Security Studies Researchers Discuss Emergency Response During Pandemic
May 13, 2020
SHSU Media Contact: Veronica Hoff
Two Security Studies researchers at Sam Houston State University’s College of Criminal Justice are weighing in on the nature of emergency management and social responses in light of a global pandemic.
Natalie Baker, assistant professor, focuses on disaster studies and social construction of and in response to threats. Baker recently concentrated her research on media and public response to the 2014 Ebola crisis in the U.S. and discussed similarities and differences she has seen so far with the current COVID-19 pandemic.
“H1N1 and Ebola were a foreshadowing in a lot of ways in what we see happening now, but this is a much more extreme version and response,” Baker said. “The public dispositions with Ebola are different but similar, because you see it split along political divisions which isn't surprising. It was a different political climate in 2014.”
Magdalena Denham, clinical professor, focuses her research on homeland security and emergency management. She explains that there are traditional expectations that come with disaster events, such as hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, earthquakes and so forth. These events allow emergency management officials to pinpoint phases for different types of hazards. Unfortunately, under the current crisis, those traditionally-accepted phases are not clearly discernible.
In Denham’s view, disasters are social, meaning a disaster occurs when certain lifelines like sheltering, communications, utilities, and transportation are failing.
Communications are usually the first lifeline to fail. This pandemic reverses the conventional wisdom as traditional lifelines such as communications, housing and utilities remain relatively unaffected, while other capacities like medical surge capacity have been challenged.
Denham said that another paradigm shift consists of difficulty in identifying and isolating the source of the threat or hazard in order to contain or manage it.
“We are in a situation now where everybody is potentially a threat, which is a total deviance from the management perspective. It has wide social implications as well; for example, it creates a source of anxiety and uncertainty for young people like our students,” Denham said.
Traditional community response differs as well; with a global pandemic like COVID-19, physical distancing guidelines have challenged volunteers to find ways to support their communities without resorting to traditional face-to-face interactions. In fact, healthcare systems have largely restricted volunteer participation in their operations.
However, community members have become creative in finding ways to offer support for each other like providing homemade masks and other materials, as well as virtual training and content.
“In practice, large-scale disaster helps temporarily foster an idea of community which is then adopted by emergency management institutions," Baker said. "It basically shatters everything that we know, and we're forced to think on our feet and engage in relationships that we typically don't engage in. Or if we do, we do it in a different way to meet our needs.”
Baker and Denham have studied the idea of community and the breakdown of emergency structures during and after Hurricane Harvey. In their research, Baker and Denham argue that it is much easier for spontaneous volunteers and people to have creative solutions.
Both researchers also compared the current social and physical shift in society to that of 9/11.
“I think this event is going to be like that, it's going to be a paradigm shift within our social life,” Denham said. “This is going to be such a shock socially, but we would adapt to the new reality. After all, adaptation, improvisation, and innovation are a bedrock of resiliency.”
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