“You haven’t learned anything about the plague. It will always come back”

A group of critical management scholars around my colleague Ronald Hartz from the University of Leicester has formed a virtual reading group on “The Plague – Diagnostics, Aesthetics and Politics of the Pandemic”, which I had the pleasure of joining for one session. Part of the agenda was a re-reading of Albert Camus’ 1947 book The Plague and a discussion of the 1992 film by Luis Puenzo based on the book (in addition to lots of Foucault, of course). There was a general sentiment of the film not being very good for various reasons, and particularly when seen as an adaptation of Camus’ book, but I found it interesting to watch in the light of today’s situation. Of course, Camus’ plague is fictional and written more as a metaphorical critique of fascism than as a critical analysis of pandemics, but it draws on historical evidence on previous pandemics, so many parallels to today’s situation became evident.

One thing I found striking was to see the sudden shift from normal, joyful social life to the lockdown situation, illustrating how things that we usually take for granted can suddenly become risky and forbidden. It seems absurd – but this does not mean it is not real, nor that it can not last. As Camus’, an absurdist philosopher, famously wrote in The Plague, a quote that also appears (in altered form) in the film: “When a war breaks out, people say: ‘It’s too stupid; it can’t last long.’ But though the war may well be ‘too stupid,’ that doesn’t prevent its lasting. Stupidity has a knack of getting its way; as we should see if we were not always so much wrapped up in ourselves”. The same can be said about the pandemic. “It” – the pandemic, a war, fascism – “always catches us off-guard”.

The film also captures well the different realities of people – some still hustling and bustling in bars and restaurants, others directly faced by horrible disease and death. Through frequent references to the smell and sound of death in the film, especially the haunting scream of the dying choral boy, we get a sense of what it might be like for those working “on the frontline” of the Covid-19 pandemic, and of course for the families directly affected, the fates and suffering of which is buried behind death statistics and largely invisible to us. Dr. Rieux, the protagonist of the book and film (played by William Hunt), desperately revolts against the transformation of human existence into bureaucratic entries by asking an official overseeing a quarantine camp to write a woman’s full name instead of just giving her a number. Yet, especially in highly affected areas, it is an inevitability to “administer” death through mass graves and statistics. Such depersonalization is a core ambivalence of bureaucratic systems (see lecture 3).

It is maybe not surprising that Camus picked the plague as the “pandemic of choice” to provide a critique of fascism. As Alan McKinlay argues in his article “Foucault, Plague, Defoe”, Foucault sees the plague a “a vital conceptual and historical bridge between the classical and modern ages; between different institutions; and between ‘disciplinary’ power and ‘biopower’” (p. 168). While leprosy could be dealt with by excluding infected individuals, the plague hit the heart of entire populations, requiring elaborate systems of management and regulation, discipline and surveillance. For Foucault who has extensively studied and written about the emergence of modern health and punishment institutions (e.g. 1973; 1977), the plague constituted “a moment at which all existing conceptions of the body, of family and social life, of the divine, and the nature and purpose of political authority were thrown into total confusion” (p. 168). The modern clinic and public health policies can be seen as disciplinary spaces as much as the modern prison.

Animals, a source of pandemics throughout history, appear only in the beginning of the film where we see sick rats hushing through buildings. But these images remind us that pandemics result from a mix of inhumane living conditions and an unhealthy relationship between humans and animals – a mix not only evidenced by reports about the Wuhan animal markets, but also by the insights into meat factories in the heart of Europe where people – like animals – are herded up and treated like disposable cattle.

