went beyond anything that had been expected, and immediately negated the ability of the authorities to use their resources in the way that they had planned for.

For almost any event that could be categorised as a crisis, there is likely to be a multitude of post- incident reports, whether they are government, regulatory, professional, civil or criminal. The likelihood is that in the executive summary at the front of that report, within the first two or three bullet points, there will be the use of the word ‘overwhelming’. It is in the nature of crisis that they are overwhelming. That is part of their reality. If they are not overwhelming, then the likelihood is that they can be managed as Major Events – that is, events that are undoubtedly large-scale and challenging, but which can also be considered as ‘rational problems’, and for which the various responding organisations agencies have plans, protocols, frameworks, resources and capabilities to deal with.

The inability to deal with the scale and scope of a crisis is a clear indication that the initial conception of what a crisis event could look like was false, either through a genuine lack of understanding or a wilful failure to accept the scale and scope of potential impacts and consequences. (*1)

A classic example was in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, where Michael Chertoff, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, which was the government department responsible for FEMA, famously stated that his agency prepared for the storm but that the widespread, unexpected flooding had prevented rescuers from being able to get into the city. (6), (7)

Crises Are Outside of Existing Planning Frameworks

Because they are by their nature unique and beyond the scale and scope of planning assumptions, it is also likely that there are no response management frameworks that cover the reality of the crisis situation. For that reason, 9/11 was a genuine crisis management event (the nature, scale and scope of the event was beyond anything that had been conceived of), and Hurricane Katrina and its impact on New Orleans in 2005 was not a crisis event (or at least, shouldn’t have been). In 2005, not only was Hurricane Katrina predicted and expected, and the risks to New Orleans from flooding well known and modelled (New Orleans basically lies below sea level and is therefore protected by a series of levees and sea walls), but FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency that was specifically tasked with responding to incidents such as natural disasters in the US, had the clear responsibility to be ready for exactly such a situation. This was a clear demonstration of where a ‘crisis event’ is actually the result of fundamental organisational and management errors rather than the intrinsic nature of the external event itself.

It seems that in terms of scale and scope, as well as transcending existing planning assumptions, the coronavirus can undoubtedly be considered as a unique event, and one that does not fit the template offered by previous incidents, even if expanded to a larger scale. The issues around quarantining whole cities, for example, is something that might have been discussed as a theoretical concept (and then undoubtedly as part of a ‘doomsday’ scenario), but it is unlikely that it would have been considered as something that could happen as a realistic option in the first month of 2020.

The cascading consequence, as well, are likely to produce impacts and effects that did not appear on the risk register of organisations, however detailed they might have been. (*2). The disruption to global transport; closing of critical facilities; disruption to global supply chains; impact on major sectors such as education – China has closed its universities until further notice, affecting the business models and personnel of multiple universities that have branches in China (and for which they often depend on significant levels of income steams), tourism, conferences and other business activities; the squeeze on basic resources such as food and daily provisions, as well as the disruption to family life when parents are divided from children.

It is also clear that there is no clear legal framework for dealing with these issues, especially when there is a conflict between public safety, personal rights and the need to develop fast response frameworks to events that are unplanned for. The Chinese government’s response in coercing the closure of cities and the forced confinement of millions of people is something that is achievable within the limitations of their own legal, government and social frameworks, but it is difficult to see how that could be transposed to major cities in the west. In the event that those situations were to become reality, then we truly will have entered into the dystopian words of Hollywood disaster movies.

Crises are Unique Events (They Are Happening For The First Time)

It is almost a truism to say that crises are things that happen for the first time. The reason that they are crises, and which is a point that has been alluded to in all of the sections until now, is that they are beyond what we have experienced before. From an academic perspective, the critical factor is a ‘loss of sense-making’ (Weick, 1988, 1993). (4), (5)

As well as the shock of the event itself (which can have a significant impact on decision-making at all levels of an organisation, and on a personal, team and organisational basis), it is the feeling of a loss of reality that can impact on the failure of organisations to gain a sense of what has happened, and what is needed in terms of a response. Weick’s 1993 paper on the Mann-Gulch disaster, which involved the death of 13 fire fighters in a California forest fire in 1949 is the classic study of the loss of sense making in crisis events, but the lessons identified are universal, and are certainly applicable to organisations and individuals involved in similar chaotic and potentially traumatic events today.

For anyone who has been involved in a potentially crisis event, it is a clear fact that the first question is never ‘What should we do?’. The first question is always ‘Does anyone have an idea of what is actually happening?’. The second question is then ‘And does anyone have any idea of what does that mean?’

