Episode 56: Dr Jennifer Cole: Convergence and Civil Defence

Dr Jenni Cole, biological anthropologist and public health policy guru, talks to Peter Roberts about pandemics, climate change and civil defence.

The discussion covers the psychological barriers of the 'Dragons of Inaction', as well as why the military must learn to include better CivPop participation in their exercises. A must for those starting staff college soon.

Play the episode

  • Peter Roberts: Welcome to the Western Way of War, the weekly podcast that tries to understand the issues around how to fight and succeed against adversaries in the 2020s. I'm Peter Roberts, Director of Military Sciences at the Royal United Service Institute on Whitehall and every week I'll talk to a guest about the issues around the Western way of war, about national security and the Western approach to warfare. Climate change, cyber and global health, these are three issues continually dominating the agenda of governments around the world right now and not just them, whether the G7, the EU, NATO or at the UN it seems like if you aren't talking about these topics you don't have a place at the table. As staff colleges around the world start sending students reading lists for the summer and preparing for indoctrination, these topics are going to be right up there alongside operational art and the deep battle as key pieces on the syllabus. Numerous dissertations will be written again about them over the next year, lectures will ask the same tired questions and military leaders will try and blag their way through conversations with inquisitive course members. Now, there's no doubt that each of these topics is important in their own right and some might be considered game-changing, revolutionary, even transformational and in comparison to the idea that digitisation or a space cloud will rock your world, we've got news for you, the combination of some of these or all of these is genuinely important for the next couple of generations at least.


    When Steve Jobs's iPhone combined a mobile phone and GPS, along with imaging, messaging and apps, it changed the way we thought about mobile connectivity and how we lived our lives. We can have an argument about whether that's a good thing or not later but understanding the convergence that these factors gave Apple a lead is really important. That convergence framework should also be applied to climate change, global health and potentially cyber and these therefore will have profound implications for national security, militaries and societies. Now, wanting to have a discussion about this with someone who understands this stuff is one thing, finding someone who speaks English and not jargon is another. Here I turn to my old colleague, Jenny Cole. The woman who ran RUSI's resilience research team before anyone was funding resilience about three years ago, who wrote about pandemics when everyone was yacking on about terrorism about two years ago and who has been at the forefront of thinking about how geopolitics has been influencing the response to climate change. Now, Jenny holds her first degree in Biological Anthropology from Cambridge University, she's got a PhD in Computer Science and worked previously at Oxford University as the Public Health Policy Advisor to the Rockefeller Foundation.


    She is the Northern European Hub Coordinator for the Harvard University-led Planetary Health Alliance. Now, currently Jenny is at Royal Holloway University of London and from September 2021 she will lead their new Master's courses on Global Health. She's also a World Health Organisation Infodemic Management Consultant. Now, I quote that bio and let you know about all this so you can place Jenny firmly in that role of expert on these issues. So, my first question on this, Jenny, is a little bit different than what I'd normally ask but it's genuinely I think quite important. Now, you've been there when we've put together, you know, not we but nations have been putting together national security strategies over the past ten years and many of them, they articulate in those policy documents that the risk of pandemic, in fact they've been saying it over twenty years and you've written about discussions that you've had with NATO and the UK Civil Contingency Secretariat and other states about this. Most of the documents talk about the pandemics being high risk, the huge impact they'd have, the disruption across societies and they seemed like they were pretty accurate, and bearing in mind we've had them for over twenty years it's just a bit weird that this seems to come as a shock to politicians. Why is it that we've been unprepared to deal with it, that we've had to call in the military or is that underselling the complexity of these issues involved with a pandemic?


    Jennifer Cole: I think it's kind of a combination of those things and it is a very complex environment. I think one of the things in terms of its position on the National Risk Register is that the risk was definitely recognised, it was largely understood, but it wasn't really anybody's priority and I think part of that is it wasn't really clear who was responsible for some of the responses to it. So, it was a health sector issue but the health sector doesn't generally have a seat on the security councils to that degree. So, what was covered under the National Security Strategy and what in fact we actually did very well were things like, for instance, building the Nightingale Hospitals, that was very well planned for, it was done very well. The logistics around perhaps distributing vaccines when they'd been developed, which again has been done very well, actually developing a vaccine, you know, the money and the effort that was put into that, which Oxford University have done magnificently, so those things were planned for very well. What was perhaps forgotten in all of that and goes back to similar things we can see in other issues is how that actually affects individual people day-to-day. So, who was actually going to do the shopping for people who were being asked to isolate? Who was actually going to enforce travel movements and bans? How do you actually tell people on the one hand they must stay in and can't go to work while at the same time you're telling the same people that they have to continue with their jobs as a Tesco delivery driver or an Amazon delivery driver?


