Effective decision-making, especially at the leadership level, is usually the key to success in an emergency. However, emergency decisions often must be made with incomplete or conflicting information and under extreme time pressure and stress—conditions that can inhibit effective decision-making. The response to the COVID-19 pandemic provides a unique opportunity to expand the focus of typical after-action reviews and explore the mental skill of decision-making under stress, which is a critical element for improving success in response to complex, large-scale emergencies. Most natural disasters have relatively small response windows, and decision-makers can remove themselves from close proximity to the incident (e.g., avoid being in the path of a hurricane). However, everyone is at risk from the COVID-19 pandemic. This vulnerability compounds the stressful conditions responders are facing, especially when you also consider the ongoing risk to their families, friends, and coworkers.

Oral histories are a particularly powerful tool for “gathering, preserving and interpreting the voices and memories of people, communities, and participants in past events.” They offer a way to capture responders’ memories and experiences of an unprecedented incident.

CNA is collecting oral histories of COVID-19 as part of the historical archive.

Here are some of the sort of personal statements we hear:

“This has been, basically, learning a new job, a completely new full time job, with only remote support.“

“In this virtual environment…I work even longer hours, because you get going and you're already at home so you don't have to stop to drive home. So, you end up working more hours, because it just doesn't stop.”

“We were doing something and they were doing something and somebody else is doing something, but we're all doing it the exact same time because nobody is able to talk to each other.”

Through these oral histories, responders have the opportunity to convey:

  • The emotional atmosphere of the response and how that affected their ability to make decisions made under extreme time pressure and stress.
  • How they gathered information and applied judgement in the uncertainty and stress of the rapidly evolving pandemic without significant prior knowledge and experiences.
  • Reflections on how the uncertainty and stress affected them and what they would have done differently if they had more knowledge and experience.

Oral histories from the COVID-19 pandemic will also provide valuable insights to train staff for future incidents, offering a picture of the COVID-19 response environment and an emotional context not found in an after-action report.

COVID After Action Series

Joel S. Silverman is a Senior Research Scientist in CNA’s Institute for Public Research.