Paul Vallet: Welcome to the Geneva Centre for Security Policy podcast. I'm your host, Dr Paul Vallet, and I am an Associate Fellow with the GCSP’s Global Fellowship Initiative. Thank you for tuning into our podcast. I look forward to exploring some of the latest global issues affecting peace, security and international cooperation with you over the next 13 weeks as we make this podcast a weekly event speaking with subject matter experts. In this week's episode, our first, we will speak with David Horobin. David Horobin is the Head of the Crisis Management cluster at the GCSP. With more than 25 years of operational experience in particular as the Director of the Operations Team, for the UK Department for International developments from 2003-2006. And then heading the rapid deployment unit and later the crisis management and security department for the International Committee of the Red Cross between 2006 and 2017 when he joined the GCSP. And I'd also like to point out that David will be participating in two forthcoming crisis management courses at the GCSP in March (Crisis Management: Navigating the Storm - A Virtual Learning Journey) and in May (Critical Incident Management 2021 - A Virtual Learning Journey) of this year, 2021. So, thank you very much, David, for agreeing to appear on our show. We're looking forward to talking to you about what has been quite momentous year, I think for all experienced crisis management professionals. As you know, we're marking almost the first anniversary these few days and coming weeks of the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, in Europe, especially in the start of the lockdown regimes and most of the European countries. And so, of course, we're looking forward to we're using this perhaps one year's worth of lessons that you may be able to talk to us about. So, my first question to you was about precisely what lessons have been learned in matters of sanitary early warning and first response?
David Horobin: Thank you very much, Paul. And a pleasure to be here and to talk about, probably the biggest crisis that any of us have had to deal with, in certainly a generation, probably 100 years. And I think everybody has been suffering from this in one form or shape or another. And indeed, we have been very busy at GCSP talking to and reviewing and researching the crisis management aspects of COVID for the last 12 months. And we've probably been speaking and discussing with many hundreds of crisis managers, from government from international organizations, from the private sector, around their kind of experiences and their feelings on this crisis. So, to answer your question, or to try to answer your first question, in terms of lessons learned, I would say that well it started, but it's not concluded. And I still, you know, we're not out of this crisis yet as we speak. But there is at least hope on the horizon, there is an end state on the horizon. And that's already a very good thing, which was not really the case, say six months ago, when everybody was still struggling with how vaccines we're going to be developed and then distributed. But that being said, I think that we can begin to draw some lessons learned. And I would say, that depends a little bit on your perspective, who are you? Are you a citizen in Europe? Are you a citizen in United States? Are you a citizen in Africa or in Vietnam? And so on, you will have a slightly different perspective, or are you a government authority in any different country, or indeed, an international organisation, multilateral organisation? So people's lessons learning process and lessons learning will be somewhat dependent on your, you know, on who you are and where you are. That being said, I think that there are one or two, one or two lessons that we can think about? Firstly, I think is that the issue of resilience of organisations, and indeed, of individuals to face such a pandemic has been a massive challenge. Just a couple of days ago, I was also in a conference, looking at some of these lessons learned, and as well across the crisis management community, there is a lot of thinking about, you know, what do we mean by resilience? And perhaps we could conclude that the decades that we've had of talking about resilience and thinking that we had resilience have proven to be unfounded. And I think one of the reasons for that is that our approach our mindset around resilience has been one dominated by efficiency, and shall we say, low cost resilience, whether it be supply chains, whether it be capacity and capability from a technical level, or indeed, whether it be about preparedness of the population and the leadership. It has been, indeed, what I would call a kind of low cost, efficiency driven approach to resilience. And that is going to need to be rethought. It may be needed that we have to think about resilience in a slightly different way. So that's the first thing and rethinking of what we mean by resilience. And moving away from low cost resilience into what I would call proper social and organiztional resilience, including enhancing technical capabilities and competencies. The second thing I would say in terms of lessons learned, is that trust has taken a big hit. And all sorts of different levels at community level, at a kind of political level, at a leadership level. And building trust or rebuilding trust, is going to be a big challenge for the next crisis that may come along to face us, whatever that may be. And let's just recall that as far as this type of pandemic is concerned, COVID-SARS2 is, is something that was foreseen. It's not something that happened out of the blue, it was on the risk registers of many different countries for quite a few years. And so, it was not the disease itself that came to cause such heavy impact, but rather how we have handled and managed this disease. So, that that in itself is worth reflecting upon. Unfortunately, it has not, it did not have, for example, the mortality rate of something like Ebola, but you know, it was new in terms of its level of contagion. And indeed, the way that it has spread out so fiercely and widely across the globe. And we wait to see what lessons can be drawn about the kind of origins and the early day management of this crisis. And I think that's, that will be an important lesson learn, eventually. So, trust has taken a big hit. At a conference a few months ago, a colleague was referring to the work of Durkheim, who was one of the sort of founding fathers of social order back in around 1893, something like that and he had this notion of anomie, which some of you may be familiar with, whereby This is the impact on the population of our citizens a feeling of worthlessness, not being valued. And that this leads to a sense of nihilism. And I think this is a this is a very important factor that that leaders need to think about. Because, you know, they're the consequences of a post COVID post trust thinking will impact us for the next, for the next major crisis that we have. I think we can also see in terms of lessons learned about how in this highly connected world with lots of interdependencies, whether it be at a technical level, or an organisational level, that this can prove to be a weakness, and a challenge to effective crisis management. And that too, needs to be needs to be thought about. So, those would be our kind of three lessons learned that I would immediately identify, and a link to that first one around resilience. I would also say that countries and organisations need to have a think about how much how much time and effort and depth are they really putting into preparing for the next major crisis. This, whether it's around identifying the associated risks, whether it's about developing effective scenarios, and contingency plans, whether it's about training, and reviewing and learning from the past, because for me, the big danger is that even after this COVID, when we begin to draw out of it, and it'll be different times for different countries, which is another issue. It is really important that we do learn from these lessons. And the danger is that we'll be so grateful that we're out of it that we'll forget about the lessons learned.