In the film, we see people being pulled out of houses and put into quarantine by force. What is meant as a metaphor for the treatment of people deported to concentration camps during the holocaust by Camus, we have seen similar pictures from Wuhan in January and February 2020. Many of us perceived these as surreal or science-fiction-like. But, as The Plague reminds us, these practices are not only real today, but have also been real in the past. We see auxiliary hospitals being erected; we see face masks, a struggle to make sense of death counts and statistics and attempts at revealing the outbreak and criticisms of autopsies. Despite centuries of progress in medical science, we are left to archaic methods of confronting the virus, something epidemiologists today frequently stress in the public debate. These methods are not uncontested, because they reassert the power of the State which is necessary to confront complex crises, but can also easily be abused by populist and authoritarian leaders. When a family whose daughter has died from the plague in the film is being held in quarantine for months without any justification, Rieux, in the scene mentioned before, blames the official to “treat everyone like a suspect“, indicating that the measures he himself supported from a medical standpoint were being abused by people that “think they are God” and end up “locking up the whole city”. I would argue that the thin line between an assertive state necessary to handle the pandemic and save people’s life and authoritarianism is a key struggle for national leaders – particularly in Europe where the history of fascism is still very near. “There is a bit of the plague in all of us” is a repeated message – and one that I would say many political leaders in Europe have taken quite seriously.

In both the book and the movie, the confrontation between the scientist and humanist Dr. Rieux and the priest Father Paneloux is central. While the priest refers to the plague as the tribunal for people’s sins, Rieux emphasizes the Sisyphean task of trying to safe life by life, driven only by humanist values and not a belief in a greater order. Here Camus’ philosophy of absurdity, in which he asks us to think of Sisyphos as a happy person, comes to life through Dr. Rieux who recognizes and accepts the absurdity of life and inevitability of death, yet revolts against it by trying to live the best life possible, which is where – according to Camus – freedom can be found. But what is the role of religion in the current Covid-19 crisis? Organized religion was shut down early in the pandemic and excluded from its usual role in accompanying death as an infection control measure. It was and still is in the news as a site of superspreading events. In this way, organized religion has been rather silent – whereas it provides the soundscape of The Plague movie, which has psalms, sung by an innocent boy, as its main soundtrack. Religion also surfaces in broader frames and discourses: is the disease a punishment for our exploitation of nature (religious frame), or a natural evolution that happens from time to time (evolutionary frame)? Church groups have played an important role on the community level, providing services like food delivery for the elderly in many places. Without faith, journalist Martine Rambert (a character created just for the movie) argues, the world is a desolate place: “there is only the present, no memory, no hope” – but memory and hope – whether from a religious or humanistic angle – is needed to move forward in times of crisis. And since modern society with its focus on self-optimization has little solace to offer when it comes to death and disease, religion might also play an important role on an individual level as people struggle to accept that death is a normal part of life, of which for instance the suffering of Jesus on the cross is a constant reminder. The conflict between Rieux and Paneloux is somewhat resolved as Paneloux gets involved in caring for the sick and it becomes clear that both strive for the same: empathy and solidarity.

So, as a distraction of or complement to your coursework, I can recommend that you read and watch “The Plague”. While not the greatest movie ever made, it adds a layer of sound and visuals to the more sterile images we get from the news. The book has seen record sales during the coronavirus crisis already. If you want more, you can also look at Daniel Defoe’s “A Journal of the Plague Year”, a chronicle of the 17th century London plague outbreak written in a unique style that veers between historical fact and fiction to express the confusion and extraordinary events societies were put into because of the plague outbreak.

New article on digital platform innovation in times of crisis

Numerous digital platforms have emerged as a go-to response to the Covid-19 crisis – building on conventional platform characteristics, but using alternative, more inclusive organisational models.

By offering the innovations that people most need right now, more inclusive platform alternatives may now have an opportunity to step up and secure a more significant role in the platform economy of the future.

The article is co-authored with Nicolas Friederici and Philip Meier.

How to deal with COVID-19? A comparison between public and private organizations

This blog post is provided by Marlene Welzl, a student in the Master program Leading Innovative Organizations at the Johannes Kepler University Linz. Marlene has been working for the Austrian foreign ministry and is cofounder of the intergenerational housing platform Wohnbuddy.  

COVID-19 is definitely a challenge for the society as a whole. It does not matter how your personal circumstances look like – whether you are sitting alone or with your small children at home or whether you are staying 24/7 with your partner in a small city apartment -, the pandemic is a challenge for everybody. But COVID-19 is not only a challenge on the individual level, but also on the organizational level, whether it be a private business or a public organization. In this blogpost, I am discussing the similarities and differences of the crisis management between public and private organizations during the peak of the pandemic in Austria.

