By Don Williams
In responding to the current COVID-19 pandemic, you could be excused for thinking that some governments are making it up as they go along. But this is not the case.
To my certain knowledge, many governments have been planning for mass casualty events since the mid-90s. Such events could include a major bombing, aircraft crashing into a suburb, collapse of a building or bridge, or a city- or nation-wide infection.
In those days, Australia’s mortuary sector was equipped to handle about 300 bodies a day, so the thought of 1,000 or more from one incident was of genuine concern. As part of their role to protect the population, governments identified and addressed the problems and looked at viable options.
Discussions were held on what would be required to turn hotels into hospitals, and ice rinks into morgues (when we had more ice rinks). Consideration was also given to the long-term implications of workers not being able to attend work, and who needs to go to work to make sure the lights stay on. Remember, this was in the very early days of the Internet, so home-based work was an entirely different proposition.
It wasn’t all just talk, exercises were held, including a particularly interesting one in South Australia where people were asked to self-present in large numbers at a hospital to see how the system would fail.
Plans were written, tested where possible depending on costs and priorities, and procedures drafted.
So, why the surprised look when we were hit by a global pandemic? Particularly when this is not the first in living memory, or even this century? Is it possible that the dusty folders on top shelves have been forgotten as the authors moved on or retired? Has the never-ending reshuffling of departments and responsibilities meant that the duty to keep an eye on the ball has been lost?
Is it possible that the risk assessments that always said these types of incidents were “Very Low likelihood” but “Catastrophic” in their consequence were used to not review or fund capabilities? Obviously, the emphasis had been placed on the more likely and visible hazards such fires, floods and cyclones. For example, the 2009 Victorian bushfires showed how a large number of fatalities can be dealt with effectively.
Possibly, the main problem is that the underlying considerations have been forgotten, or are no longer considered valid. However, as Dwight D. Eisenhower once said “The plan is nothing, planning is everything”. If we know why we planned to do something, we understand the basis for the decision and can modify the plan when it meets reality.
A lot of positive things did happen. For example, there is a national reserve of protective masks, which was breached to help with the smoke problems in January 2020.
It is unfortunate that in the initial phase, and now while we settle into the new normal and plan for the future, we seem to be making decisions from base principles rather than building on long-established plans modified over time to meet current circumstances. The populace would be more comfortable knowing these issues had been considered in advance.
Hopefully, dusty folders were pulled down off shelves or, better still, Word documents were accessed with the updated plans implemented to convert hotels, isolate contaminated areas, increase the ability to handle extremely large numbers of deaths, etc. It would be nice to believe that the agencies within governments responsible for planning and response have been standing behind the scenes providing guidance and advice based on years of considerations.
It would have been comforting if some of our leaders had provided confidence by telling us there was a plan and it was being implemented, rather than giving the impression the response was being developed after the initial impact.
Perhaps those dusty “Very Low Likelihood” folders should be pulled down a bit more often?
Don Williams CPP ASecM is a recognised thought leader in security and related disciplines. Don can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org