Community Resilience Contributors Emergency Management Health & Safety

We must convene the whole community to fight COVID-19

People think that government has some innate ability to respond to disasters. Nothing could be further from the truth. Governments are slow-moving creatures of habit, ill-suited to the demands of catastrophes.

Nine out of ten Americans think that their government should take the lead role in disaster response.[1]  The most important lesson I have learned in two decades of responding to disasters in New York City is that taking the lead means “owning” the crisis.  This is critical because, in the disaster zone, ownership is everything. When everybody else runs away from the chaos, government must run at it. It is ultimately responsible for it and accountable for what gets done and doesn’t get done. That is the end of the story. Except when it isn’t.

“I think it caught everyone off guard the degree to which the federal government and president were not taking ownership of the pandemic”[2]

In my book, Moment of Truth[3], I argue that, contrary to popular myth, there is no national disaster system in the United States. The reason for this unhappy state of affairs is that nobody wants to be responsible for saving us from devastating catastrophes. We, the nation and the world, have seen the consequences of this critical preparedness gap play out over the past ten months of the coronavirus crisis. 

In its early days, we watched as the Federal Emergency Management Agency worked to distance itself from it. Agency officials testified before Congress that they didn’t know what anybody else was doing before it took over the country’s fractured efforts on March 18th. Since that time, the President has worked hard to shield himself from ownership [4] by repeatedly asserting that his federal bureaucracy is doing a good job.

This failure to own is the core of our national disgrace. Because the White House didn’t own it, we didn’t activate in time and we haven’t executed effectively. Thankfully, all of this looks likely to change.

Now comes the tricky part.  President-elect Biden has named a task force of public health and science experts to develop a blueprint for fighting the coronavirus. This is a good start, but we have seen this movie before, and we know that these kind of high-level committees are not nearly enough. The president will need dozens, if not hundreds, of task forces to confront the massive challenges we face.

These should be diverse teams of subject matter experts, practitioners and citizens working locally and regionally on a multitude of issues, from drive-through testing sites to culturally competent contact tracing to delivering vaccine to the racial and ethnic minorities who have been disproportionately affected by this disease. The reality is that states and locals have been doing this since the early days of the crisis and many, if not most, of these task forces already exist. Now we need the federal government to take it from the top with a coordinated effort that spans the nation.

Owning the response starts with connecting together a national team of teams. This new organization has several names.  Emergency managers call it the “incident organization” but, after leading them during dozens of disasters from blizzards to blackouts to H1N1, I call it the “Great Machine”.  Centered on our Emergency Operations Centers, the Great Machine is founded on the concept of transparency.  It brings teams working in separate silos together around the same mission, to work collaboratively and to innovate. Through this team of teams the President can work across states and communities to reach down into our homes and our businesses to get things done.

The Great Machine is an ownership structure for the response.  It assures us that someone is in charge by telling everybody what is going on: from the nurse on the patient floor to the senior who feels trapped in their own home. The Great Machine creates trust—trust in the plan and confidence that we will not fail. It doesn’t wait; it anticipates. It creates a collective dynamic that empowers teams to run at, not away from, problems.

People think that government has some innate ability to respond to disasters. Nothing could be further from the truth. Governments are slow-moving creatures of habit, ill-suited to the demands of catastrophes. The Great Machine is the secret sauce, an instant bureaucracy that supercharges the government-led response.

Within every crisis are the seeds of opportunity. We have the system, the technology and the teams. We just need the collective will to bring it together. And this structure, this Great Machine, that we must create in the midst of the crisis, will long endure so that we may confront the even greater challenges that lie ahead.

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[1] Carroll Doherty, Jocelyn Kiley and Olivia O’Hea, “Government Gets Lower Ratings for Handling Health Care, Environment, Disaster Response, Low Trust in Federal Government Among Members of Both Parties,” Pew Research Center, 14 December 2017,


[3] McKinney, Kelly. Moment of Truth: the Nature of Catastrophes and How to Prepare for Them. Savio Republic, 2018


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