The Zika Virus Comes to Canada

Just as I conduct an annually updated budget simulation in my public management class – the topic of my previous post – I use an annually updated crisis management simulation. This year’s was about Zika. The assignment (see link) assumes that federal government and university-based researchers discover, approximately a year from now, that the virus has spread from mosquitoes in the Northeast US to mosquitoes in southern Ontario. No one here has yet contracted Zika from their bites, but with summer approaching, this is imminent. In effect, Brazilian magnitude Zika is very likely to spread to southern Ontario.

The assignment divides the class into three groups to discuss risks and recommended courses of action from the perspectives of three key players; the President of the Public Health Agency of Canada, the Deputy Minister of Health Canada, and the Clerk of the Privy Council.

The students, when they pooled their ideas in their discussion groups, did well, and recognized the key learning points I’d incorporated into the simulation. The date (May 5, 2017) and the assumption that the virus has been discovered in the laboratory led the students to realize that they had a narrow window to get ahead of the problem and warn the population in advance.

They realized their challenge would be issuing a warning clear enough that pregnant women or families intending to conceive would take the necessary precautions (including testing and abortion) but that would not create widespread panic.

Though the case mentioned the United States only in terms of Zika being spread from mosquitoes located there, the students realized that coordination with the US Government, especially the Center for Disease Control, would be essential.

They realized that research – understanding the epidemiology of Zika and developing a vaccine and/or genetically modified mosquitoes – would form the long-term solution to the problem, and that Canada must participate in these efforts.

They realized that, though Zika was found only in southern Ontario, because of the tourist season, even if Zika-bearing mosquitoes weren’t going to other regions of Canada, Canadian from other regions would be coming to them.

They realized that Zika could have major economic costs such as negating the upsurge in tourism expected for the Canada 150 celebrations.

They realized that responding to Zika would require a major interdepartmental initiative led by the Privy Council Office, as well as coordination with provincial and municipal governments.

They realized that, if there were going to be announcements and press conferences, the best location would be the federal government’s microbiology research lab and the spokespersons should include both a political leader and someone with scientific expertise.

In addition to everything the students said, I added two suggestions. First, it is important to be clear on objectives in a crisis intervention of this kind, and I put forth the idea that the government’s goal should be to have zero cases of Zika-related microcephaly while disrupting economic and social life as little as possible. My second suggestion was that, because the people most affected by Zika were pregnant women and families wanting to conceive, a popular Prime Minister with a young family would be well-positioned to speak for the government if the problem escalates.

When we completed the simulation, I asked for the students’ reactions. The most gratifying was from a student who expected that a crisis management simulation would have a disaster movie scenario, with the expected course of action being to clear the site and call in the first responders. Instead, she was asked to solve a case that was more subtle and demanded deeper thinking about both immediate and long-term reactions. Mission accomplished.

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