Outbreak, Rebound & Prevention – post corona reflections

Published 2 september, 2020

Dirk Sijmons

Landscape Architect and Urbanist

Making the system less fragile to the effects of this perfect storm will go hand-in-hand with making it less environmentally destructive”. Landscape architect and former first State Landscape Architect of the Netherlands (2004-2008) Dirk Sijmons takes a stand in how to improve the management of future pandemics, and who will be included in his ideal Prevention Management Team.

The Shift: Outbreak Management Team

From one day on another, their dominance seemed to have ended. Temporary for sure, but the switch was no less spectacular. It was if some invisible dance master in a ballroom dancing class shouted: ‘changer!’ and everyone rushed to find another partner. Economists and financial advisors of different guises always had their secure places next to the existing powers and found an open ear for their advice with high-ranking civil servants, planning agencies and ministers. Suddenly they were moved to the second or even third circle. In the Covid-19 – aka Corona – crisis, their place beside the prime minister was taken overnight by public health officials, epidemiologists, immunologists, micro-biologists, and emergency ward doctors, informally organised in an Outbreak Management Team (OMT) that assembled weekly.

This tableau change was quickly mirrored in all the TV talk shows where medical pundits day after day commented on the developing situation. Every day, the media circus surrounding the corona crisis provided hallucinatory evidence of the way data, information, knowledge, science, semi-science, plans, exit strategies, the short and the long term, curative measures and preventive approaches tumble over each other. A new Dutch brilliant tv format, ‘Notices from the Frontier’, made the crisis more tangible by taking a personal angle. In a daily half hour on primetime TV the ‘new heroes’ talk in small vlogs about their daily experiences from the shop floors of the health care system. You see and hear people ranging from ambulances drivers, to emergency ward doctors, hospital cleaners, elderly home nurses, logistic managers trying to buy mouth caps on an international pirate market talking about their – often exhausting – working days. More than anything it makes clear how a real crisis feels from the inside. And that there is a plumbless depth between personal emotional tragedies – already some three times as many people have lost loved ones than during the 1953 flood disaster – and the clinical epidemiological perspective needed to master this disaster.

Dutch politics almost seemed to want to hide behind the domain of science with its data and information in this bad news conversation it had to brake with society. “This is what scientists tell us”, a sentence that was continually repeated. Perhaps this is the most convenient thing to do in times of crisis management, a large Dutch newspaper observed, wondering out loud about the Babel-like confusion of tongues that would arise if, in addition to virologists and microbiologists, the OMT would also include a couple of ethicists, economists and behavioural scientists like they did in Germany.  

Illustration by Statistically Insignificant/Raf Schoenmaekers

The Rebound: SEC Think Tank

That was the situation at the peak of the (first?) wave. Now that the economy is gradually starting up again the economists claimed ‘their’ central position again. It happened in an interesting, indirect way. The Social Economic Council – where organised business regularly meets organized labour has already since the post-war period been at the heart of the Dutch consensus model also known as the ‘Polder Model’. This Council initiated a think tank that commissioned itself to produce advice on how society can have an intelligent rebound of the economy after our so-called ‘intelligent’ lockdown of two months.

The first advice they gave was about mobility. How we can sustain a percentage of the working from home situation we all learned during the lockdown and make our public transport system able to cope with the 1,5 meter society; and it would result in getting rid of traffic jams on our highway system forever. I hope, but I do not expect, the advice will expand to strategically support parts of the economy that move in the right direction and withhold or minimalise support for sectors that are stumbling blocks on the way to a more sustainable relationship with our Biosphere. How, for instance, should the EU address the largest industry of the world economy: tourism and leisure? Should (or can!) this be a rebound-like full speed astern to the old ‘normal’ in which we fly to Bali for a € 450, all inclusive, nine-day holiday. Or do we seize the opportunity to essentially change and ‘green’ society and make the corona crisis a turning point in history? By taxing kerosene at last for instance[1].

