Disaster prevention instead of crisis management

Christine Prokopf © privat

Christine Prokopf © privat

Could preparations have been made in 2012 for a possible pandemic? One thing is certain, at any rate: in a risk analysis which the German government commissioned a full eight years ago, the Federal Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance (Bundesamt für Bevölkerungsschutz und Katastrophenhilfe, BBK) outlined quite clearly the danger of a global epidemic and its consequences for Germany. In reply to a query from wissen leben editorial staff, the BBK said that particularly in the health service the risk analysis was “not taken note of to any adequate extent”. The result, added the BKK, was a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) and insufficient laboratory capacities in the current corona crisis.

For political scientist Dr. Christine Prokopf, this is not particularly surprising. In her doctoral thesis, completed at the Institute of Political Science at the University of Münster, she investigated how politics in Germany deals with crises and catastrophes. The conclusion she reached is that there has not been any change in attitudes so far - no switch to preventing, mitigating and reducing risks of disasters in advance. “Instead,” she says, “for years now, politicians have followed the principle of just managing disasters. For the most part, they prepare for a specific disaster to happen, and then only respond to it when it comes.”

In interviews with personnel from ministries and other authorities, the experts there named several reasons for the lack of any change in strategy. Two of the most important reasons were the lack of any public discourse on risks, and the fact that the federal system in Germany made it difficult to implement a common approach. “However, observing outbreaks of pathogens in order to nip any spread in the bud would certainly be the best defence strategy,” says Prof. Stephan Ludwig, Head of the Institute of Molecular Virology at Münster University. Disaster prevention constantly has to compete with other political activities, says Christine Prokopf. “If the state starts spending out money, any measures whose necessity is by no means certain are not popular,” she adds. This is something which institutions such as the BKK in particular notice. “What we, as protectors of the population, call for always clashes with economic priorities in the health system,” criticizes its president, Christoph Unger, in an interview with the Bonn newspaper “General-Anzeiger”.

As a result of the corona crisis, however, something does seem to be changing. Firstly, the government in Berlin is increasing investment in PPE. And secondly, a public debate on preparing for any future pandemics is in full swing. Restricting social contacts in order to reduce risks also shows that disaster prevention - here in the form of disaster risk reduction - is indeed possible in Germany, explains Christine Prokopf. “It was only put into practice, though, when the hazards were upon us, without any public or political debates happening first - as would normally be appropriate in a democracy.” And anyway, disaster prevention should not only be concerned with future pandemics. As says Stephan Ludwig: “Although it is certain that we can expect further outbreaks of this kind in future, the interval between pandemics - sometimes up to several decades - is very long”.

The lesson to be learned from the crisis is, therefore, in Christine Prokopf’s view, a different one. “It would make sense to compare various types of risk in order to be able to then decide on how we, as a society, are going to prepare for which risk.” Such an approach would help in looking for measures which prevent or reduce various risks.

Dr. Benni Thiebes, Managing Director of the German Catastrophe Planning Committee (Deutsches Komitee Katastrophenvorsorge) also advocates this change of strategy. “Although the corona crisis will be keeping us occupied for a while yet, we shouldn’t forget that other crises can happen at any time. So we would be well advised to concern ourselves today with scenarios that might be here tomorrow,” he says. No one yet knows, however, what long-term conclusions politicians will draw from the corona pandemic. At any rate, says Christoph Unger, overarching collaboration in both disaster prevention and disaster management will become increasingly important.

Christine Prokopf remains sceptical. “Research has already shown that in many cases we don’t learn the lessons from disasters - and anyway, any resulting risk-awareness doesn’t usually last long. But I’d be happy to be proved wrong.”

Background interview:

In the following interview, Dr. Christine Prokopf takes a closer look on how politics in Germany deals with disasters and looked at whether there has been any change in the approach, from managing a catastrophe, once it is there, to reducing the risks of it, preventing and mitigating it in advance. Prokopf’s thesis has given rise to a book - “Handeln vor der Katastrophe als politische Herausforderung” (“Acting before disaster strikes: Risk governance as means of disaster prevention”), published just recently by Nomos.

The current crisis is, without doubt, a special one because it affects all sections of society. Having said that, though, there have been other big crises over the past few years - for example, the floods in central Europe in 2013. Has there been any change in the approach taken by politicians in Germany to possible catastrophes?

