A Pandemic of Ignorance and Obfuscation: Why We Repeatedly Fail to Heed the Serious Warning Signs of Major Crises

By Ian I Mitroff and John Radke
Center for Catastrophic Risk Management, UC Berkeley

A front-page article in the Monday, March 30, 2020 edition of The New York Times is nothing less than devastating : The “Fail-Safe System that the Chinese set up to warn them of major pandemics failed miserably because it was blocked by local Party Officials .”[i] Chinese doctors in Wuhan who saw the first signs of the Coronavirus were prevented by local government officials from passing critical information on to Beijing because they feared that top officials didn’t want to “hear bad news.”  Thus, in order to save their jobs, they not only failed to protect their own country, but the entire world. There’s no better example of the messengers of bad news shooting themselves!

We are no less guilty of not wanting to hear bad news. As early as 2017, Dr. Anthony Fauci was warning of the serious possibility of a major Pandemic and thus of the need to make substantial preparations to weather the worst. Indeed, Infectious Disease Experts have in fact sounded similar alarms for years. Even though they were brought repeatedly to the attention of President Trump, he deliberately ignored the warnings time and again. After all, in his “tremendous mind,” the Virus was nothing more serious than the flu. And, wasn’t the stock market more important, certainly to his reelection? The delays in responding put us in the dire position of reacting to the crisis, virtually making it virtually impossible to get out in front and take control.

If the Early Warning Signals that precede all crises are picked up and acted upon in a timely manner, then many crises can be prevented before they happen, the best possible form of Crisis Management. Unfortunately, more often than not, the Signals are blocked because people don’t want to hear bad news, let alone take action. The crucial point is that to pick up on the impending signals of a crisis, one has to acknowledge the serious possibility of it in the first place.

Since its founding in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, as members of the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management at the University of California Berkeley, we have sat through scores of presentations by representatives of virtually every industry, organization, academic disciplines, and professions. As a general rule, they are prepared for a very limited, narrow set of crises. For example, since they experience major fires and explosions all the time, one does not have to prod the members of the Oil and Gas Industry to prepare for them. But the same is generally not the case when it comes to other types of crises.

Mitroff recalls vividly the time he was working with a major Oil Company and was doing his best to get them to prepare for a broad array of crises. When it came to the category of Product Tampering, they  automatically excluded it as a major possibility because in their words, “We’re not in the business of manufacturing or selling consumer goods and products.”  When Mitroff pointed out that the mini-marts which carried food and a host of other items were a prominent part of their gas stations, then and only then did the proverbial light go on. They were not only subject to Product Tampering, but to all of the known and unknown types of crises.

As one of the principal founders of the modern field of Crisis Management, Mitroff and his colleagues have been studying and consulting with major organizations for nearly 40 years regarding their crisis plans and preparations.

And as one of the longtime analysts in Geographic Information Science, Radke has pioneered its use in modeling major wild fires and flood events throughout the state of California and elsewhere. GIS is a critical tool in determining the location and spread of wild fires and therefore how best to mitigate and deploy resources when they occur.

As a result of our work, we’ve been able to see what the best, Proactive, Crisis Prepared Organizations do before, during, and after major crises. In brief, they embrace five core principles:

  1. Everything is connected to everything so think and act systemically. 2. The crises that one believes are the most unlikely to occur are precisely those that need special attention.
  2. Without becoming mired in hopelessness and despair, constantly think and prepare for the worst.
  3. Reward, and most of all, do not punish the bearers of bad news.
  4. Every crisis is a special opportunity to learn what to do better in advance of the next ones that are guaranteed to occur.

First and foremost, no single crisis ever occurs in isolation. Every crisis is connected to a multitude of others in a myriad of ways. Unless one is prepared for multiple crises, every crisis sets off an uncontrolled chain reaction of even worst ones.

The Coronavirus is one of the most dreadful illustrations of the principle. Primarily, the Virus is of course an unruly Global Pandemic. At the same, it’s not only spawned a major Financial, but a serious Credibility Crisis. With his constant falsehoods, outright lies, and ill-advised actions in cutting back the budgets of the nation’s chief Public Health Agencies, the President bears major blame for the crisis spiraling out of control. Both the President and the government’s actions and inactions have seriously hampered our ability to be prepared and respond appropriately. Refusing to accept help from the World Health Organization only increased our inability to test hundreds of thousands who were potentially infected, thus furthering the spread of the virus. By not taking quick and decisive action—indeed once again, punishing those who sounded the first signals of the deadly virus–the credibility of China has been seriously damaged as well. Trust in Governments worldwide, which is always precarious, has plummeted. It’s been further weakened by Social Isolation and the closing down of virtually all public spaces, further exacerbating the Economic Crisis.

To the best of our knowledge, no one simulated and thus warned of the multiple intersecting crises that are the essence of the Virus.

While not perfect, the best organizations actively prepare for a whole slate of crises such as Product Defects as in the case of flawed face masks. We’ve already mentioned major Financial and PR, or Credibility, Crises. Since it is humans, not Nature, who make the critical decisions where to build houses and other structures to what standards and codes, Natural Disasters are better thought of as Natural Hazards. In other words, they become Disasters due to the actions and/or inactions of humans. In this regard, the homeless are especially vulnerable as well as older people with preexisting conditions. Technology plays a major role, especially with regard to the potential spread of Dis and Misinformation, leading back again to who and what one can Trust. These do not exhaust the full range of possible types, but they are sufficient to illustrate the main point that it is never enough to plan for one and only one type of crisis.

The end result is that Worst-Case Scenarios are the very foundation of Crisis Prepared Organizations. To reiterate, Public Health Officials have known for years that we were due for a Major Pandemic. Where, when, and how, and what form it would take, were of course problematic, but it’s occurrence was considered to be just a matter of time.

We know of two organizations that show unequivocally that it is possible to make thinking about the worst an integral part of their everyday operations. One uses in-house Internal Assassin Teams to attack and thereby find weaknesses in their products and manufacturing processes. The other uses a Chaos Team to do the same. In each case, they assume that they are in a perfect position to attack their products and processes because “they know more than anyone else about them.” In short, they are supremely Proactive.

In sum, Crisis Preparedness does not happen by itself. It has to be part of a deliberate organizational strategy to Think the Unthinkable and to do everything in one’s power to thwart it before it happens.

If any good comes out of this terrible tragedy, we hope fervently that it will be a renewed understanding of the extreme importance of Proactive Crisis Management. No organization or society can prosper, let alone survive, without it.

This essay is adapted in part from Techlash: The Future of the Socially Responsible Tech Organization, Springer, New York, 2020.

[i] Steven Lee Myers, “China Had a Fail-Safe Way to Track Contagions. Officials Failed to Use It,” The New York Times, Monday, Mrch 30, 2020, p. A1, A10-11.


About imitroff

Dr. Ian Mitroff is Professor Emeritus at the Marshall School of Business and the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He is the president and founder of Mitroff Crisis Management, a private consulting firm based in Oakland, California, that specializes in the treatment of human-caused crises. He is a Senior Affiliate with the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management at the University of California, Berkeley.
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