The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to be felt around the world. It turns out this is not unusual. In fact, that is what pandemics do to the societies they touch! Going back to 430-426 BCE, the Plague of Athens, global pandemics have created major societal disruptions. While the impacts to the economy and the death toll are easier to quantify, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on society are significant but deceptive.

Historian William Rosen sums up the societal impacts of a global pandemic well in the following quote from “Justinian’s Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe”:

“The effects of epidemics (pandemics) are not measured only in mortality. Their secondary consequences have been much more far-reaching and disorganizing than anything that could have resulted from the mere reduction of the population.”

When disease transmission has long stopped, the effects of the pandemic live on for years. In our case, this long tail of COVID will impact individuals, families, communities, organizations, and nations long after the illness is endemic and part of our “usual” disease profile.

Historical Pandemic Societal Disruptions

So, what are social disruptions? It refers to the serious disruptions to the regular functioning of a society – in other words, how we live our “regular” and “routine” lives. The concept of societal disruptions is used to describe the alteration, dysfunction, or breakdown of social life, often in community settings. It also Implies a radical transformation in which the old certainties of modern society fall away and something quite new emerges.

It was described well by Dutch historian Johan Huizinga in the book “The Autumn of the Middle Ages” in 1919:

“European society after the 14th century plague was highly-strung, on edge and quick to violence. So fierce and clamorous was life that it could endure the mingled odor of blood and roses.”

Hopefully, we won’t have the same experience with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Historically Observed Societal Disruptions

It turns out all pandemics create societal disruptions. There are five reoccurring themes, and many will sound very familiar to you. While the impacts to the economy and the death toll are easier to quantify, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on society are significant but deceptive.

  1. Distrust of government and public health measures. A lack of trust in our institutions may have its origins in previous epidemics.
    • Suspicion of government. For any actions related to the outbreak and the fear of creating a “totalitarian state.”
    • Resistance to any mandates and defiance of measures to slow spread (closures, distancing).
    • Resistance to mask-wearing dates to the 16th century when masks were often required and usually controversial.
    • Vaccine resistance. Vaccine resistance goes back more than 200 years to the 1770s and the introduction of a primitive smallpox vaccine.
  2. Blaming others.
    • Pandemics don’t create prejudices but exacerbate them. Society begins to blame “others” for the outbreak.
    • Throughout history, Jewish people have also been victims of anti-Semitic discrimination and hatred.
  3. Fraying of society and social cohesion. Psychologists note an increase in antisocial behavior which leads to anxiety, irritability, aggression, and diminished impulse control.
    • Widespread crime. Increases in crime and violent crimes.
    • Political losses. Election losses attributed to the handling of the outbreak are common.
    • Movement toward populism and autocratic states and leaders. Democracies tend to struggle in a pandemic compared to autocratic states. It is not that autocrats do a better job in managing it, they just control the message.
  4. Conspiracy theories and apocalyptic thinking.
    • Pandemics are plagued by conspiratorial thinking and theories.
    • Historically, some Christians have viewed global calamities as proof that we are in the end times as foretold by the Bible and that Judgment Day is nigh.
  5. Rise of the worker and organizing.
    • Going back to the Black Death in Europe, workers have taken advantage of a worker shortage to demand improved pay, benefits, and working conditions. That continues to this day.

Looking at the list of the historical societal disruptions above, you would think it was describing our current situation. I found myself feeling both relieved that this happens all of the time AND depressed that this happens all of the time. The other historical context to keep in mind is that the impacts go on for years. The average historical pandemic societal hangover is an average of fifty years.

COVID-19 Pandemic Societal Disruptions

Many of us had been expecting a global health pandemic for years and yet when it happened, everyone seemed to be caught a bit flat-footed. Information was slow to get out of China, countries fumbled in their response and many hoped it would just go away. Organizations who had old pandemic plans dusted them off and by mid-March 2020, everyone seriously started to figure out how to respond.

COVID-19 Pandemic: Five Individual Shifts

Just as we explored the overall historical impacts caused by pandemics, what are we specficially seeing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic? Here are the top five individual shifts to date:

  1. Major decline in trust of expertise (knowledge, education, experience). Suddenly everyone became a medical or disease expert, no experience or education required. This may complicate our work as the value of our knowledge, expertise, or experience may be challenged.
  2. Major decline in trust of people. You fear something you can’t see, and you don’t know who might be sick or not and this led to a distrust of all. Of course, trust is essential in any working relationship, and as we know, especially in a crisis.
  3. Inequalities exacerbated (race/ethnicity, income, religion). The ethnic breakdown of who was dying early in the pandemic showed it was disproportionally affecting Black and brown communities. Interestingly enough, once vaccines become widely available, it changed to killing more white Americans. Low-income Americans of all races were more impacted than those with higher incomes.
  4. An increase in political divide and division, increasingly using politics as a form of personal identification. In America, some political parties and leaders expressed beliefs that vaccines or masks were good or detrimental. This made work environments more complicated, especially during vaccine and masking mandates.
  5. Tremendous rise in misinformation and disinformation via social media and our self-selected echo-chambers. Misinformation is information that is spread, regardless of intent to mislead while disinformation is developed to be deliberately misleading or biased propaganda.