There hasn’t been any change from disaster preparedness and management to disaster prevention yet. For the most part, politics in Germany prepares for a certain disaster to happen, and then only responds to it when it comes. It would be better to think about future hazards before they happen, in order to be able to influence them in the sense of preventing them, mitigating their effects or - and this would be the approach to take in the case of the corona virus - reducing the concomitant risks.

From your observations, would you say that there is absolutely no disaster prevention in Germany?

No, it certainly exists. In real life, you will find that many authorities have different objectives which are all pursued at the same time. What doesn’t exist is a method of so-called risk governance, in which different risks are compared and various social perspectives are incorporated into the discussions assessing these risks, before appropriate action for prevention, mitigation and risk reduction is then taken. This, however, is an approach which other researchers have noticed particularly in Anglo-American countries.

Why is disaster prevention such a big challenge for politicians in Germany?

Investing in prevention is difficult in general because it’s not possible to come up with exact figures to judge whether it’s worth it. This applies in particular to those events which have a low likelihood of occurring but a high potential for damage if they do. Applying this to the current situation: if we want to have reserves of certain medical capacities for an emergency, we have to be ready to invest in them - even at the risk of not actually ever needing them.

In interviews with specialists working at ministries and at other authorities, you asked them why there wasn’t more disaster prevention in the form of risk governance. How did they reply to that?

One of the reasons they gave was that there is no public discourse on risks. But in the current situation with corona we can see that there is indeed a public debate. For me, that’s good news. The experts also reported that politicians shy away from talking to the general public about risks. Disasters generally have a lower priority for people than their everyday cares do. In politics, disaster prevention has to compete with other political activities. If the state starts spending money, the ‘logic of re-election’ dictates that any prevention measures whose necessity is by no means certain are not popular - especially when there is no public discourse on civil security which might support such measures.

How can your findings be applied to the corona crisis?

It is true that here in Germany we are experiencing a crisis, but there has been no medical disaster so far such as Italy has had it, for example. To achieve this, tough measures were announced to reduce risks, such as restrictions on social contacts - i.e. risk reduction that contributes to disaster prevention. This shows that disaster risk reduction is indeed possible. In this particular case, though, it was only put into practice when the hazards were upon us, without any public or political debates happening first - as would normally be appropriate in a democracy. An public discourse taking place before disaster strikes on ways of dealing with unknown future hazards could also have led to a heightened risk-awareness in society. The result of that would at least have been a lower level of inadequate reactions such as panic-buying in shops.

So how, ideally, could politics have prepared for the corona crisis at an earlier stage?

Preventing and mitigation a pandemic is difficult, but it would have been a great help if we had been better prepared for this pandemic - for example, if local authorities all over the country had drawn up plans for it. With regard to prevention, it would for example have been possible to reduce the risk created by the virus by having reserves of certain capacities in the health system. But such measures only concern reducing risks for a possible pandemic. In my view, it would make sense to compare various types of risk in order to be able to then decide on which means we are going to use, as a society, to prevent, mitigate or reduce which risks and for which other risks we decide to just prepare for them to happen. Another question would be how we define the relationship between different goods that need to be protected - for example, saving human lives or keeping economic activity going - and how we decide when protecting one is only possible at the expense of the other. We might therefore need to set limits of protection. Such an approach would also enable us to look for general measures which prevent or reduce various risks.

Triggered by this corona crisis, could there now be a shift in Germany towards more disaster prevention?

The potential is there, because the corona pandemic - in contrast to many other types of disasters - is affecting the whole of Germany. The experts I interviewed saw this as a precondition for any possible change of strategy. In my view, however, before any disaster prevention can be undertaken there should first be a broad public debate on how it should be done. I have examined a method - risk governance - which would be suitable for this, but it’s not the only one. We could just as well focus on resilience - i.e. a general strengthening of social structures for any crises - and thereby concentrate not on the disaster as such, but on social relationships and networks, as well as on the adaptability of society and its institutions. But I remain sceptical, as research has already shown in many cases that lessons are seldom learned from disasters and that any resulting risk-awareness doesn’t last long. But I’d be happy to be proved wrong.

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