Since we have gained insight in how the company Blum managed COVID-19 through the interview Leonhard Dobusch from the University of Innsbruck conducted with Urs Bolter, a member of the management board of Blum, I will take the company Blum as an example for a private organization. Blum is an international and family-owned manufacturer of furniture hardware with its headquarters situated in the Austrian province Vorarlberg. Blum employs close to 8.000 people and, in addition to Austria, has production plants in the United States, Poland and Brazil. Regarding public organizations, I take the Austrian health ministry and the Austrian foreign ministry as examples, since these two ministries played a crucial role in dealing with the pandemic in the public sphere. My information regarding the crisis management of the Austrian health ministry is based on a newspaper article. Regarding the crisis management of the foreign ministry, I conducted an interview with an Austrian diplomat.

Installing internal taskforces as a reaction to the immediacy of the crisis

Whether it is the Blum company or the health or the foreign ministry, all the organizations were hit by the immediacy of the crisis. In order to deal with this immediacy, they have immediately installed organizational internal taskforces responsible for dealing with the pandemic. In the Blum company, this taskforce includes the majority of the top-management team, a few experts analyzing the necessary data for decision-making day by day and a communication specialist. This taskforce has stand-up meetings every morning and decides on a daily basis about the most important tasks that need to be done. “Within minutes we make decisions, under normal circumstances such a fast decision-making process is not possible”, reports Urs Bolter. 

In the Austrian health ministry, the taskforce consists of about 100 people including lawyers, epidemiologists, medical experts, mathematicians and communication experts. The taskforce includes internal staff as well as 17 external experts. The heads of the seven central administrative units of the health ministry, including communications, IT, action planning and resource management, meet twice a day. Everybody else that has to be part of the meeting joins per video-conference. Each unit uses two PowerPoint slides to report on the current situation. Questions include: How many people are infected by COVID-19? Where can we identify clusters of infections? What about our testing-capacities? What kind of information has been updated in the FAQ section of the Corona-Website?

In order to deal with the pandemic, the foreign ministry installed not a single but several taskforces with different responsibilities (e.g. crisis management, organization of return flights). These taskforces include only internal staff from various divisions. Since diplomats are trained as generalists, the workforce in the foreign ministry is very flexible. Not only taskforces were dealing with the pandemic, but also several departments of the ministry. Thus, the tasks of several departments shifted from “business as usual” (e.g. preparing briefings for high officials) to “dealing with exceptional times” (e.g. procuring medical goods; reporting on the developments regarding COVID-19 in foreign countries; doing shifts in the citizens service hotline).   

Getting used to the home-office and dealing with an unequal distribution of work

The 100 people who are part of the taskforce of the Austrian health ministry cannot work together physically. Apart from 7 people working in a 200 m2 big office, everybody is working from home. The Blum company, too, uses home-office for the employees who are able to do their jobs from home. In the foreign ministry, most people worked from home, except the taskforce “crisis management” and the officials involved in the citizens service hotline.

Furthermore, all organizations installed hotlines. The health and foreign ministry installed a citizens’ service hotline and the Blum company installed a hotline for its 8.000 employees living in 26 different countries. At peak times of the pandemic, the health ministry as well as the foreign ministry were supported by the military in order to manage the high amount of calls.

For the ministries as well as for the Blum company, it is only a small amount of the regular working force that is now working all day long and overtime, whereas the majority of the regular workforce worked less than under normal circumstances or some employees even were not able to work at all.

