Corona: we knew she was coming but forgot about it

Microscopy image showing SARS-CoV-2. The spikes on the outer edge of the virus particles resemble a crown, giving the disease its characteristic name. (source: Wikipedia).

Jack Kruf*

The recent outbreak of Corona gives rise to some personal thoughts. Of course we face a crisis and are trying to limit the outbreak. But we seem to have entered in the middle of movie, in a for most people strange world, where aliens are trying to take over our precious planet.

Certain or uncertain?
Some say we are living in an uncertain, volatile, complex and unpredictable world and that the outbreak has to do with this. I think not along these lines of considering the world. The world anno 2020 in my view is not complexer than it was 10.000 years ago. Maybe it has to do with my Wageningen University background (forest ecology and social psychology), but anyway it is my conviction. The world order is the same, the complexity is the same as it ever was. The way it shows it to us though is different and more intense. The underlying patterns are the same. In every ecosystem there the laws of the jungle are ruling. It always was and it always will. The dynamics follow the same patterns, from that of the forest ecosystem to yes the world of viruses.

Did we know?
I think that we – well this is the factor, who is we? – knew what was coming. We studied epidemics extensively, reported it to the world, built and build scenario’s. It is an essential part of every ecosystem and in the very heard of resilience thinking. I believe we have enough scientific knowledge on the planet to justify the conclusion that an epidemic is not more complex, uncertain or unpredictable than other social matters we daily face. If we fail or forget to act, it leads to a crisis. So let me focus from my perspective on some lessons (already) learned.

Global Risks Report
PRIMO as the premier non-profit European Organisation for Public Risk Management has a diverse network among public leaders and managers across Europe. One of the things which stands out from the contacts and meetings, is the fact that most of them never heard, seem not to be familiar with, nor have knowledge of the World Economic Forum Global Risks Report (since 2005) – as a pars pro toto for many well organised and authorative reports. Most local leaders and managers bring forward or mention as main reason for this the simple fact that global is too far away from local. What we, PRIMO, discovered was that the main drafts and concepts of existing public risks derived from these global reports were not really connected with or reflected in regional and local policy plans. Some of them are, most of them are not.

From Global to Local
This has been the reason why PRIMO in 2014 took the initiative to organise a yearly think tank ‘From Global to Local’ in cooperation with the European Federation Local Authority Chief Executive Officers UDITE. This think tank organises a trans disciplinary debate how to concretise local management and governance based on the public risks derived from in depth interviews and respected analyses by world leaders, experts and scientists. Every year we pick one public risk, one challenge, and come with elaborated suggestions for local and regional governance. For 2020 we have chosen the interface between the handling of rest of medicine, the quality of drinking water, the risk for people and society, the chain of involved organisations and the related aspects of public governance. In 2019 we discussed financial resilience, in 2018 energy transition, in 2017 cyber security, to give you an idea.

Related to the epidemics like that of Corona, we take note of systemically reporting over the last 15 years. The conclusions of the Global Risks Report 2020, published in last January – were in fact very clear on this. Simply stated: we knew that we were highly vulnerable to pandemics, we knew we could expect one and we knew we were not ready. Please read:

Insights on handling coronavirus from an earlier report on business and outbreaks

We can also conclude that some of us saw it coming and knew the scenarios, it was not really accepted as a true public risk by the general public and by most public leaders – did we forget about it? Despite the many publications there was no hard, truly felt or obvious need to incorporate scenario’s within our strategies and policies and attach risk and resilience management to it. Now, most of the measures for handling the crisis and reducing the actual risks, all seem to be invented, discussed, debated during the last week and days. And thanks to a rich (social) media landscape we may know what is true and what is not. My plea is to listen to the (right) experts and to the people who are the first line of care and cure. Our learning curve is steep though, but preventing the outbreak could have been possible. This article in The New York Times points at the direction of leadership habits…

The decisions we make are diverse though and seem to highly differ per culture, country, public governance structure and let us be honest per type (and even character) of leadership. We seem to be improvising. This is partly caused by the fact that in the policy plans of the majority of local and regional governments this type of crisis was not really mentioned or imagined. It was and still is not predicted nor calculated on social and economic impact. In most of the existing risk analyses of regions and municipalities it cannot be found in the policy plans nor in the risk paragraphs, while global reports are widely spread, discussed and known.

Well, is this disconnection of global and local not surreal, even bizarre? Should globally known ex ante scenario’s not be better connected in the heart of local and regional public governance to prevent us from drifting on the wide ocean of ex post crisis management? I think yes. Here is a lesson to be learned. But to improve we need to look more careful, because interfaces always are between two players. Beck et al. (2013) carried out a national study in The Netherlands on the interface national knowledge institutes and regional/local government. It could possibly be extrapolated to global knowledge institutes. They concluded (page 38) that:

  • Almost all interviewees at provinces, municipalities and water boards claim that they follow the publications of national knowledge institutes, but that they always lack depth at regional level. Usually it lacks regional and provincial breakdowns in tables or maps, for example.
  • The interviewees also indicate that the ‘lens’ through which national knowledge institutes look is not sharp enough to analyse the specific mix of problems in their region. In addition, scientific knowledge is as such is too difficult to use for administrations, as it is often too specialised in nature and is not directly applicable in policy papers because the results have not been translated into relevant policy information.
  • The mismatch is caused by the fact that research – carried out by national knowledge institutes for the national policy cycle – is predominantly exploratory and signalling, with these institutes emphasising fundamental scientific national scale, while decentralised policy makers are particularly in need of regionally applicable policy research that fits policy practice.”

