09 April 2020

A pandemic is one of the most difficult emergencies a country can face. There is no way to cope with it without taking volunteers to help. It’s important that society nurtures this commitment and organises it in
an effective way.

Sofie Pilemalm
Sofie Pilemalm is head of CARER, Center for Advanced Research in Emergency Response at Linköping Univeristy.  Jenny Ahlgren

Many will contribute

Region Västra Götaland has a dedicated website for anyone who wants to help. In Stockholm, 6,500 people registered as helpers in the medical care system. A Facebook group to purchase and deliver food to the elderly gathered 5,000 members in two days. The Church of Sweden, Save the Children Sweden and Stadsmissionen – to name just three organisations – organise huge numbers of volunteers. In brief: commitment in the wake of the coronacrisis is enormous.

Sofie Pilemalm is professor in information systems and has studied the management of accidents and emergencies since the tsunami of 2004. In that case, contributions from voluntary organisations were relatively small and disorganised, and sometimes even detrimental. The voluntary organisations were sometimes regarded by government agencies as a problem, people who interfered and got in the way.

Sofie Pilemalm in a video call during this interview.

“But that isn’t how it is today. I would say that nowadays everyone agrees that the work of volunteers is completely necessary. When such huge and serious events occur, most of the population must get involved”, she says.

We see an enormous desire to help. Are you surprised?

“No, what we see follows roughly the same pattern as we have seen before, not least following natural disasters in the US. What happens is that groups arise spontaneously in social media, and that many people turn to established organisations such as the Red Cross.”

Helpful in many ways

Sofie Pilemalm is convinced that for society, this commitment is not only positive: it is vital in coping with the emergency. The time is past when we could wait passively and hope that the government would solve all the problems. Well, that may be because that was never actually the case. Society’s resources are too small and the challenges we face are far too large for this to have been true.

The principal contribution from volunteers is in social activity and in this way to remove a burden from professionals, who can then concentrate on what they are best at. Experience from the large forest fires has shown that volunteers can often do more good than first believed.

“At the time some of the rescue personnel said that it was not possible to have volunteers active in the extinguishing work. They wanted to do everything themselves. But situations arose in which the volunteers were absolutely necessary, and it turned out that they could also operate the fire hoses. The conclusion was exactly the opposite – it would not have been possible without the voluntary contributions: there were quite simply too many large fires at the same time.”

Control and verification

The great challenge with voluntary contributions, in particular when many people want to help at the same time, is to structure and organise the work. What expertise is available? How can we best distribute it? How can we keep track of what everyone is doing? The systems for this are not currently available in Sweden, but both the organisations themselves and the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency try to organise the work. Many researchers, not least several at LiU, have also emphasised the need for technical support, such as apps, in order to match the expertise of volunteers with needs.

Sofie Pilemalm at the conference Framtidens skadeplats in February 2020, just before the coronacrisis.

It is also important to vet and verify folk who volunteer as much as possible. Even though most people have a genuine interest in helping, it sometimes happens that people who are more interested in experiencing excitement turn up, and sometime people with mental health issues. Sofie Pilemalm has seen this happen in her own research into voluntary rescue work at accidents.

“Oh yes – it has got out of hand in some cases. People have tried to hack into communication systems or got hold of a lot of equipment and nearly started to build up their own command centre. But at the same time, you have to remember that such cases really are the exception”, she says.

Another challenge is how to protect the voluntary helpers, and to determine the insurance cover they have. This has been a contentious issue in voluntary work for a long time, and has gained extra urgency with the risk of infection. The dangers are now significantly greater than they are, for example, during rescue work after a traffic accident. It is also important to remember the volunteers after the emergency – just as employed personnel they will require follow up and sometimes counselling and support.

Hard to be prepared

Sofie Pilemalm returns to the fact that a pandemic is one of the most difficult emergencies we can face. A pandemic is worse than terror attacks and tsunamis – which are, of course, terrible and costs lives, but are even so temporary – and worse than natural disasters such as floods – which are most often known about in advance and can be prepared for by, for example, evacuating people. A pandemic arises suddenly, spreads around the world rapidly, causes death, damages economies – and not even the experts can predict how long it will last.

Sweden – and the world – were not prepared for what is happening. A country can never be fully prepared for a disaster.

“It’s not a secret that we have dismantled large parts of the public sector, and that the medical care system was under heavy pressure before the coronacrisis. And this is true of many other countries. At the same time, I believe that the assessment we carry out afterwards will for the most part concern the ability of society for transition and meeting a crisis. And in my opinion, Sweden has done pretty well. So far, in any case”, says Sofie Pilemalm.

How can we prepare for the next emergency?

“It’s not possible to have stockpiles and preparedness for every contingency. We don’t know what the next emergency will be. What’s most important is society’s ability to rapidly readjust, to distribute resources in a new way. And to nurture all the voluntary help we can muster.”

The interview was conducted April 7 2020. Translated by George Farrants

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