COVID-19 Pandemic: Five Global Shifts

The impacts around the globe at the country level have been even further complicated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The war has further exacerbated all five of the issues noted below.

  1. Financial hardships. Inflation, recession (in some countries), decrease in foreign aid.
    • This could affect money and staffing to manage our programs, as well as procurement of products and services to help us in managing the risk.
  2. Global instability began with the pandemic and was further fueled by the Russian war in Ukraine.
    • This will impact our ability to safely manage crises in other country locations, further destabilizing countries and governments, and potentially impacting our businesses.
  3. Food insecurity, threats of famine.
    • Food insecurity and famine means the movement of people seeking food. This can further disrupt and destabilize countries and regions where your organization may have offices or procure materials.
  4. Supply chain disruptions (may cause some deglobalization).
    • We experienced major global supply chain disruptions starting in March 2020 and some continue to this day.
  5. Crime. Increase in global criminals, gangs, nefarious parties.
    • Ransomware and the deployment of other forms of malware are done very commonly by global gangs and nation states as a very effective form of revenue generation. International gangs have grown in power and influence, which can impact crops, manufacturing, labor, and more worldwide.

Polycrisis

All of this got me interested, and I began wondering if anyone else was talking about these things besides me? Well, it turns out this year at the World Economic Forum 2023 in Davos, the world was abuzz with the latest new word, “polycrisis.” The world was asking, “Are we on the brink of a polycrisis?”

You are likely thinking, “What is a polycrisis?”

This term was first coined by the French philosopher Edgar Morin, who introduced it in the 1990s. However, it got new life at Davos 2023 by economic historian and Davos attendee Adam Tooze, who started to speak and write about it. A polycrisis is when present and future risks interact with each other to form a “polycrisis.” It is a cluster of related global risks with compounding effects such that the overall impact exceeds the sum of each part. Today, the simultaneous and overlapping crises facing the world include a mounting climate crisis, a war in Europe, an inflation shock, democratic dysfunction, a health crisis, banking instabilities, and much more.

The World Economic Forum Global Risks Report (GRPS) 2023 sheds light onto the concerns and thoughts of many global leaders. There was a marked pessimism among the respondents looking 10 years out:

  • 20% believed the world was at progressive tipping points and persistent crises leading to catastrophic outcomes.
  • 34% expect consistent volitivity across economies and industries with multiple shocks accentuating divergent trajectories.

The report describes four potential futures centered around food, water, and metals and mineral shortages, all of which could spark a humanitarian as well as an ecological crisis (from water wars and famines to continued overexploitation of ecological resources and a slowdown in climate mitigation and adaption). In the years to come, concurrent crises will embed structural changes to the economic and geopolitical landscape and accelerate the other risks we face. More than four in five GRPS respondents anticipate consistent volatility over the next two years at a minimum, with multiple shocks accentuating divergent trajectories. In other words, uncertain times.

Global risks have shifted, and there is a major focus on three issues: economic, geopolitical, and societal. All three create more destabilization and unpredictable risks. Take for example, the economic outlook. Inflation in many countries remains stubbornly high, and some countries have slipped into a recession. The global banking community shuddered at the collapses of Silicon Valley and Signature Banks in the U.S., triggering concerns which lead to the demise of Credit Suisse in Europe. As of this writing, everyone appears on edge, waiting for the next shoe to drop.

The geopolitical situation is tenuous at best. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has wide-ranging impacts far beyond either of those borders, including the destabilization of the region, famine in Africa, fear of greater war in Europe, nuclear threats, and the migration of millions of refugees. The China-Taiwan conflict is raising tensions, and there is a growing fear of the potential for escalation and possible war between the two and what it could mean for the U.S. and other western nations. Numerous countries in Africa and South America are experiencing major uprisings, including the turmoil in Peru, Colombia, and Brazil, as well as the instability in Western Africa. Things are very unstable, and it doesn’t matter whether your organization has locations or does work abroad – these are very challenging times.