Now with the outbreak of the Corona-virus: are we faced with scenario’s that were known, thoroughly analysed, were considered as high risk, elaborated with scenario’s and in fact were expected? And yes, due to a combination of factors were not publicly accepted as major or key risk, ant therefor not translated towards and embedded in local an regional plans? I think we may conclude this. Quote of the Global Risks Report 2020:

“A recent first-of-its-kind comprehensive assessment of health security and related capabilities across 195 countries found fundamental weaknesses around the world: no country is fully prepared to handle an epidemic or pandemic (NIT, 2019). Meanwhile, our collective vulnerability to the societal and economic impacts of infectious disease crises appears to be increasing. (World Economic Forum, 2019)”

High Reliability
It is the view and strong conviction of PRIMO that every public leader – in charge of and responsible for the quality of decisions related to the public domain of citizens and society, which in fact they represent (chosen by the people, representing the people and working for the people) – should act as if he/she is part of a High Reliability Organisation (Weick and Sutcliffe, 2007). In this concept of thinking and acting the leaders of such organisations listen to them who have the expertise and act accordingly. One of the key factors is ‘Deference (submission, respect) to expertise’:

This includes deference downward to lower ranking members of the organization.  Expertise defers from the expert from its relational knowledge with greater emphasis on an assembly of knowledge, experience, learning, and intuition. Credibility, a necessary component of expertise, is the mutual recognition of skill levels and legitimacy.

Simply put: leaders should respect the experts and ground workers vice versa. Mutual respect is the crucial factor. Mutual. Sutcliffe and Weick concluded in highly reliable and therefor successful organisations that this principle emerges as the simple ground rule: if experts speak, leaders should listen and act accordingly based on their true insights and knowledge. Public leaders are alike. Here they meet though with the political dimension of their leadership. It should not be a conflicting factor in crisis management.  The term politics is what connects public leaders, what unites them, given the original meaning: the term has been derived from the Greek: πολιτικά, politiká, meaning “affairs of the cities”. It is this entity where at the end, all things meet. The American politician O’Neill (1994) stated: “All politics, after all, is local”. In times of pandemics also national leaders should take note of this principle. All decisions work out locally. Mayors and city managers should be involved in all the steps we take. I miss them to be frank in the last few weeks of acceleration of crisis management.

Holistic approach
Well, we are looking forward to good governance and to true public risk management by leaders, experts and scientists. I am hopeful we will manage this. The stakes are high. I personally believe in the renaissancial (is this a word?) power of humans. PRIMO will contribute were it can and is allowed to. It has a simple but well designed portfolio focused on sharing knowledge via media, think tanks, education, a public risk forum and an governance framework, FORTE™ to facilitate dialogue.

A plea from my perspective is that high quality reports like mentioned here – or alike – should be on the bedside table of every public leader. It is a free guidance to not only the bigger picture of relevant trends and developments, but also to the insights that these are directly connected to every local community, street, house and citizen. Knowledge improve the quality of decisions, always.

It is in fact the holistic approach I plea for. Every detail is connected with the bigger picture vice versa. Holism is not a vague concept in this regard, but a concept of true public value management by connecting the dots and true listening. As PRIMO we are fully committed to this concept, to help and support our members in dialogue and sharing the knowledge to do so, to find and to engineer good public governance.


  • Jeannette Beck, Lia van den Broek en Olav-Jan van Gerwen (2013) Kennismaken met decentrale overheden: Een verkennende studie naar de strategische kennisbehoefte van provincies, gemeenten en waterschappen in samenhang met de decentralisatie van het omgevingsbeleid. Den Haag, Planbureau voor de Leefomgeving.
  • O’Neill, Tip and Gary Hymel (1994) All Politics Is Local: And Other Rules of the Game. Canada: Bob Adams, Inc.
  • NTI (Nuclear Threat Initiative) (2019) Global Health Security Index: Inaugural Global Health Security Index Finds No Country Is Prepared for Epidemics or Pandemics. NTI. Press Release, 24 October 2019. Read more
  • Karl E. Weick and Kathleen M. Sutcliffe (2007). Managing the Unexpected: Resilient Performance in an Age of Uncertainty. Jossey-Bass.
  • World Economic Forum (2019) Outbreak Readiness and Business Impact Protecting Lives and Livelihoods across the Global Economy. White Paper, in collaboration with Harvard Global Health Institute.
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*Jack Kruf is President of PRIMO Europe. This article has been written on personal title.