The pandemic goes endemic: A ‘looping’ crisis is changing thinking in crisis management

Julia Graham and Hoe-Yeong Loke are, respectively, CEO and Research Manager at Airmic. They make the case for risk professionals and their organisations to learn and embed lessons in order to steer through the ‘looping’ nature of the Covid-19 pandemic.

A guide recently released by Airmic, the UK’s association for risk and insurance managers, in collaboration with the global consulting firm Control Risks, revisits the issues surrounding pandemic crisis management that were last discussed by the two organisations in an earlier joint publication in 2020. Based on a survey of Airmic members conducted in November 2021, the present report makes the case for risk professionals and their organisations to learn the lessons, boost preparedness and build resilience in order to steer through the ‘looping nature’ of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The ‘looping crisis’

It has been two years since we first heard about Covid-19. England has fully returned to Plan A and societies are now learning to live with Covid-19. The pandemic is becoming endemic. Yet, the ongoing wave of the Omicron variant has revealed how different the national responses have been and how fragile societies still are.

There has been no simple crisis-management solution for the pandemic. It has been expected that the pandemic – as a crisis – would likely continue in the longer term and then become part of ‘normality’. Long-term planning is critical here, yet the initial responses to the pandemic were largely focused on the near term. It is more difficult to look long term when the crisis timeline loops back because of subsequent waves of the pandemic. With the latest Omicron wave, the looping nature of the pandemic crisis has continued to play out as feared.

Learning the lessons

As noted in the report Learning that can save lives, commissioned by the National Preparedness Commission: ‘The adoption and application of a process for identifying and acting on ‘lessons learnt’ from adverse events to inform future planning is a key characteristic of any preparedness system.’

In our survey, 40% of risk professionals say their organisations are now using formal crisis debrief and ‘lessons learnt’ sessions to inform their strategy going forward. People issues have emerged at the top of their list of lessons learnt, especially in relation to changes in workforce flexibility, such as working from home arrangements, supported by greater access to and use of digital tools. The lessons that organisations have learnt from the pandemic are leading them to restructure in order to make their businesses more efficient, as well as helping them find their competitive advantage by differentiating themselves from their competitors.

Boosting preparedness

Having identified the lessons to be learnt, organisations need to think about any previous lack of preparedness and to change things going forward so that they are better prepared for the next wave of the pandemic or the next major crisis. As an organisation looks forward, it is valuable to gain the perspective of those actively managing the crisis as well as those managing the everyday business who are often faced with secondary effects of the crisis.

These discussions should be used to identify potential emerging risks as the crisis continues to unfold and slow down. Identifying the risks now, ahead of them materialising, puts the company in a good position to avoid them or at least minimise their impact.

The risk landscape and lessons from the pandemic are driving organisations to focus on emerging risks and horizon scanning. Good practice horizon scanning is separate from business-as-usual enterprise risk management due to the uncertainty and time horizons involved. Importantly, the process of horizon scanning is focused on assessing the velocity, impacts and likelihood of major trends.

A key output of horizon scanning is a shortlist of risk scenarios captured in an emerging risk register which is used to stress test the business planning cycle and development of future strategy. Crisis and risk professionals have an opportunity to use their wealth of experience to shape and challenge the outcomes of this process.

Building resilience

Resilience is the ability of an organisation to absorb and adapt in a changing environment. A workforce that has a culture of risk identification, scenario modelling and mitigation, as well as a system and culture encouraging them to ‘speak up’, is much better placed to respond to the fluidity of crises and to embrace innovation and the potential upsides of uncertainty. Therefore, in building resilience in the midst of the pandemic, organisations must be cognisant of the wider landscape of volatility and disruption, and build organisational resilience accordingly.

Beyond Covid-19

Critical as they are, vaccinations will unfortunately not be the end-all to halting the pandemic. There will be ever newer variants of Covid-19 or even new pandemics and diseases. We should not underestimate the linkages between diseases and the human impact on the environment. As increasingly dense human populations continue to encroach on other animal habitats, scientists fear that the risk of zoonotic diseases – deadly viruses being transmitted between species – will grow. Deforestation itself has been directly linked to 31% of outbreaks, including the Ebola, and the Zika and Nipah viruses.

All this accentuates the need for risk professionals to look beyond the present Covid-19 crisis. Because of the growing interconnectivity of risks in the Covid age –with supply-chain woes in the UK being a prime example – organisations need to make better use of horizon-scanning tools and techniques. They need to be more attuned to the emerging risks around them and also improve crisis leadership, focusing on developing people resilience and sourcing better quality risk intelligence to guide decision-making.