Paul Vallet: I wanted to follow up with this, of course, you rightly reminded us that perspective, is of course a major factor in how these lessons have been perceived. And, of course, it can depend on where you are located in the world. Also, where you're coming from, whether an organisation or a country government, or the private or the to the public sphere. And I was wondering, since, you know, we have this discussion about the importance of actually learning on the lessons, are identified at this moment? Perhaps whether some actors have been quicker to act upon the lessons and identifying them at first, or are others a little bit slower and off the mark on this?
David Horobin: Well, I think I think we're all aware that different countries have approached the management of the COVID crisis in different ways. I don't think there's any two countries who've done it in the same way. But you have those countries who have had previous experience of this type of pandemic or epidemic in the past. I'm thinking of, in particular in Southeast Asia and so forth, in Vietnam, Korea, where they have learned from the past and have applied those learnings into dealing with this particular crisis. And that's not it in terms of how the government have reacted but also how the population have reacted, and others have not really drawn upon some of those lessons. There are still countries as we speak now that are still denying that even COVID exists. And you have such a huge variety of approaches to dealing with this, and I still think that from a public health perspective, we're not out of this yet. And, you know, there is still more data to gather more information together. But certainly, we've seen a very great variety of approaches and methods around that. And I think we also have to think about how did the big multilaterals, you know, what's the role of the big multilaterals in this? I mean, we've seen in Europe the big challenges that, for example, the European Commission have faced in in terms of vaccines following certain decisions that were made. And that's been a problem. So how can we learn from these is that the most appropriate methodology and approach to, for example, vaccine procurement and distribution? I think the other thing is to examine the way that different countries work, and it is a centralised system better than a federated or regionalised system? There seems to be a kind of pros and cons for each of that. And again, I think that's something that countries will need to evaluate and assess, as part of the review of their own resilience. I think the other thing that we really do need to consider though in in talking about this is we mustn't lose sight of that is just the fantastic work that's been done by the scientists and the epidemiologists, in terms of getting these different vaccines with the new technology, and at the pace that they have done that is quite remarkable. It can take often many, many years to develop vaccines, and we still have no vaccines for many things, you know, like malaria and HIV. But we must not lose sight of just the brilliant work that's been done by those by those organisations and those individuals. But it's, of course, been an approach that is also rather unique, instead of rather, instead of a kind of linear approach to developing a vaccine, step one, step two, funding, approval and so forth. Things have been done in parallel, which has enabled the development of these vaccines. And that’s a really great thing. And, again, governments and, indeed, some multilateral organisations are also, I've also helped develop that, that approach. So, let's also learn from the positive side, both in terms of technology and in the methodology of developing vaccines.
Paul Vallet: Indeed, important to stress the positive side. And as you also reminded us that, of course, no actors have acted to the crises in any single way. Among the lessons learned have there also been identifications of what seemed to be definitely considered as either mistakes or flaws and approaches, and eventually, of course, to draw up the corrective measures towards this?
David Horobin: I mean, I think we have a short memory, are we living from almost day to day or week to week at the moment, but if we go back to back to the early days, and I come back to my point about trust and how, how things communicated to the general public. I mean, there was a lot of confusion, for example, about usage of masks, which type of mask and how useful is it? There was a lot of confusion about social distancing. And there still is a lot of confusion about, for example, the risk associated with kids going to school and this kind of thing. And that, those kinds of debatable issues started right from the outset, which I think put a lot of things not necessarily on a great footing as far as the general public was, was concerned. And, of course, countries have in terms of the different approaches, and I don't just mean from a public health perspective, but certain countries have taken this, what I would call this kind of polarity of having to make a decision based on public health and scientific guidance, versus the balance that they've had to do with the impact that has on the on the economy, for example. And I think politicians have been challenged to navigate their way along the cursor of decisions based on those objectives. And again, I think that needs a little bit of reflection from that. So, that aspect of these polarities that leaders have faced, and I don't say for one minute that it's been easy, I think it has been a challenge, we need to recognise the challenge, and I hear the phrase where “we need to go with the data, and we need to listen to the scientific evidence”. But sometimes that evidence has not necessarily been conclusive or clear. And at the end of the day, politicians have to decide, and scientists advise and balancing that, that balancing act between the scientific evidence, and for example, the economic impact has been a challenge. What was perhaps underestimated was some of the unintended consequences of this disease in terms of its effect on the population, whether that be around secondary public health issues, you know, people not going to hospital for cancer early warning, because they were afraid, isolation of certain areas of the population. I've had that had that personally being unable to see a loved one for many, many months, has dramatic social consequences. Similarly, for the kids not being able to get to school. So, some of these, again, these, these challenges these polarities, if you wish. These tricky conundrums, I think will be definitely important to put into the mix of lessons learned.
