Crisis management in the age of coronavirus

How to deal with the coronavirus crisis from the crisis management outlook

A man wears a face mask for fear of the coronavirus as he takes the train to Haifa, on March 17, 2020 (photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)
A man wears a face mask for fear of the coronavirus as he takes the train to Haifa, on March 17, 2020
(photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)
Below are 5 key crisis management rules and how they relate to the coronavirus crisis in Israel.
Rule No. 1 and perhaps the most important one in a national crisis management is to identify the crisis as such and act swiftly. This is not trivial. Defining something as a national crisis when it is not can wreak social and economic havoc, while unwarranted complacency can bring about worse economic ramifications and a calamitous death toll.
The coronavirus crisis was initially disregarded by many as a mild and manageable flu. It is now widely accepted to be one of the most challenging pandemics in modern history – certainly of our lifetime.
There is a long list of countries who failed to identify and act in time to prevent the outbreak from entering and spreading throughout their territory at a pace that is now overwhelming their health systems or will soon do so. Italy, France, Germany, Spain and Britain face droves of infected and scores of fatalities – a challenge not seen in those countries since the Second World War. Europe may never be the same again.
Fortunately for Israel, it was one of the first countries to stop incoming flights from China on January 26. The US was the first G20 country to do so two days later. Stopping all inbound air traffic followed. This may turn out to have been belated and certainly not enough.
Rule No. 2 in national crisis management is that mistakes are inevitable. This crisis is no exception. Lack of verified information and data coupled with the need for urgent lifesaving decisions lead to more mistakes during crises than during routine times.
Nevertheless, national crisis managers must focus on the issue at hand, move forward and carry out lesson-learning investigations after the crisis subsides. Should leaders have been bolder and more proactive in locking down virus infected hotspots and carrying out testing on a much larger and faster scale? Possibly.
Should have large gatherings during holidays like Purim been banned? Should Easter and Passover gatherings also be shut down? Perhaps. Should irresponsible politicians who called protesters to take to the streets in clear civil disobedience and downplayed the severity of the crisis be prosecuted? Probably.
There will, however, be ample time to calmly and diligently investigate all this once the crisis is resolved. Right now, everyone needs to focus on “flattening the curve.”
Rule No. 3  in a national crisis of this type is the imperative need to have trust and confidence in the guidelines issued to the public. This is best facilitated by transparent and timely fact-based, clear communication. In this respect, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – along with an exceptional team of professionals – has conveyed the message very well and almost flawlessly stayed on cue.
Sadly, the crisis collided head on with another crisis in Israel – a post-election political deadlock. Emotions have escalated and politics have polarized to unprecedented levels. Such a setting doesn’t foster trust and has been manipulated by politicians and interest groups. The crisis managers must disregard the noise, stay on point and continue informing the public to the best of their ability.
Rule No. 4 of national crisis management is prioritization: focus on the most significant crisis even if there are other significant ones taking place simultaneously. The political crisis in Israel is intertwined with the pandemic and cannot be disregarded, as it curtails the efforts to save lives. Even with 800 people dying daily in Italy, the opposition in Israel subversively downplayed the severity of the outbreak, calling people to take to the streets and warning the public that democracy is in dire straits when the vote for Knesset speaker was put on hold for four days.
The concerns of the opposition have been reinforced and echoed by many in the media, academia and the legal establishment who see Netanyahu as a more serious and imminent risk to Israel than the spread of the virus. Such Bibiphobia can be fatal, causing large parts of the public to disregard Health Ministry directives.
There is no sense in arguing with the opposition while managing the crisis. These misguided pundits are not asked to storm the beaches of Normandy or anything of the sort. They are simply asked to sit back and practice social distancing. There is no need for them to thank Netanyahu and his team for saving their lives, but they must stop obstructing his capacity to save ours. A very large majority of the public understands that.
Rule No. 5 of national crisis management is to be minded that a crisis can also serve as an opportunity to achieve things that normally would be impossible. Ironically and somewhat surreal under the current circumstances, the Chinese word for crisis is “wei-chi,” composed of two words, danger and opportunity. In times of crisis the public and their representatives can more easily rally around a common cause.
A broad government can be formed to include all the Knesset members who view Israel as a Zionist-democratic-Jewish state – the national home of the Jewish people, which should strive for peace and prosperity in accordance with the Trump plan. This does not necessarily mean the formation of a national-unity government. No Western government has created such a government due to the coronavirus crisis and it is not needed in Israel either. There are more than 70 Knesset members who can grasp this agenda as the top post-pandemic priority and can rally behind that purpose.
With good fortune and the successful implementation of the above mentioned rules, the minimization of casualties, the limitation of adverse economic impacts and the formation of a stable and effective government is possible.
The writer taught crisis management at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya and is a founder of Acumen Risk Ltd., a company that specializes in risk and crisis management platforms.