    I think some of those day-to-day impacts on people weren't considered in the right way and I think that really comes down to where those things tend to come out is in exercising and in very deep exercising, and in military terms the type of exercises where you would have civ pop, when you start to have civ pop on exercises you actually start to see how people genuinely behave. You know, who gets frightened if you are acting a certain way? Who is prepared to follow the instructions you give them? When do people start to get annoyed and hungry, and fed up and want to go home? That type of exercising doesn't really come into the civilian sphere anywhere near to the same extent. We don't really have it in flooding exercises, we certainly never really had it in pandemic exercises and I think that really gets to the heart of when things aren't sometimes, kind of, as sexy as some of the defence issues, you know, the terrorist attack, everybody, kind of, wants to play being the hero in a terrorist attack. You don't really have the hero in a pandemic response in quite the same way and I think it's those different ways of thinking about what are the impacts of these that really, kind of, get to some of the bottom of what some of those problems would be.


    That's largely as well if you think that the people who've really been, kind of, impacted the worst by the pandemic who are largely, you know, people in lower paid, not very secure jobs, you know, who may be working in the gig economy who are supporting other families around them because, you know, they don't have cleaners so they do their elderly parents' cleaning, they do their elderly parents' shopping for them. They're not really the people that policymakers tend to have much experience of from a personal point of view either. You know, low paid healthcare workers going from home to home without any access to PPE, who have to travel on buses because they don't own their own car. If you don't really think about the experiences of those people you don't really see what the impact of something like that is going to be.


    Peter Roberts: In many ways I just listened to you talk about, you know, the public aren't aware of this and I think, 'Well, that's fine in a way. I wouldn't expect the public to be aware of a pandemic all that time in advance,' but the Civil Contingency Secretariat who you worked with for a while were doing this preparation and advice on a day-to-day basis, as well as dealing with flooding and all the rest of that stuff and the exercising which I remember you telling me about with NATO countries about a big North Sea flood that was, again, an exercise. It seems like this stuff has been going on in the background but somehow we've just failed to connect it up. Is that simply down to the not sexy, is it down to money, is it down to time? What are the critical challenges or hurdles in this?


    Jennifer Cole: I think it's down to a combination of both of those, of time and money but also even if you go to things like the North Sea flooding exercises that you mentioned, they would normally involve the fire brigade, the ambulance service, local authorities. They very rarely actually played out on a housing estate and actually knocked on the doors of people and asked them to be part of it as well and to look at what they would do. I think there's some real lessons here to be learned from some of the civil defence histories, particularly like the civil defence organisations in the UK. There's an excellent book that I would recommend to anybody by Matthew Grant, who I think is now an academic at Manchester, called Civil Defence: Britain After the Bomb which basically looked at why civil defence policy failed. It really went down to looking at the policymakers hadn't thought about how this would affect the public. They thought about how they would govern but there would be nothing left to govern and while they were protecting themselves in their bunkers, if people didn't have food they would riot or they would look to get food. It came to the point where you had to, kind of, involve those. There's a very famous exercise in civil defence, it's kind of known as 'the woman with the bird cage.'


    They had in one of these exercises which I think was around flood-, well, I don't know if it was flooding or nuclear war but kind of a big large scale exercise. They'd basically roped in some local am-dram clubs to play the civilians and of course they got terribly into it and they were all terribly theatrical and there was one woman who had bought a (TC 00:10:00) bird cage with her and, you know, had her canary and they're, you know, 'You can't bring your bird cage.' 'Oh, well if I can't bring my bird cage I'm not coming. I'm going to stay in my house,' and there were some politicians watching this and they were basically, 'This is nonsense. This is a complete waste of time. We're going to knock this on its head.' It was, kind of, a famous point at which they stopped trying to do these civilian exercises. Go forward 40 years to Hurricane Katrina, a large reason why a lot of people didn't want to leave their homes is they wouldn't leave their pets behind. If you actually don't listen to what people are saying to you and you make your own assumptions about what are their concerns going to be as opposed to what they actually tell you when you ask them, you're not going to get to the root of the problems.