Different challenges for public and private organizations

Despite the fact that the main organizational structures that the Austrian ministries and the Blum company established in order to manage the crisis are similar, the main challenges these organizations are facing during the pandemic are quite different. Whereas the Blum company channels their resources towards safeguarding their employees’ jobs – Blum regards the protection of their employees´ jobs as their main responsibility during the pandemic – to prevent them from financial problems and thus suffering from additional pressure during these times, the ministries are challenged with gathering and preparing all the relevant information for the decision-makers, the senior officials and politicians responsible for acting in the interest of the people living in Austria. The taskforce of the health ministry gathers and filters information about relevant figures in regard to COVID-19 (e.g. infected people, recovered cases), test and hospital capacities, Covid-19 studies, legal issues, etc. This information is double-checked with public-health experts, lawyers, epidemiologists, social insurance organizations, other ministries and provincial authorities as well as the external experts of the Corona-taskforce. Based on the decisions of the politicians, legal regulations are issued and are communicated to the citizens. According to officials of the health ministry, issuing regulations at such a high-speed is one of the biggest challenges they are currently facing.

The foreign ministry is seriously challenged with organizing return flights to Austria and with being available on-call 24/7 for the citizens. The ten people working in this taskforce are busy with coordinating, gathering and reordering information they have received from the embassies and consulates. They need to gather the following information: What time are flights from destination x to Vienna scheduled? How many passengers can go on this flight? How many Austrians want to take the flight? In a next step, the officials prepare this information for the decision-makers of the ministry who decide upon the return flights in coordination with the Austrian airlines carrying out these flights.    

The pandemic as a serious challenge, but also opportunity for learning

“It feels like, if you would jump on a train that is driving 130 km/h and as soon as you are gaining hold, the train changes its direction”, Florian Pressl says, the head of operations of the taskforce of the health ministry. This statement illustrates how challenging it is to manage the COVID-19 pandemic, even for a high-reliability-organization like the health ministry that has emergency plans for a pandemic. At the same time, the ministries in Austria cooperate and communicate much more than before the pandemic. Thus, COVID-19 could be an opportunity for improving and intensifying the structures of the ministries‘ communication and cooperation in the long-run.

For Urs Bolter, member of the management board of the Blum company, it is in particular the unpredictable nature of the pandemic that makes it so difficult to deal with it, he feels like trying to read the crystal ball. In contrast to the financial crisis in 2008, the pandemic is much more difficult to handle due to its unpredictable nature. At the same time, Urs Bolter also values the personal and organizational learnings he had due to COVID-19. He realized how fast decisions can be made and how fast a product can be developed. Urs Bolter is amazed by the fact that an organization-internal app was produced within a week. “But these learnings can only result from being thrown into ice-cold water”, Urs Bolter emphasizes.  

How to maintain corporate ethics during a crisis?

In this podcast produced by the Nordic Business Ethics Network, business ethics professor Guido Palazzo from the University of Lausanne discusses the concept of ethical blindness, and explains why the conditions fostering ethical blindness are exacerbated during crisis situations. In high pressure situations, people tend to loose they ability to take objective decisions and these patterns of behavior are reinforced by the group. In short: unethical decisions tend to be taken by good people – but in contexts that put pressure on people and allow unethical behavior to become routinized and normalized.

Wealth concentration and inequality after a pandemic: Lessons from the plague

The people of Tournai bury victims of the Black Death, c.1353. Wikimedia Commons

Again I want to draw your attention to a great analysis of history in the light of the Covid-19 crisis, the article How pandemics past and present fuel the rise of mega-corporations by history scholar Eleanor Russell and organization scholar Martin Parker. Of course under the caveat that the world, and the economy, of the 14th century was very different from today, Russell and Parker analyze the dynamics marking the economic recovery from the bubonic plague. Today, we see small companies relying upon government support and large players – such as Amazon – benefitting from the new conditions. In the 14th century, wealthy entrepreneurs ensured a further concentration of their capital through changing their wills and, by combining scale in production with merchant networks, became crucial providers of infrastructure and strengthened their ties to governments. As a result, key markets were dominated by a handful of mega-corporations tightly interwoven with the state. As I have argued elsewhere, rising state power might actually be an opportunity for tackling society’s grand challeges, and concentrated business power, if steered in the right way, can play a key role in building a sustainable economic future. Whether these forces will be used remains one of the biggest questions of today, as also Russell and Parker conclude.