Wake-up calls make linear crisis scenarios V-shaped: the example of COVID-19


It’s easy enough to take “right, center and left” and make a linear continuum: as when politics moves from the right through the center into the left.

But the straight line becomes V-shaped, when the center is stretched and pulled away from the other two ends, as when the sequence, beginning-middle-end of a story, is made to sag, like a hammock.

Think here of the time-consuming catch-up to the contingencies that come our way in medias res, rendering beginnings long gone (or always disputed) and ends further off than our stories assumed at the start.

That’s what wake-up calls do when they identify intervening crises that stretch time and space out of shape between thought-to-be beginnings and thought-to-be endings.


For example, the Covid-19 pandemic was reported to us by several emergency managers as “a wake-up call” with respect to the interconnectivities and vulnerabilities among water, electricity, roads and other backbone infrastructures in Oregon and Washington State. In the view of a very experienced emergency management expert, “the one thing that the pandemic is bringing out is a higher definition of how these things are interconnected and they’re not totally visible”.

Covid-19 response made clearer that backbone infrastructures, especially electricity, are “extremely dated and fragile” in the view of experienced interviewees (e.g. in Oregon). So too shortages in road staff in the aftermath of a vaccine mandate were mentioned by a state emergency manager for transportation as making it harder to undertake operations. Covid-19 responses also put a brake on infrastructure and emergency management initiatives already in the pipeline (e.g., preventative maintenance), according to multiple respondents.

The pandemic combined at the same time with other emergencies. A heat dome episode required a treatment plant’s staff not to work outside, but in so doing created Covid-19 distancing issues inside. The intersection of lockdowns and winter ice storms increased restoration times of some electrical crews, reported a state director of emergency management for energy. A vaccination mandate on city staff added uncertainty over personnel available for line services. Who gets to work at home and who gets to work in the plant also created issues.

“We struggled with working with contractors and vendors” over the vaccine mandate, said a state emergency manager for roads: “If we had a catastrophic disaster three months ago that would have been a challenge for us to work through.”

“All [Covid-19] planning happened on the fly, we were building the plane as it moved, we’d never seen anything like this,” said a state logistics manager of their early response. The interviewee added: “Covid is so unique and out of the box that we’ve developed rules and processes that we’re only going to use during Covid because they don’t make sense in any other disaster”.

In other words, the Covid-19 pandemic was a wake-up call to front-line managers about interconnectivities, but not even a rehearsal for what is also to come their way in terms of other crises (including the much-predicted catastrophe of the magnitude 9.0 earthquake off the two states’ coastline).


Many crises are, I submit, V-shaped, notwithstanding their linear scenarios. So what?

Minimally, it means that table-top exercises (a.k.a. rehearsals) based on beginning-middle-end crisis scenarios will inevitably be less V-shaped than needed. This is not to say the former are not useful. It is to say that the most useful table-tops are likely to be wake-up calls to more crises or different ones than thought pre-tabletop–and requiring nowNOW attention, also.

The point is that we are once again back to a key narrative discrepancy in crisis scenarios—between the stated urgency to DO SOMETHING NOW on the one side, and the stated requirement to do so safely with respect to the ends in sight on the other side—while all the time recognizing that both requirements are urged on us and underwritten by the very same unpredictability at the very same scale of analysis, the system level.

On one hand, it is argued we have to experiment even if it risks the limits of survival; on the other hand, being safe means no error should ever be the last trial. This is a discrepancy because it can’t be written off or talked out of; it has to be managed as one of the Anthropocene messes we are in. COVID wasn’t a prequel to another story with its own beginning, middle and end. That is the wake-up call!

Source: The research, from which are drawn interviewee quotes, is supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant 2121528.

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