What Now?

By Jim Mullen
Emergency Management, Once Removed

We must have an unflinching but hopeful and constructive post – COVID assessment.

Can one prepare a useful and truthful COVID -19 after-action report to spur national planning for the next pandemic in our volatile political climate? How to minimize the impulse to reproach or defend while maximizing emphasis on the measures that should be taken next time?

Regular readers must be aware of where I would place much of the responsibility for the scope of the COVID -19 disaster. But, in this instance, I would strive to curb that inclination in favor of enlisting an attentive, motivated audience in preparation for the next, sadly, inevitable pandemic crisis.

A focus on assigning blame in a COVID  after-action report would be a disservice to the subject and the nation. While a report that highlights recommended “actions for improvement” cannot pull punches, it must be constructed in such a way that focuses on “recommended future actions” rather than demean a political party, or an Administration, its agencies, even a former President. In a badly divided nation, this is tricky but critically important. This subject, which I call “What now,” requires consensus. We all share in the mistakes of our leaders (we did put them there) as we share in their successes. History will judge us harshly, as will our children if we demonstrate that we have learned nothing useful to apply the next time throughout all the suffering our nation has endured.

The period intervening between disasters is crucial to managing the next one. That time must be used to prepare an information-based protocol for assessing, managing, and messaging at the earliest possible time. That protocol needs to be sustained. It will require that leaders of all political stripes candidly acknowledge what needs to improve, who needs to be in charge without taking cheap political shots at their opponents  ( not to worry, there always will be other opportunities for that!). But first, mindful of experiences still almost too painful to contemplate, we must squeeze all the documentation of responsible emergency measures and planning requirements gleaned from COVID-19’s devastation as we possibly can.

The essence of emergency management is to acknowledge that we can always do better next time. Certainly, not every pronouncement of government officials, the medical profession, or the news media was clear, forthright, or even honest. Not every reaction to developing situations was as swift and appropriate as it might have been. Not every tool available was deployed as rapidly as it is necessary. But in retrospect, many of these flaws are correctible. Many must be “chalked up” to (very!) human error. Improvement action plans target better performance down the road. The answer to “what now” is to determine “what’s next.”

An iconic emergency manager once said in my earshot: “It’s not that we make mistakes, it’s that we keep making the same damn mistakes that is inexcusable!”

This is an opportunity to eliminate some of those “damn” mistakes. We should seize it.