The third big wild card is the impact societally worldwide. As noted at the start of this article, the societal fissures run deep, wide, and remain to this day. The erosion of social cohesion and societal polarization is felt globally. There is a widening gap and polarization in values and equality such as immigration, gender, reproductive rights, ethnicity, religion, and climate. The economic and geopolitical issues have created a cost-of-living crisis, a serious impact to heathcare providers and systems, a severe mental health deterioration in all ages, lost education, and earning potential in our youth, all fueled by misinformation and disinformation campaigns on social media and other information venues.

What is a Business Continuity/Crisis Management Professional to Do?

We need to focus on three critical crisis management skills to manage through the issues raised above:

situational awareness, effective crisis management programs, and crisis communication.

Situational awareness

How can we plan for what is ahead if we are not getting the appropriate intelligence to do so? Situational awareness is the ability to identify, process, and comprehend the critical elements of information regarding an emerging situation or incident. It’s simply knowing what is going on around you! As crisis managers, we all know that situational awareness is essential for our survival. It requires we conduct two distinct activities:

  • Collect: observe, acquire, and compile the information.
  • Process: assess and validate the information and orient yourself to the possible impacts.

Sometimes this can leave us feeling like we are drinking out of a firehose! How do you manage all the information? This requires carefully planning with hopefully a plan and tools that have been thought out and practiced in advance. You will need to consider these questions when doing this yourself or working with potential vendors to assist you:

  • What are your information sources, where do you find them, and whom do you trust?
  • How do you assess the information?
  • How can you validate the information?
  • How do you display it in a meaningful way so that decisionmakers can take in the information, make decisions, and then act?

Effective crisis management program

An effective crisis management team starts by having an overall program that includes a team, plan, and process in place for every location in your organization. (Any place you have a shingle out could be where “the bad thing” could happen.) The plans and teams of course must fit the size and mission of that location but at minimum, every location needs a team to respond to a crisis. Consider a structure which might look like this:

  • Tier One: a strategic (executive) and tactical (level below) at the headquarters.
  • Tier Two: larger offices need an appropriately sized team.
  • Tier Three: maybe one or two people tasked to assess and notify HQ.
  • All locations need a team and process to report up.

Of course, plans, training, and exercises are essential for every location. Consider this when looking at an overall crisis program:

  • There must be a plan for all these levels with clearly defined roles, responsibilities, and authorities.
  • Every location needs a designated incident assessment team to evaluate all potential threats and make the decision as to whether to activate the team and plans; they must be given the authority to act as well as the responsibility.
  • They must be trained in their roles.
  • At minimum, conduct an annual exercise – ideally a couple of smaller exercises (short, ripped-from-the-news types) and one robust simulation.

Crisis Communication

Finally, crisis communications are essential. Effective crisis communications require an established team and process that brings all company communicators together to ensure coordinated and accurate communications to all the identified key stakeholders in a timely manner. This cannot be made up “on the fly!” Ideally you bring all your company communicators together under one roof to ensure consistent and timely communications. In the public sector, this type of team is called a Joint Information Center, or JIC.

Simply stated, the communication goal during any crisis or incident is to get the right information to the right people at the right time so they can make the right decisions and issue right communications. Right communications are not rocket science, but they require planning and discipline. It also requires the communications team to work closely with crisis management and continuity planners not only at the time of crisis but in planning and running exercises so there is a solid understanding of who is doing what.

Going Forward

What should you be thinking about as you put this article down? I strongly encourage you to take this on as a “homework assignment.” Begin by doing an evaluation of your program and your organization’s potential internal and external risks, given the post-COVID societal disruptions and potential polycrises we now face. To do that, look at your risk profile and potential risk exposures, given all we have covered in this article, and take a serious look at your organizations. Ask yourself three basic questions:

  • Situational awareness: Is our process for obtaining, validating, and displaying information sufficient given the new and potential risks?
    • Crisis management program: Is our crisis management program, teams, plans, processes, and exercises training us to be ready?
    • Crisis communications: Are we able to get out timely communications to all identified key stakeholders using all the important and required platforms?

Finally, work to continue to educate yourself and those around you about these world changes and critical issues. Many are just hoping or praying we will bounce back to 2019, but I can tell you it’s not going to happen! Work to be flexible and nimble as these threats emerge and shift. We need to stay on our toes. And lastly, take care of yourself! This is a long haul, and we need you here in great shape as we navigate the challenges ahead.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Regina Phelps

Regina Phelps is an internationally recognized thought leader and expert in the field of crisis management, exercise design, continuity, and pandemic planning. She is the founder of EMS Solutions Inc, (EMSS). Since 1982, EMSS has provided consultation and speaking services to clients on five continents.

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