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Ogmius Newsletter

Making Learning by Governments More Common – What Disaster
Research Tells Us About the U.S. COVID-19 Case

by Deserai Crow and Elizabeth Albright

Photo: RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post.

We study learning by governments that is catalyzed by disasters. Learning involves reflecting on the root causes of problems, examination of past policies and failures, rethinking goals and objectives, and changing policies moving forward. This disaster-induced learning can help governments improve their preparedness to future disasters or can make them more resilient when another one happens in the future. Right now, we are all living through a public health disaster that US government agencies were warned about months ago. Perhaps more importantly, they were warned about such a disaster years ago and had opportunities to learn from H1N1, Ebola, and SARS over the past 16 years.

In some ways, we have learned. Colorado, like other states, trains for pandemics like COVID-19. Nationally, we spend time, resources, and attention providing resources to state and local governments to help them prepare and plan for disasters like COVID-19 so that we can respond when a crisis comes.

In other ways, we’ve failed to learn. We have witnessed budget cuts to public health agencies and disease spread monitoring, waning of high-level federal policy attention to threats posed by pandemics (such as the elimination of the National Security Council’s pandemic team), and the inability of the Strategic National Stockpile to meet national needs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

So why have we failed to learn and act on some essential lessons, especially when so many lives are at risk? There are undoubtedly countless ways of answering this question. Our research helps shed some light on this. Among other cases, we studied the 2013 floods in Colorado, which caused billions of dollars in damage to Colorado communities, homes and businesses, and regional infrastructure. Based on our research, we argue that several factors make government learning and post-disaster policy action more likely.

First, resources available to a government after a disaster are critical to processes and outcomes of disaster recovery. These resources may include financial sources the government previously had through taxes and normal budgeting processes. They may also include external resources from other levels of government or other sources. Low capacity governments or those that face significant disaster damage may be more reliant on external resources for successful disaster recovery and their processes may be dictated by higher governmental authorities.

As the COVID-19 pandemic shows, resources are critical to government action. In the case of pandemics, essential resources include testing, medical supplies, protective equipment for front-line workers, and contact tracing for infected patients (among others). These are bolstered by government willingness and ability to issue stay-at-home orders or other social distancing rules to suppress the spread of the virus. If we don’t know the source, spread, and effects of the virus, we cannot adequately deploy resources or respond with policies. All of these require coordinated funding, technical expertise, and administrative capacity.

Second, intergovernmental dynamics and relationships across local, state and federal governmental authorities are important to consider and can either hamper or assist local- and state- governments in making needed changes in the wake of a disaster. These relationships can determine how well governments can leverage resources and networks from outside their own jurisdiction or agency to respond to disasters and plan for future ones.

COVID-19 illustrates this acutely. Due to ongoing feuds between the federal government and states, everything from ventilator access to isolation orders has become divisive. These relationships are critical during any disaster, but particularly one of this magnitude. As a result of these feuds, states that are the most impacted by COVID-19 are going at it almost alone, or in tandem with other state partners. This is possible only for the most well-resourced states like New York and California, but is a huge burden to them as well. States with fewer resources, such as Michigan and Louisiana, will likely not fare as well. Negative intergovernmental relationships hamper response and recovery at all levels of government, from municipalities to the entire nation.

Finally, internal community characteristics can influence the devastation that a disaster causes as well as disaster recovery outcomes. These include the size and demographic composition of a community, along with cleavages that exist within the community. Disasters frequently affect communities and individuals differentially, often over-burdening low income and communities of color most severely. Similar to the devastating floods in Colorado and elsewhere, families and individuals with limited access to resources, marginalized communities (such as undocumented workers), and those who have less autonomy in where they work are being most severely impacted by the pandemic.

The degree of trust that individuals place in one another, their governments, and the information they receive about disasters is critical. These factors can influence whether they believe a risk is worth focusing on, whether they believe it’s real, and whether they think they have a role to play in helping solve the problems.

Trust is key here. People must trust one another to do the right thing and help a collective effort during a pandemic. They must trust their government to do the right thing to respond to the pandemic and protect lives. They must also trust the information provided by their government in order to make good decisions about how to mitigate their own risks and how to contribute to collective risk-mitigation. However, when people don’t trust, there is a breakdown in action and effective responses.

All of these factors combine to influence the learning we observe within disaster-affected governments. Learning is key to making the change needed to ensure that we can prevent – or are at least prepared for – a disaster like COVID-19 and the economic collapse that we are witnessing. The Atlantic explored the possible paths for COVID-19 and the role that governments have in putting us on certain paths. The learning we discuss here is key to the various pathways we might observe in the coming months. While the US is behind-the-curve in pandemic crisis learning, more nimble governments like states are working hard to adapt and learn in real-time. We can hope that in the coming days and weeks they can make up for lost time – by leveraging creative resources, developing and improving relationships, and by working to cultivate trust (with residents as well as other governments) and account for differential COVID-19 impacts across demographic groups – and put us on a more positive COVID-19 pathway.

Visit the research team’s website at www.learningfromdisasters.org for a full report and publications.

Drs. Crow and Albright’s book Community Disaster Recovery: Moving from Vulnerability to Resilience is due out next year with Cambridge University Press. Their flood recovery research was funded by the National Science Foundation.

Deserai CrowDeserai Crow
CSTPR Faculty Affiliate
Associate Professor, School of Public Affairs, University of Colorado Denver
Elizabeth AlbrightElizabeth Albright
Assistant Professor of the Practice, Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University