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When a new coronavirus strain was first detected in China last year, the episode seemed distant from Western countries, with no bearing on global wellbeing. By February 2020, however, the coronavirus had caused deaths and sequestration in Italy, and slumping stock markets and general panic in European countries and the US. The fast spread of the deadly disease illustrates how vulnerable liberal democracies are to disruption, be it of the kind caused by Mother Nature or that caused by hostile states. The only mitigating answer is for the public to play an active role – and for it to be trained to do so.
By the end of last month alone, the COVID-19 infection was responsible for more than 81,000 confirmed cases of infection and over 2,700 deaths, including more than 50 outside China, in places as far afield as Italy, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Iran, France, the UK and the US, to name a few. The US Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross, had initially argued that the virus would ‘help accelerate the return of jobs to North America’.
More Than Just a Health Emergency
The effects of the virus had, however, not stopped at individuals’ health. Although they have partly rebounded, US stocks had been falling, following similar slumps on Asian and European stock markets. And there was the psychological strain. In Italy, authorities had to warn residents not to panic buy. Everywhere, panic was spreading about the new virus strain: how deadly is it really? Is it safe to leave the house? Is it best to just stock up on food and stay home for a while?
In a globalised world, it is inevitable that contagious diseases spread quickly. Modern societies dependent on a wide range of amenities always being available and functioning are susceptible to many other forms of disruption as well. This includes severe weather events, which are already increasing as a result of climate change, and cyber attacks on critical national infrastructure – and, indeed, on other companies including food retailers. While there have not yet been any successful attempts by terrorists or state actors to spread poisonous gases or biological weapons in Europe or North America, such an attack would cause great disruption, and the effect would be multiplied by a panicking public. In 1995, a Japanese doomsday cult spread the lethal gas sarin in Tokyo’s subway system, killing 12 commuters.
So the challenge is clear. Not only do nature- or man-made contingencies cause disruption; the public is also unprepared to cope with them. That reality can lead to more than panic buying, resulting food shortages and general alarm. It can also force governments to dispatch soldiers and other specialists to conduct relatively basic duties. This was the case in the UK during Storm Dennis last month, when the British Army had to deploy soldiers to help build flood barriers in affected communities.
That is because most people lack training in crisis preparedness or response. The result of this became obvious in recent contingencies, including forest fires in Australia to the US, where people wanted to help but had little idea of what to do. Indeed, it could be argued that the three decades of peace since the end of the Cold War have removed what appeared to be imminent threats, and that this has resulted in populations being rendered much more dependent on government guidance in a crisis. Against this background, piecemeal public awareness announcements when a contingency is already in progress have little effect.
National Resilience Preparedness
Civilian self-help during crises can, of course, never completely replace government activities – but the population can alleviate the burden on the authorities, thus allowing soldiers and other government workers to focus on specialised tasks that only they can execute.
In the case of a severe virus outbreak, such civic responsibilities could include keeping oneself informed without unnecessarily calling or visiting a doctor’s offices and thus straining capacity. It can include prudent buying of necessities instead of stockpiling. In case of extended power cuts, such tasks can include maintaining preparedness by always having necessities at home: torches, non-perishable food items, water, a radio for reception of news when mobile phones can’t be charged. In the case of severe weather events, similar precautions are wise, along with plans in local communities for how neighbours can work together to keep the water out. None of it is very complicated or demanding; all of it has a positive effect not just on the local community but – if implemented nationwide – national resilience.
It is, of course, challenging to organise resilience beyond local efforts into a nationwide system. Sweden has made a valuable step with the publication – and distribution, by post, to all households in the country – of If Crisis or War Comes, a brochure that explains in easy steps how to prepare for crises and what to do during one. Germany’s Technisches Hilfswerk, a government authority tasked with contingency management, consists of 99% volunteers, who are deployed in their local communities and beyond when a crisis occurs. And in Denmark, the Home Guard – which belongs to the armed forces – constantly trains it volunteers, who are often the first port of call during crises. The Danish Home Guard members live in their community: another advantage of volunteer engagement over complete reliance on government workers.
No amount of citizen engagement can stop an airborne disease. It can, however, limit the virus’s spread – and it can limit the side effects. When COVID-19’s spread has ebbed and authorities can focus on longer-term planning, they might consider national versions of Sweden’s If Crisis or War Comes publicity campaign. Even basic facts such as those provided in the brochure would inform people about how viruses spread and how to best protect oneself and one’s friends, family and colleagues. It would also prevent panic and panic buying. For example, to illustrate this, Americans have been buying so many facemasks recently that the US Surgeon General, the US’s top doctor, tweeted: ‘Seriously people- STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!’
When the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency published the brochure in 2018, it caused enormous media interest but also a considerable amount of ridicule. The Swedes were seen as neurotic about national security threats. But as recent events have shown, national security threats may have nothing to do with Russia, the usual bugbear in such security discussions. An airborne virus can be just as efficient in causing panic, deaths and stock market plunges as a hostile state. Not preparing populations for such a situation seems foolhardy.
Elisabeth Braw directs RUSI's Modern Deterrence project, which focuses on how governments, business and civil society can work together to strengthen countries' defence against existing and emerging threats.
BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of szmuli/Adobe Stock.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.