Paul Vallet: And, well, my next question, as far as the crisis management community is concerned, and you know, what you hear from your contacts with your colleagues and so on, have they been struck by indeed, the way countries have actually been going about their preferred scenarios? In other ways, is sanitary crisis management going into a more national or sometimes local, individual mode? Or is there still a trend towards building a more collective or more transnational kind of crisis management when faced with a crisis of this type?
David Horobin: Yeah, I mean, I think at the end of the day, governments are responsible and accountable for the safety and wellbeing of their population. And I think that where we are currently with COVID, with a light on the horizon, at least in certain parts of the world, in terms of a vaccine that governments have assumed that responsibility at a national level and there can be other drivers to that. There can be there can be different political agendas. If you if you wish we can call it like self-interest agendas that are that come into play in that in that decision-making process. And I do think that there will need to be a rethinking and recalibration of, was it right for countries to put their kind of national interest and their national perspectives ahead of more multilateral and more global perspectives? And are those institutions and bodies that are tasked to undertake that, for example, are they suitably supported, funded, qualified, and have the necessary capability both technically and legally to do that? We can look at the, the problems that are around border measures, countries that have tended to deal with the crisis. more robustly have closed their borders, have basically not had an international travel with a few exceptions, for many, many months. And they seem to have survived better. But is that the solution? Again, there was different advice given about that right at the beginning of the of the outbreak. And that has, it has unintended consequences as well, both in terms of the economy, the airline industry tourism industry, and that's been also part of the kind of balance of conundrums. But I do think, Paul, in terms of your question, the tendency has been to divert to national interest first, rightly or wrongly, but that has been the default position.
Paul Vallet: And perhaps my final question would be around still revolving around the lessons. And that would be whether the management of this particular pandemic crises, have the lessons in crisis management also been applicable to other types of health crises that would develop not around, of course, a transnational viral outbreak, but effect other issues of that we can recognise as a more transnational or a global health crises or something like an environmental challenge that affects public health?
David Horobin: Look, I mean, I think that from the crisis management community, oftentimes I hear that kind of phrase, well, bad as it has been, this has been a warning shot. And that we need to be far better prepared, and aware of the issues around risk and resilience, and indeed, leadership and trust for the future. And that the world needs to kind of really sit up and take notice of this. And I sincerely hope it does. I think that I don't know how many governments actually had a crisis management expert in their principal decision making body was it, you know, purely politics and science? Were experienced knowledgeable crisis management experts, adequately engaged into government decision-making bodies, I'm hearing different things, but the tendency from what I can sense that, no, this hasn't happened, and then you ask the question, are those leaders really suitably trained and equipped in terms of crisis management, to make the right decisions? We will always be in a crisis, making decisions in complexity and ambiguity and uncertainty. Those are some of the sort of principal tenants of a crisis. And that can be challenging, but you know, you can learn skills and tools and methods and techniques to try at least to mitigate some of those decisional risks, as well as to enhance your preparedness, one comes to mind that I think, again, has been undervalued and under played in the COVID is the notion of what some experts have been talking about forward thinking cells or rapid reflection cells, which is really looking ahead from where you are in this current crisis to see what could go wrong in a more coherent and structured manner. And then looking, trying to identify those soft signals, those more complex issues to identify, looking ahead and looking around and that's typically one role of a crisis manager and I think there needs to be some reflection about that capability within government and organisational decision-making bodies.
Paul Vallet: Well, I think you've given us a quite well rounded perspective and luckily reminded us that, the lessons are a process that is ongoing, and that there's always a time to fine tune our analyses and understanding of these events. So, I want to thank you very much for joining us on today's show. This is going to be of course, what we have for today's episode. Along with this, I want to thank our listeners for joining us again, you can listen to us again next week to hear all about the latest insights on international peace and security as in the same way that today we discuss crisis management, around the COVID-19 pandemic crisis. So, don't forget to subscribe to us on Anchor FM, Apple iTunes, follow us on Spotify and SoundCloud. I'm Paul Vallet with the Geneva Centre for Security Policy. And until next time, bye for now.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in written publications are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) or its employees. The GCSP is not responsible for and may not always verify the accuracy of the information contained in the written publications submitted by an author.