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Coronavirus: Improvisation is key to a successful response

The COVID-19 crisis is the kind of rare and massively consequential event that overshadows all lessons learned in the past, and tackling it requires an open, flexible and decentralized approach.

The coronavirus unit at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center, Ichilov Hospital, in Tel Aviv on May 4, 2020. Photo by Yossi Aloni/Flash90.
The coronavirus unit at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center, Ichilov Hospital, in Tel Aviv on May 4, 2020. Photo by Yossi Aloni/Flash90.
Efraim Laor and Gershon Hacohen

Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina opens with the well-known sentence: “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The same can be said of crises—all routine situations are alike; every crisis is unique.

Despite the fact that the unprecedented coronavirus crisis has gone well beyond even the most outlandish predictions, experts continue to call for centralized management by an authoritative state organization prepared to deal with emergency situations. These experts assume that all emergencies are fundamentally similar, have generic components and can be handled by designated experts, organizations and structures prepared in advance for the task—even in the case of an agent of destruction that none of these experts had even heard of before Dec. 7, 2019.

The coronavirus pandemic can be defined as a surprise mass casualty incident (SMCI)—a unique phenomenon that differs from scenarios on the “calm to war” spectrum in that each stage of the event is “routine breaking.” This is evidenced by the multitude of diverse and even contradictory approaches countries are taking with respect to the virus.

Whereas life during periods of both calm and war is conducted in a relatively orderly and stable fashion, within the contours of familiar and organized patterns, an SMCI entails more complex situations, involving dynamic, nonlinear systems. Hundreds of variables can be involved simultaneously. SMCI situations should therefore not be compared to war, which differs diametrically in terms of operational logic, rules, doctrines, methods of operation, rates of response and management tools.

Likening an SMCI to a war is fundamentally erroneous, and likely to cause far more casualties than the disaster itself. Unfortunately, many security officials have a hard time distinguishing between the two and are thus considerably hampering the struggle to overcome the coronavirus pandemic.

As noted, an SMCI is unprecedented by definition. This means that when one occurs, basic facts and assumptions are upended, along with the sets of rules that regularize, channel and impel operations. Those who turn to familiar frameworks and formats to tackle such crises—that is, who resort to tools and means prepared and used in the past—ignore the uniqueness of the event. Barring a miracle, this is a sure recipe for failure.

Uzi Arad, for example, a former national security adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has harshly criticized the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, characterizing it as the sort of improvisation that he claims has always typified Israel’s behavior. In his view, the name of the game is prior preparedness—organizational preparedness, preparedness in emergency stockpiles, as well as conceptual preparedness.

That argument reflects a basic misunderstanding of the nature of an SMCI. To contend with a massive, unprecedented development, decision-makers must employ an open, flexible and decentralized system of thought that is free of fixed paradigms. In an SMCI, thinking must be dynamic, intensive and resolute, and on the scale of hours and even minutes, not weeks. That in turn necessitates a system that can form an instant picture of the situation and reach a diagnosis. A deeper picture will eventually emerge for leaders and managers, but that will take years of research and analysis of the event that will necessarily be conducted in hindsight. In the moment, a managerial approach is needed.

Some see the defense establishment as the body best suited to fight the coronavirus, but an SMCI undercuts the basic defense mechanisms that underlie Israeli citizens’ sense of security. The intelligence community cannot warn of an SMCI; the air force cannot intercept them; ground forces cannot win against them; and the Home Front Command would have a very hard time playing the role of rescuer.

The defense establishment carried out an extraordinary civilian-government policy when it evacuated Gush Katif in the summer of 2005. That was not, however, an SMCI, but rather a political decision that gave the Israel Defense Forces and the defense establishment wide margins of security; they had a year to get organized and half a year to train.

Because no SMCI had occurred in Israel before the coronavirus, the defense establishment has no experience in handling one. It has had to learn from others’ experience, while avoiding blind imitation. That experience is likely to indicate, among other things, that under SMCI conditions, resorting to standards that have been prepared and determined in advance is unnecessary and can even be constraining and damaging.

In an SMCI, what are presented as purportedly “serious” solutions—i.e., solutions not improvised on the fly in response to the developing situation—will likely turn out to be not just irrelevant but counterproductive, while what are contemptuously described as improvisation will turn out to have been the right response.

This is the crux of the basic debate with those who criticize the leading role of Israel’s National Security Council in tackling the coronavirus. They characterize its decision-making as improvisation of a kind that does not exist in any advanced country with an organized national security council (such as Britain or the United States), while noting that in such countries the struggle to overcome the virus has not been entrusted to that body.

The concept of improvisation calls for critical consideration. There is no question that modern systems based on technology, such as rail and aviation systems, require organized and systematic centralized management. When an accident occurs in one of these, a specific failure—technical, human, or managerial—can be diagnosed, and the cause traced to a fault in the requisite systematic preparation.

And here precisely is the difference between a systemic accident and a multidimensional surprise disaster that by nature includes more than technical aspects and necessitates (unlike a train or plane accident) rapid, holistic adjustment to an unprecedented situation. The natural urge to rely on familiar organizational formats that were prepared in advance is an obstacle to the proper handling of a serious crisis.

Dr. Efraim Laor is co-founder and senior researcher at AFRAN, the National Research Institute for Disaster Reduction.

Maj. Gen. (res.) Gershon Hacohen is a senior research fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. He served in the IDF for 42 years, commanding troops in battles with Egypt and Syria. He was formerly a corps commander and commander of the IDF Military Colleges.

This article was first published by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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