The Corona Virus: a creeping crisis?

The emergence of SARS-CoV-2, and the resulting COVID-19 pandemic, currently grips the world. Having emerged over time, owing to a complex array of factors and most recently via an animal market in Wuhan, China, the virus has spread rapidly. Is the outbreak a ‘creeping crisis’, with all that entails for effective crisis management? The following editorial by Arjen Boin, Magnus Ekengren and Mark Rhinard explores those questions.

The Corona Virus: The challenges of managing a ‘creeping crisis’

As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads, tough questions are being asked by an anxious public. There are no easy answers, and to suggest otherwise is foolish. Uncertainties abound. Only with hindsight will we be able to say what worked best. What we can do here, however, is use the insights of our ‘creeping crisis’ research agenda to help characterize the current crisis and show how these particular dynamics present a number of response challenges.

The COVID-19 pandemic shares some key features with what we call a creeping crisis. Its recent origins, while traceable to an animal market in Wuhan, China, span even further back in time and space. The virus that causes the current pandemic, SARS-CoV-2, is one of many in the corona family. The viruses behind SARS (2003) and MERS (2012) are also corona viruses, which were first present in animals owing to a complicated combination of biological and environmental factors. Those same factors helped some, but not all, corona viruses mutate in a way so that they could make the jump from animals to human.

Exactly that appears to have taken place in the ‘wet market’ selling live and butchered animals in Wuhan Province, facilitated by social customs and economic exchange. From there, human-to-human contact spread the SARS-CoV-2 virus, riding the rails of modern infrastructures to ensure multiple outbreaks – but at different times and in different locations. This ‘creeping’ dynamic led to varying degrees of public attention: in the early days, with the epicenter of the outbreak in China, other governments looked on with a combination of fascination and fear, taking no action until new information emerged. Some clarity came with the arrival of COVID-19 in Italy, Iran and South Korea. As the pace of infections quickened, and death tolls mounted across the world, governments scrambled to take action under the glare of intense media scrutiny. Yet uncertainty persists, and today’s government actions represent educated guesses on how best to contain the virus.

The creeping nature of the current outbreak highlights the difficulty of managing such a crisis. Looking back to the early phase of this crisis, we can identify three challenges that national governments and the EU have wrestled with. Taking each in order, these challenges conform to those traditionally associated with crisis management: detecting a crisis, making sense of a crisis, and taking response decisions (amongst other challenges; see Boin et al. 2016).

National governments

Calling a crisis. It is one thing to monitor a developing threat in a far-away place (as many governments have done). It is not that this creeping crisis went unnoticed. The real challenge everywhere was found in the official classification of this creeping crisis as an imminent or actual crisis.

Making sense of a creeping crisis. It would seem most efficient to study how a creeping crisis emerges in another country or another domain, so its dynamics and consequences are fully understood when the crisis has reached the home domain. That, however, has proven exceptionally challenging. China’s response was understudied because it is not a democracy. Italy’s plight was observed with concern, but no teams of analysts rushed there to study the response. Paradoxically, this does not stop politicians from copying those responses with a sudden sense of urgency, without realizing that every country is different in terms of its demographics, social habits, and health infrastructure.

Making early decisions. It has been widely noted that most governments were slow in reacting to the onset of this creeping crisis. But it is a very difficult to make big decisions with huge economic consequences in the early phase of a crisis (when it is still ‘creeping’). When there is no crisis, at least not in the public mind, it is nigh impossible to impose harsh measures. Politicians who would dare to do so in a democracy easily stand accused of exploiting if not manufacturing a crisis.

European Union

What about the supranational level? Questions are being asked of the EU, including whether it acted fast enough and on the right issues. The three questions above apply to European level governance, too.

Declaring a crisis for the EU. We have seen in other EU crises, such as the migration surge in 2015, that national governments do not pay sufficient attention to other member states’ and EU institutions’ reports on evolving threats and on-going crises (e.g. the warnings of Greece and Italy of the evolving refugee crisis, long before 2015). This appears to have been the case also with COVID-19, despite the years of work being done to coordinate cross-border public health efforts. The 2013 Cross-Border Health Threats Decision increased coordination and improved risk assessment, the latter of which takes place partly through the Early Warning and Response System (EWRS). While health officials utilize the EWRS, their political masters seem less informed. More concrete help arrived from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), which provides its own daily briefing to national authorities. Add World Health Organization (WHO) information, and now Commission President Von der Leyen’s pandemic team in the mix, and information overload may have contributed to the challenge of declaring a crisis for the EU.

Making decisions about borders. While the Schengen zone rules have provisions for shutting borders, the speed at which countries closed borders took EU authorities by surprise. To stop the domino effect of border closure (and thus keep the internal market functioning when it needs to function), the European Commission has taken two steps. It mandated ‘green lanes’ for essential transport (vital medicines and equipment) to continue moving across borders. It uses its Copernicus system to identify the longest back-ups in Europe, and thus areas requiring attention. It also enacted a tightening of external borders to the EU, with the hope of alleviating member state concerns and lifting internal border closures. This was a similar trend – and similar Commission response – during the migration crisis, when a cascade of border closures caused havoc across Europe. The challenge here is the trade-off in needing to respond to member state worries while emphasizing the fundamental importance of the internal market.

Making decisions about resources. Another crisis challenge facing the EU concerns the sharing of critical resources. The Italian request for face-masks via the EU’s civil protection sharing mechanisms was initially met by silence from fellow member states. Several member states implemented export controls on health equipment. That problem has since been repaired, with the Germans set to relax their export controls after a period of reflection on the long-term merit of a ‘save yourself first’ strategy — and a threat of court action by the Commission.

As we write this, more countries are engaged in the civil protection mechanism, coordinated by the Commission’s Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC). The Council President, Charles Michel, has encouraged an expansion of the EU capacity building initiative – RescEU – to create a stockpile of health crisis response equipment (alongside other supplies). Crucially, those stockpiles would be rationed by the Commission, rather than having to rely on member states to voluntarily share. Beyond these operational measures, however, the question of effective, coordinated decision making in Europe is still open. Health ministers talk daily, although the results of those meeting are difficult to decipher. The point here is that European decision making takes place in many different areas and at different bureaucratic and political levels. Crises place a premium on the ability of those levels to work together.

Lessons Learned?

None of the challenges mentioned above are new, nor are they unfamiliar to those studying creeping crises. Indeed, Europe has seen these situations before. Forest fires, migration surges, and the ash cloud crisis presented similar dynamics. These crises led to a ‘nation first’ reflex across the continent — which may be understandable but risks damage to the European project in the long-run.

A more positive pattern is that member states seem to be gradually learning from a succession of creeping crises. Before the forest fires of 2018, member states resisted sharing common EU resources through the civil protection mechanism. Resistance weakened when the potential costs became clear. Both the migration surge and the ash cloud crisis revealed how initial, uncoordinated responses were counter-productive. Either the problem grew (in the case of the ash cloud) or self-interested instincts led to destructive, ‘beggar thy neighbor’ politics (in the case of migration). After those crises, there is discussion, if not yet total agreement, on the need to set common rules and response mechanisms to avoid future problems. We can be sure, however, that the dynamics of creeping crisis will continue to raise challenges and reveal tensions. Our research will continue to delve into those most essential challenges – with the hopes of alleviating some – and the toughest tensions – with the hope of offering solutions.

Further reading:

Boin, A., ’t Hart, P., Stern, E., & Sundelius, B. (2016). The Politics of Crisis Management. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Boin, A., Ekengren, M., & Rhinard, M. (2013). The European Union as Crisis Manager: Patterns and Prospects. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.