Disasters Aren't Political, It's Emergency Management That Is

As we pass 1 million U.S. COVID deaths, I can’t help but reflect on the common adage that ‘all disasters are political’.

Because, I don’t believe it to be an accurate statement. Rather, it’s the emergency management function, and thus the pre- and post-disaster treatment of those disasters, that is political.

The distinction may rub some emergency managers the wrong way because so few of us consider ourselves politically motivated.

But perhaps then we’ve taken too narrow a view of what politics are (notwithstanding the increasingly negative connotations with the term). But politics, in general, is defined to be ‘the act of governing.’

And like other aspects of governance, we can’t forget that emergency management decisions have winners and losers, as well as support and opposition.

All aspects of emergency management impact the community in both positive and negative ways, from mitigation through recovery.

Community resilience is the common objective shared by all emergency managers; this is not in question. We are often frustrated, however, by how differently individuals characterize the resilience concept. And that’s because people, whether as individuals or societies, differ in terms of what they value, and thus what they seek to protect.

Public opinion is the aggregate of individual values, and the protection of such values is inherently political.

In fact, so political is the management of disasters, that even recounting past events can be divisive.

Anecdotally, I offer my own experience in drafting textbooks. Despite taking painstaking efforts to remain objective, and factually recount our profession’s history, I occasionally receive reviews like these:

  • “Good information, but the authors [sic] political bias is unfortunately front and center in the analysis provided”

  • “I found the authors’ political spin […] a little distracting”

This still makes me chuckle:

“I would expect to find this book in the Political Science section of bookstores”

With COVID, our profession has seen the line between our work and the political process all but disappear. As with past events, facts and statistics are relevant as far as they align with collective norms and values. Where they don’t, emergency managers must adapt their strategies.

In 2020, as COVID transmission began rising, I wrote a piece titled “An Unlikely Defense of the Mask Mandate” (https://bit.ly/3l9tWtx).

At the time, testing was ineffective, schools were still virtual, a vaccine remained out of reach, and public anxiety was high. And much like today, we lacked a centralized public health approach to pandemic management.

Focusing on public safety, I suggested a national mask mandate. And I did so not because COVID is so deadly, but rather because it isn’t. I predicted the following as a basis for my advice:

“It matters little that COVID has a .04% fatality rate. If the epidemiological and public health communities are correct, that 60-70% of us will get this disease without a mask mandate, that means 250,000,000 infections. That .04 percent fatality rate suddenly translates to over one million lives lost.”

But emergency management is political. It matters little that I’m a systems engineer, or that my affiliation with scientific institutes gives me extensive access to data. It matters little that I based my analysis in standard risk reduction and life safety principles. Every solution, every recommendation, is part of a larger political process.

So as we reach the '1 million lost lives at 70% infected' milestone this week, I take no solace in the accuracy of my prediction. I do suggest, however, that emergency managers consider how greater adherence to Values-Based Emergency Management (#VBEM) can help them avoid a Cassandra’s fate.

Emergency management is, at its core, a values-based profession, with success therefore hinging on the practitioner’s understanding of constituents’ needs and wants.

Prominent political scientist David Easton called politics ‘the authoritative allocation of values for a society’.

Logic tells us individuals will value life above all else, but politics suggest otherwise.

And failure to understand such valuations will confound even seasoned emergency managers.

Today, we understand how masks challenge values for many people (as do vaccines).

I believe all emergency managers wish more than anything to follow the normative pathway. But only where norms mirror values will constituents find such efforts acceptable.

And it is politics that drives that balance.

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