    You know, again, another big issue in Hurricane Katrina is that all of the assumptions had been made on the fact that when the notice to evacuate was given people would evacuate themselves. If you didn't have your own car they would provide buses from the bus station, you would get onto the bus and evacuate. What actually happened is a lot of people who didn't have their own car, the main reason they didn't is because they had severe health issues that meant they couldn't drive and those also prevented them from walking to the bus station. If you'd actually gone round, you know, knocked on people's doors, held some of those planning assumptions in local community centres you might have found that out. If you never get out of your ivory towers and actually look and talk to the people it's really going to affect, you won't understand those. I think then there comes, you know, what's known certainly in climate change terms as The Dragons of Inaction, which is a book by an author called Gifford, which is if you make the problem seem so huge people completely switch off to it. Climate change, how do people think they can do anything about climate change? You know, maybe they just switch off completely but then the other side of that is you see things like when there was the video of the turtle with the straw up its nose that not only resonated with people because they could appreciate how unpleasant that was for the turtle, they could also see a bit of plastic waste that they may have discarded.


    You know, everybody who has discarded a plastic straw in the last year might be responsible but they also felt that they could do something, you know, stopping using plastic straws might seem something very small but actually it's something you can do that you can feel makes a difference. From stopping using a plastic straw you can perhaps stop using the disposable cup it was in, you can buy a reusable cup, you can think about single-use plastic bags and suddenly you're on this roll of a point where you feel that you can actually do something and you feel that you're empowered to be part of the solution. It's really looking at where some of those, you know, sometimes they're called societal tipping points come. So, moving from everybody using plastic bags to not and that something as simple as a 5p charge on a plastic bag took down plastic bag usage by 95% and it's just, kind of, thinking sometimes a bit more creatively about where some of those tipping points might come and where they can be leveraged. If you're only ever looking at the top level of the catastrophic response or the, kind of, building the Nightingale Hospital rather than providing a low-paid health care worker with slightly better working conditions, we're going to end up missing the wood for the trees.


    Peter Roberts: It's funny because I think as you were talking there I was reflecting time as a military planner and actually we'd do exactly what you say. We'd hit the big points, we'd have the centre of gravity, we'd have the branches and the sequels and we'd do the planning and the left flanking, and the manoeuvre and the amphibious task. All that stuff that was going on and there really wasn't that much consideration for the civil population. I mean, I guess, you know, those faces that we were talking about were enemy military-centric, we were going after to destroy an adversary but there really wasn't that much engagement with the civ pop, as you say. Even where there are you make these judgements about them that reflect you yourself right now, 'This is how my family would react and therefore everyone does.' It's these broad sweeping generalisations and, of course, that's a very Western viewpoint because I guess people in different states and different cultures are reacting to these things in different ways. So, what might be a societal tipping point in the UK might not necessarily be one in France or Spain, or Bangladesh or India, or Taiwan, right?


    Jennifer Cole: Yes, and I think a good example of that almost would be the difference between the US and the UK and the insane politicisation of mask wearing in the US, which thankfully we haven't seen in the UK. That seems to be tied up very much with some political statements that were made very early on and just, kind of, perhaps politicians not thinking about how some of that polarisation of the population and, you know, particularly some of the issues with healthcare provision in the US and a different thinking about it might actually impact on some of those issues as we go along. So, just kind of understanding, you know, where do messages come from and are they politicised or do you want to actually stand together as the healthcare sector? I think that's something, and if you look at London as an example where we have a Labour Mayor but a Conservative Prime Minister, there's no point where they've been acting like five-year-olds in a playground to score points against each other about what messages are given out. They have pretty much given consistent messages about how we get out of this pandemic. They're obviously going to butt heads on other bits of policy, whereas we saw some really insane politicisation in the US political culture.


    So, I think that's being aware of how that plays out when actually you need the whole community to stand together, you need the whole country to stand together and we've really seen that, there's been quite a lot of academic analysis of leaders and their approaches. You know, the one that's held up again and again as the way to do it is New Zealand where New Zealand's Prime Minister stood up and made it clear that we were all in this together in a way that people believed. She went out into communities and particularly some of the indigenous communities, spoke to them in their own language about what needed to be done rather than, you know, we've certainly seen some of the other and, you know, Trump again is the poster child for the way not to do it who almost seemed to go out to deliberately polarise their own communities while blaming China for being the problem. I think some of that blaming of the enemy has been really interesting because, you know, certainly at the beginning of the pandemic there was a real struggle from certain countries.


    Peter Roberts: It does resonate because we're talking about, you know, a country that was on a war-footing and that's how you tend to deal with it, isn't it? The enemy and the adversary is the one that you take the most-, and it strikes me that from everything you've been saying, whether it's about pandemics or it's about climate change, all of this stuff about messaging is really important for our own populations and for the populations that we want to hold sway over. It's that relationship with society that lots of military leaders talk about and yet we seem to fall short of because of our use of language.


