From crisis preparedness ... to crisis management

Created: 10 April 2020

By Olivier Borraz

Like many developed countries, France has, since the early 2000s, armed itself with a sizeable arsenal of crisis management instruments. This trend was set in motion by crises that revealed the vulnerability of contemporary measures and underscored the need to invest in dedicated tools. This organizational work, studied by Franck Fourès in his thesis on the management of emergencies within the Ministries of Health and Agriculture , has continued to expand as new crises have revealed shortcomings. This undertaking has also drawn on thinking from international organizations, as shown by Lydie Cabane in her thesis.
The apparatus as a whole is now being put to the test by the COVID-19 pandemic.
For the sake of clarity, I propose to identify some aspects that can be further developed in writings and (especially) investigations once the crisis is over.

The Alarm Signal

Why did it take so long for the French authorities to take the full measure of the impending danger? This question isn’t meant to point out shortcomings from the comfortable perspective of hindsight, but to inquire as to the reasons that led to giving little importance to the warning signals from experts in China as well as from scientific publications. We should certainly turn to the earlier epidemics of SARS (2003), H5N1 (2005), and H1N1 (2009)—none of which took on the amplitude predicted by some experts, which may have led to a certain laxity. We may also examine the measures in place in France for treating such warnings, particularly within the Directorate General for Health (DGS) and its neighboring agencies, as well as the way in which the warnings were received and interpreted. It will be necessary to study how the experts surrounding the President became convinced that the threat was serious. This will require us to understand the different forms of expertise at work within this crisis, but also the debates among epidemiologists, biostatisticians, clinical doctors, and researchers, as well as how they then managed to share their concerns with the President, leading him to officially sound the alarm on the evening of March 12.

The Creation of Ad Hoc Structures

Two organizational innovations are of particular interest in the management of this crisis: the creation of a scientific council, reporting to the President and his administration to recommend measures to be taken to protect the populace (later supplemented by a second, equally unprecedented expertise structure); and the creation of an interministerial task force headquartered at the Ministry of Health. Such innovations, which were not provided for in any contingency plan, raise questions, given that there were already many structures capable of providing expertise and guidance within the context of the crisis. What does this tell us about the government’s confidence in organizations devoted to the management of risks and crises, which it had put into place before the crisis? And what does this tell us about the long, ongoing efforts made to ensure that France would have at its disposal a complete arsenal of instruments to deal with a major crisis?

Olivier Veran, French Minister "des Solidarités et de la Santé".
© Shutterstock/Jo Bouroch

Crisis Management Plans

Some of the questions we might formulate here relate to the content of these plans, which was clearly not properly implemented (I am thinking here of the protective masks and tests provided for in the 2011 influenza plan, which proved to be very clearly insufficient in number, leading to official communications that tended to suggest that these protective measures were not the most effective). But most questions concern the recourse to confinement. This measure is not included in the above-mentioned plan, nor to my knowledge in any other plan. As a protective measure, it is used in situations of external threat (chemical, radiological, or natural accident; or terrorist attack). The fact that it became the preferred solution from the outset, although it is not mentioned in any plan and has never been tested on such a scale over such a period of time, should be a subject of scrutiny for researchers. Likewise, the questions of understanding where the idea came from, how the experts and the authorities imagined it, what they knew about how it had been implemented elsewhere, the forms of justification used to defend and promote this unprecedented solution, and the monitoring of its implementation.

Coordination in Crisis

The scattered information currently at our disposal in regard to the situation both on the local scale and within the ministries suggests a fairly high degree of confusion, or even tension and conflict. This situation is not in itself surprising, as coordination problems are frequent in times of crisis. But it is no less important to analyze, firstly in light of the efforts made over the years, following real crises and simulation exercises, to build an apparatus capable of coordinating a great number of actors; and secondly in terms of what it says about the temptation to multiply the number of organizations and mechanisms put into place to manage crises, to the detriment of considering the modalities of coordination and cooperation in a deteriorated situation. This second point is evidenced by the fact that the authorities are resorting to new organizations and procedures to improve communications, thereby contributing to the complexification of a field already rather densely populated by crisis management organizations, rather than assessing what makes crisis management—in particular, the interpersonal dimension—successful. As such, contrary to past situations, the management of the current crisis is characterized by a particular way of functioning. While it is customary in times of crisis for crisis unit members to physically meet in a room to work together, in the present case, due to the confinement measures, these teams are largely collaborating remotely. This point may seem trivial, but it is not. Indeed, work on crisis management underscores the importance of interindividual relationships during intense periods, especially when it is a matter of sharing information, forming an idea of the situation, and making decisions. Forms of reciprocal knowledge and trust develop between the participants, leading to a better exchange of information and an ability to come to decisions faster. These forms of reciprocal knowledge may also be observed between crisis units. When collaborating remotely, however, participants have less time to create relationships and thus tend to remain in an individual approach to the crisis without having the possibility to share otherwise than during conference calls, emails, and text messages.

There are still other questions to explore, from the different framings of the crisis (health, economic, security, etc.) to the way in which victims are counted, ending the crisis (concluding confinement and organizing a return to “normal”), and the methods that will be implemented to learn lessons from this crisis.

Article written on 2 April 2020

Return to the file


Olivier BORRAZ