We have a total power outage across a city? What does that actually mean, in terms of disruption and the impact on our on response operations? For example if trains don’t run and the city is grid- locked because our the traffic lights have all turned to green, then what does that mean for our ability to move our own people around as part of our ‘crisis response plan’?

The way that one prepares for a disaster, whether on a personal or an organisational basis, is to live through one. The lessons learned from the first experience would then set the framework for creating capabilities – both technical and emotional/cultural – that will be appropriate to the next time that type of event happens.

The response by New York City managers to Hurricane Irene in 2011 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012, or the response to the first Mad Cow Disease outbreak in the UK in the 1990s (over 4 million animals were slaughtered in an attempt to control the spread of the disease ) and later incidents of disease control, demonstrate the value of lessons learned in allowing response managers and decision- makers to have a mental model of the problem that they can then use to make reasoned decision about the most appropriate course of action.

The appearance of a drone that appeared outside the perimeter fence of Gatwick airport in April 2019 is a classic example of where an incident that was relatively minor in its own right, created massive disruption, both within the internal decision-making processes and in terms of cascading external consequences (over one thousand flights and 140,000 passengers affected), purely because it was something that had not been experienced before.

This leads naturally into the next issue, that of lessons learned.

Lessons Learned (Or Not…..)

The single lesson that should be learned from previous crises is – learn the lessons from previous crises.

In almost all cases, and this is applicable to the coronavirus situation, it is likely that the patterns of the crisis development and maturation had been experienced before, and that there had been an opportunity to learn from those situations, identify potential vulnerabilities and then to take positive action to mitigate those vulnerabilities so that they would not be a significant or critical issue in the event that such situations were to arise again.

It seems clear that (to some degree) lessons have been learned from previous global health scares. The response to coronavirus was undoubtedly influenced by lessons that had been learned from SARS, Ebola, Zika, H1N1 and others. This was as much in terms of an emotional / cultural readiness to acknowledge the extent of the problem, to share that information with others and then to take proactive action in a (relatively) speedy manner rather than waiting to see what next-stage developments and escalations might look like.

There is often a window of opportunity to make changes in the immediate aftermath of a crisis event (or, which is much more useful, though also much more rare, in the aftermath of a near miss, which is an opportunity to create enhanced prevention, mitigation and management procedures without having to go through the traumatic experience of an actual crisis event). However, the more usual response is that once the event is over (or at least, the initial high-impact traumatic stage is over – the actual recovery process may take years or even decades), then little if any structural changes are made, and the underlying causal factors that allowed the external event to escalate to a crisis situation are left in place.


The study of crisis management tends, by its very nature, to be the study of failure. The crisis management programmes that work, and that either prevent a fully blown crisis from developing or allows organisations and agencies to respond speedily and effectively to a crisis event that was in play, tend not to make the global headlines.

Although crisis events are unique, the causes for the failure to respond and engage with them in a meaningful, effective and appropriate manner are highly predictable. In almost all situations, the reason that organisations are not able to respond effectively to potential or actual crisis events is because of internal management weaknesses rather than the specific impacts of the external event.

In fact, we can almost say that the defining characteristic of a crisis is the management failures associated with it, rather than any internal or integral qualities of the event itself. If that is true of Hurricane Katrina and Deepwater Horizon, of the failure to respond to the Fukushima tsunami or the Nepal earthquake, then it is likely that there are patterns of organisational failure that are transferable to other comparative situations, whatever their specific manifestations.

There is no question that the nature, scale and scope of the external events that we are seeing, and the global impacts they are having (or have the potential to have), are becoming progressively more impactful, disruptive and destructive. If we are to find a way of engaging with those situations in a meaningful way, then it appears that it is not just a matter of ‘doing what we have done before, but better’ (thought that is also a significant issue), but that we need to have a true understanding of the nature of the threats we are facing. In order to fully understand and engage with the risks and threats of 2020, and to prepare for the unknown threats that will undoubtedly manifest themselves in the years ahead, we will need to develop a different language of risk and crisis management.

However, on a more practical side, it seems that there is one approach that can be taken and which has the potential to demonstrate genuine impact on an almost immediate basis, and which will allow all of the experts involved in modelling the new class of risk and threats to work together to develop what can be labelled as ‘action-orientated policy’. Looking at the range of threats that we are facing, whether it is global warning, climate change, pandemics, flooding, infrastructure failures or any of the other problems that are equally concerning, then the level of impact for the vast majority of people is at the city level. It is cities that suffer, and it is therefore at the city level that many of the policies that can have immediate effect can be implemented.