    Jennifer Cole: Yes and I think it's definite you can see it's influenced operations or, you know, 'human terrain mapping' would be the military terms. But I think there's been quite a lot particularly in a lot of academics around antibiotic resistance and how we treat antibiotics have particularly focussed on some of that war-like language. There's an academic called Klaus Kircher (ph 17.15) at Oxford and also Clare Chandler at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Steve Hinchliffe at Exeter who have all looked at how we wage war on disease and whether that is actually the right approach, whether the language we use is right. Steve Hinchliffe has recently done some very good work on the idea of post-colonial disease management where we learn to live with it, we kind of learn to respect that it operates in the same spaces as us rather than, kind of, trying to go out and eradicate it. I think it's a really interesting way of looking at things. It's a very different way to the way that the military is used to and, you know, if we go back at the time when I was at RUSI, one of the things I was really trying to push through was this idea of, you know, what I call defence without an enemy, that military was moving into the 21st Century where the enemy wasn't enemy states necessarily anymore, it was nature, you know, it was tornados, it was pandemics.


    So, how does a military that has always been trained on the predication of fighting an enemy transition into that space where it might be more about working cooperatively with the Chinese because there's been a large earthquake or because there's a pandemic rather than really, kind of, seeing those nexus of enemies. That's some of the work that you mentioned, the work I've been doing on geopolitics at Royal Holloway is really looking at how those geopolitical tensions that already existed have played out through the COVID-19 pandemic and therefore what lessons might they offer to the future. You know, if we are seeing China and Russia as the enemy when actually we're all trying to develop vaccines and stop a pandemic, how does that affect the way that we'll be able to deal with climate change together? You know, one example of that is China, it's been very proactive in supporting biodiversity, it's been very proactive in greening some of its energy infrastructure. That's very rarely given the credit that it deserves by Western actors who don't want to see China as a good guy.


    Similarly India has some fantastic energy transition policies but, again, you know, we tend to look to our traditional geopolitical allies and as slightly suspicious and slightly nervous of those who there've traditionally been more tensions with. China is a good example of how we deal with China as a trade partner is very different to how we deal with China geopolitically. I think some of these over the coming years to deal with climate change will have to be renegotiated and, kind of, re-manoeuvred in a different way.


    Peter Roberts: It strikes me that, you know, what you say I've seen this. No military planning cell would look at an adversary and say, 'We've got to kill them, eradicate them.' That's never the way we apply it now, it's not part of Western (TC 00:20:00) military doctrine in many ways. We don't go after the eradication of anything and it's strange that we apply that idea in war and warfare and use that kind of language as it changes across because exactly what you're talking about is what people are struggling with. How do you on the one hand take Nord Stream 2 from Russia and at the same time apply pressure on them to ease their actions in either Ukraine or Belarus, or the Baltics or the Balkans, or wherever it is, you know? How do you do this and how do you manage that yourself across government departments that aren't centralised? It comes back to this starting point in many ways that we talked about twenty minutes ago. This idea that there's no real central control over this, that you have bits of government that are doing it very well and other bits that just aren't part of this conversation. How do you pull it altogether? I guess that was what the Civil Contingency Secretariat was designed to do when it was set up in the UK, is that right?


    Jennifer Cole: I think it was. It was definitely to look at some of these cross-government issues and it came out of the four Fs which is the fire, flooding, foot and mouth and I've forgotten the fourth one, hard to remember it at the start of the 20th Century, which was also part of this move away from Northern Ireland terrorism perhaps being the main threat into this more complex environment of the 21st Century and bringing those together. It was always clear within really any of those discussions that the civilian side of it was the poor relation of the military, that the military and security apparatus was always going to have the most time and the most funding, and the ear of the politicians far more than the civilian agencies did. I think certainly in terms of the funding and how, you know, the National Security Strategy it's built on, kind of, disruption to life. The scale of a military strike or a military attack of any kind that could have anywhere near the impact that even, you know, the Boscastle Floods had let alone pandemic, it's just not comparable, and not even 9/11 had remotely the impact on the day-to-day lives of so many people that COVID-19 has had. It was just never exciting enough, I think that was the problem. It never, kind of, captured the public's imagination and there was never, kind of, that sense of outrage that something would have to be done about it.


