Exit strategy cartoon

Wars Need Exit Strategies

It’s much easier to get into wars than out of them. That is equally true of violent geo-political acts as it is of invoking wartime-like restrictions on a nation’s population in response to a pandemic. If the New Zealand government expects Kiwis to wholeheartedly get behind current and future restrictions on civil liberties, it needs to clearly communicate its exit strategy for the COVID-19 response now. To date, this vital piece of information is missing in action – which I believe is because there isn’t yet an exit strategy. Almost all communications, to date, have been oriented toward building fear rather than raising hope. Without the latter, the willing cooperation of the bulk of society is unsustainable.

Emergency management at the national level involves the use of coercive power toward citizens. That’s why everything has to be checked, explained and repeated until everyone understands. During wartime conscription, we have a category referred to in the past as ‘conscientious objectors;’ those whose personal beliefs do not allow them to take up arms against another person. There is no equivalent in a pandemic lock-down making the safety valve of hope even more essential.

There are four phases to a national emergency or business continuity plan. The exit strategy I refer to links with the final phase – RECOVERY.

Here’s what New Zealand research has to say about our organisational (business continuity) preparedness to recover:

“The least commonly implemented systems of planning and resourcing were found to be in the recovery phase of a crisis.”

“… the need to apply balanced resources to all phases of a crisis would make it obvious to managers and staff that without an effectively planned recovery phase, business continuity will be problematic.”

“The analysis of planning and resourcing by phase has shown that efforts oriented toward the return of an organisation to normal operations (the recovery phase) lags behind the other three phases by a considerable margin. While identifying hazards, mitigating against them or dealing with them as they occur are all important, other research has shown that most organisations need to return to normal operations within a short period of time (as little as 24 hours) in order to survive. New Zealand organisations do not appear to have considered this eventuality.”

“Far too little emphasis is placed on getting back into business as quickly as possible (the recovery phase) despite the literature showing the potentiality for a delayed return to normal operations being closely connected to early organisational failure.”

The frustrating aspect to these quotes is that they are not new. They are taken from my doctoral thesis on business continuity planning in NZ nearly twenty years ago. Not much has changed since then. There are several pages on the Civil Defence ministry website that largely list the statutory power in the recovery phase as well as several homilies involving ‘should do.’ Today’s Stuff news article about a leaked Government National Action Plan reinforces the point that the recovery phase – i.e. exit strategy from lockdown and other restrictions – is a long way further off than people might think and hasn’t really got any substance to it yet.  “Of the plan’s 32 pages, roughly a quarter of a page is dedicated to “recovery” from the crisis.” This despite the long-standing knowledge that the exit strategy should be determined at the same time as plans for operations are being made.

So far, the timeline hasn’t been dissimilar to WWII. We had the ‘Phoney War’ when the enemy virus was ‘over there.’ It involved a few distant skirmishes, some deaths in other countries. Mostly this period related to our trade partners but didn’t really affect the populace here. Then Kiwis overseas became heavily engaged with COVID-19 and, like some biologically-induced contemporary recreation of Dunkirk, made their way back home by any means possible; a rag-tag fleet of weary travellers who were asked to go directly home and stay there for 14 days. And now, the Blitz, with people hunkered down in their homes hoping that the dreaded virus won’t land in their house. Who are the few who the many will owe so much to? Certainly, the medical staff are in that group. However, a less obvious but very important special force is growing every day. They are the recovered and the immune. They are able to travel and work in safety now.

Communications in times like these must be simple, clear and consistent. They have certainly been simple but they are neither clear nor consistent. You only need to compare the Prime Minister’s version of exercise rules with outgoing Police Commissioner Bush’s passive-aggressive tones about “going for a little drive with you” or “you’ll be coming back to our place.” Director-General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield has done a sterling job of fronting the daily ‘body count’ but I become concerned when unelected officials speak in public as though they were in power – “If we need to, we will keep the measures in place until we see that drop off in cases.”

Kiwis deserve a definitive answer on the government’s exit strategy. Planning must be based on intelligence and the key to providing that involves COVID-19 test results. Without a massive ramping up of testing, no useful decisions can be made and there is little value for us in the PM and clinicians publicly contradicting each other as to whether there are enough test kits available. Where hope fades, fear fills the void and that triggers the fight or flight response in people. This government needs to get its eye on that ball rather than the current fixation with picking winners and losers in the essential services  and financial bail-out stakes.

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A Poke in the Fifth Eye by Simon Roberts. Book Cover. Available on Amazon Kindle
A Poke in the Fifth Eye by Simon Roberts. Book Cover. Available on Amazon Kindle