It is undoubtedly much easier to influence policy at the city level than at the national or regional level, and it also much easier to get support, buy-in and engagement from the communities that are affected by those decisions. There is a global movement already under way at the city management level that recognises the urgency of the need to take action, as well as the willingness to put in place programmes that will have a significant impact on the safety, security and resilience of the city, as well as the well-being of its inhabitants.

Whether it is traffic control measures, waste disposal, air pollution mitigation or the development of community level resilience networks that can be considered as chronic crisis events, or the more sudden and unexpected crises that create immediate disruption and threats to on-going operations, , there are multiple incremental measures that can be taken that would have significant impact. Although none of those measures on their own could be considered to be world changing, taken as a whole they can be seen to be creating a new approach to crisis management and resilience that will undoubtedly increase the effectiveness of any measures that would need to be taken in the event that those organisations or cities were hit by a crisis scenario.

FEMA has publically announced that it no longer considers its role to be a crisis management agency. Rather, its role is to provide the necessary level of support to communities that are themselves in a crisis event, and which need the help and guidance – and resources – that will allow them to take responsibility for their own crisis management activities. Of course, there are certain issues that can only be managed at a national level, but when one analysis the highly complex eco-systems that make up any modern city, whether the hyper-connected futuristic cityscape of a Tokyo or Dubai, or the day to day existence of a Lagos slum or South American favela, it is clear that they are actually functioning with an extremely high level of resilience built in, and that it is the enhancement of that existing resilience rather than the imposition of micro-managed centrally-generated directives that will have most impact, both in terms of long term capability development and immediate incident response.

Many of the lessons that can be applied to cities can be equally applicable to large-scale organisations. In many respects, the challenges that they are facing in terms of their existence as complex organisms operating in complex eco-systems dependent on complex environments are the same. In both instance, the simple underlying truth is that whilst we may not be able to impact on the external events, we are able to take responsibility in terms of response preparation and capability development.


1. Klaus Schwab, Schwab, K. The Fourth Industrial Revolution: what it means, how to respond respond/

2. Lagadec, P. (2009). A new cosmology of risks and crises: Time for a radical shift in paradigm and practice. Review of Policy Research, 26(4), 473-486.

3. See also Lagadec, P., 2005. Crisis management in the 21st century” unthinkable” events in” inconceivable” contexts.

4. Weick, K. E. (1988). Enacted sensemaking in crisis situations. National Emergency Training Center

5. Weick, K. E. (1993). The collapse of sensemaking in organizations: The Mann Gulch disaster. Administrative science quarterly, 628-652.

6. ‘Homeland Security Chief Defends Federal Response’. New York Times, September 4 th , 2005 response.html

7. For a detailed (and fascinating) review of the actions of FEMA first responders, and the multiple issues around command, control and coordination that lead to the failures to deliver the necessary level of response management, see the transcript of the Congressional Hearing into the affair. ‘Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans: A Flooded City, A Chaotic Response’

8. US Congress (2006). A Failure of Initiative: Final Report of the Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina

*1 The US Congressional Report into Hurricane Katrina (entitled A Failure of Initiative’ found that, ‘Despite the understanding of the Gulf Coast’s particular vulnerability to hurricane devastation, officials braced for Katrina with full awareness of critical deficiencies in their plans and gaping holes in their resources’ (US Congress, 2006:5) (8).

*2 However, for risk-sensitive organisation that learns from global events, such impacts and consequences could well have appeared on their risk register. The 2011 tsunami in Fukushima, Japan disrupted global supply chains to such an extent that major car manufacturing plants in the UK were closed, never to reopen. The impact on tourism of terrorist attacks in, for example, Tunisia and Egypt, have been significant, and for any economy or organisation that is dependent on tourism for their continued economic viability, the potential possibility of sudden and catastrophic disruption should not be ignored.

From a corporate risk management perspective, there is the example of Rick Rescorla, head of security at Morgan Stanley in the World Trade Centre on the day of the 9/11 attacks. Rescorla had identified vulnerabilities in the WTC as early as 1985, and with an associate had identified both the method and the position of the first 1991 attack. Rescorla insisted that all Morgan Stanley employees underwent regular evacuation exercises from the WTC. On the day of the attack, he successfully evacuated over 2,600 people from the building (including 250 Visitors), before going back in to try and save others. His body was never found.