    You know, I think it does come back down to, everyone, they want to look for an enemy, they want to blame. If you look at Grenfell Tower, you know, what does it say about us as a country that we made the scapegoat of the Grenfell Tower the Chief Fire Officer rather than the council leaders who had commissioned that cladding knowing that there were problems with fire, who had allowed people to be in such substandard housing in the first place? To me that really says something about what's going wrong in society and three or four years later after being outraged about Grenfell Tower we're in exactly the same position again.


    Peter Roberts: It is amazing, isn't it? It just doesn't seem that some of these events can galvanise a response in many ways. The military part in all this feels almost slightly faddish because whilst they were deeply engaged and loved the exercises, in the Cold War they were great because the politicians were there and you got a lot of face time and that was good. It's seemingly afterwards for all these civil contingencies, the fires, the floods, the foot and mouth, you know, whilst called in they weren't there at all. Then there seemed to be a bit of a gap where thank goodness the Royal Engineers would pitch up and some Chinooks would arrive and they'd drop some sandbags and try and save the day but then they'd disappear. It never felt like a concerted effort and then I remember you telling me about what happened when the North Sea flooding exercise took place and NATO military planners pitched up and said, 'You should be doing this,' and actually the civilian team said, 'Yes, no. We have all that in hand, don't worry. We've got that stuff.' So, it seems that the military feel they should pitch up and contribute but we're never quite exact about how we should do it or what we should give.


    I think the pandemic in the UK was really clear in this that they were standing up thousands and thousands of military troops to do stuff if they needed to and actually what they needed was some planners, that was the key thing that they needed, some engineers and some teams to put together bits and pieces, some people to go and do some rapid testing but it was never clear and exact about exactly what would be required, right?


    Jennifer Cole: Yes and I think actually that planning side, the way that planning is built into the military is perhaps what we're missing on the civilian side. So, something as, and I say it's as simple but, kind of, as fundamental as staff college at the military. Once you've reached a certain level to go above that you almost, kind of, take that step back. You're encouraged to have a more academic overview and then you go back into that. We talked quite a lot of what I did at RUSI was looking at the value of soldiers and civilians working side-by-side in the MoD, the fact that as an operational member of the military you would step out of that operational role, you would go into a policy planning role, you would see it from the other side and then you would take some of that back. You don't have that certainly in the fire service or the ambulance service, you have it a little bit more in the police, that little bit more of that kind of strategic overview but that understanding, that thinking. You know, being able to step back is not really there in the same way and that really comes down to in a way because the fire service and the ambulance service and the police constantly have more than they can cope with every single day there's no time left to step back from that. Whereas, because the military spends a lot of time training because they don't actually have that day-to-day involvement, so they have to do something in the time in-between they actually need to do what they're there for.


    They've got that space and it's, kind of, bringing that together, whether you leverage the military to be able to do that across all of the services that need it but you still, kind of, keep it within the military or whether you take perhaps some of the funding and the structure of the military out of the military and give it to those other organisations. But I think definitely a more humanitarian aid role for an organisation that has the resources and the time and the money that the military has is the answer to that. You know, that's the way you do it. You do see that in some of the other countries, particularly in countries that have an ongoing regular issue with earthquakes. So, China, Turkey, Italy to some extent with mudslides. They do have that little bit more of that, kind of, overarching strategic approach to some of these challenges, that there's a little bit more of the military way of thinking. Not necessarily the Western way of war but the military way of thinking and planning, and seeing the bigger picture than the day-to-day organisations that are operating on the ground all the time every day have the time or the space to do.


    Peter Roberts: Jenny, that's brilliant because it links in perfectly with the last series, Mary Kaldor, you know, talked a lot about security for communities, about thinking about human security in a very different way and a broader context, a conversation about the military and martial power into the future being less about conventional force on force deterrence, coercion, compellence, contest and more about a broader range of activities that link to communities both at home and abroad. A brilliant place to end. Thank you very much. The show is produced by Peppi Väänänen and Kieron Yates and is sponsored by Raytheon UK. You can find out more about RUSI, our research and our thinking at RUSI.org/milsi. Thanks for listening.

Western Way of War Podcast Series

A collection of discussions with those in the Profession of Arms that tries to understand the issues around how to fight, and succeed, against adversaries in the 2020s. We pose the questions as whether a single Western Way of Warfare (how Western militaries fight) has been successful, whether it remains fit for task today, and how it might need to adapt in the future? It is complemented by the ‘Adversarial Studies’ project that looks at how adversaries fight.


Professor Peter Roberts

Director, Military Sciences

Military Sciences

View profile

Explore our related content