The ‘Green Deals’ that were thought up by activists and NGO’s prepared for a positive way forward. In this type of question, politics cannot hide behind science and data anymore. Science can support our decision making, but it cannot promise to chart the only right – scientific – course. That is the domain of politics, it is the core question of environmental politics. One can already spell out the neo-liberal political reasoning that will try to dominate the debate. ‘It would be unfair to use the corona crisis as a reckoning with your ‘green’ pipedreams in mind and to try to reset society on another basis. First things first: our priority needs to be to restart the economy. And when GDP is on its feet again, and only when that is established, we will earn enough to invest in your expensive environmental measures’. This logic is based on the quicksand assumption that you need economic growth to pay for a healthy environment and a decoupling is possible between economic growth and the ecological footprint. The modernist promise that seems thinner every day. Is this too pessimistic? Are there no ambitious ‘Green Deals’ in the making? Didn’t Germany for instance not unveil the Greenest Stimulus Plan ever? In practice, when one takes a global look, the conclusion is sobering. There has been hardly any ’green’ recovery so far. Bloomberg juxtaposed the early stimulus plans of the world’s 50 largest economies and estimated that approximately $18 (€ 15,9) billion are investments for things like clean energy, greater energy efficiency, and sustainable agriculture. Out of a total of $ 12,000 billion, that is just 0.15 percent[2].

The answers to this crisis will not come from the market

Would this leave us in the somewhat defeatist position sketched by Slavoj Žižek, that most people find it easier to imagine the end of the world, than the end of capitalism?[3]Could it be a crisis of the imagination? Can one imagine another angle into this everlasting looped conversation? What are the steps to come from an 1,5 m society to a 1,50C Society? One element that gives me hope is that the crisis opened everyone’s eyes to the pivotal role of the state again. Having been ridiculed by libertarians, reasoned away by hardheaded neo-liberal economists, remodeled and ran as a sort of private enterprise by politics and weakened by decennia of budget cuts, the state re-emerged as an indispensable central actor. The bubble burst of wet dreams of entrepreneurial hospitals and privatisation of the health care, and even wetter dreams on letting market mechanisms render a better and affordable health system. Not only in health care but also in the emergency aid to civilians and businesses that the state re-emerged. This might be the most important lesson learned from the Corona crisis. If a majority want something to be done on the global commons, the state and international organisations between states have to take centre stage in a new way. The answers will not come from the markets. The Corona crisis teaches some lessons on differences between the role of the state. It shows what happens when countries with an extreme individualistic and libertarian ideology, think USA, think Brazil, are hit by a pandemic. And compare how countries with strong leadership, think Taiwan, think ‘team Kiwi’ New Zealand, seemed able to curb the pandemic.

The Future: Prevention Management Team

The wise black swanherd and complexity thinker, Nassim Taleb, reminds us that there is a stronger logic than market-economics: that the will and the instinct of survival precedes any economic success[4]. The role of medical science, substituting economists, as the main policy advisors at the peak of the crisis already showed the power of this survival mechanism at a national level. Taleb argues that our globally netted high tech-civilization is extremely fragile. The only way to protect this intricate web is to make it ‘anti-fragile’ by lowering the chance of a major disruption, the infamous negative ‘black swan’. And to combine these efforts by taking a myriad of much smaller risks by opening up for innovations and the opportunities of positive ‘black-swans’. As said, prevention prevails.

Linking this observation on fragility to the rediscovered role of the state clears the way for an interesting thought experiment. In extension of the Outbreak Management Team, and the Rebound Think Tank one can imagine a Prevention Management Team as a next step. What kind of – binding – advice would such a PMT draw up for our governments to lower the chance of yet another pandemic? And moreover, what would be the composition of a team like that and what would be their brief?

Prevention is no luxury. According to David Quammen, the naturalist who wrote the foretelling book about spillovers from animals to humans, the frequency of these Zoonoses increased[5]. In the last decennia already showed HIV (from Anthropoids), Ebola (from Anthropoids), MERS (from Camels), Q-Fever (from Goats), SARS (from Bats), COVID-19 (Civets, Bats or Pangolins). A new type of Swine Flu, H1N1-G4, already proved to be transferrable to humans in China.

These transmissions of illnesses from animals to humans threaten to be even more frequent, the WHO & IUCN warn us, because of a combination of global effects of human activities. Deforestation and land reclamation for palm oil and soybean production, the industrialisation of agriculture and animal husbandry, the illegal poaching and trade of wild animals slaughtered and sold on ‘wet-markets’, and as the possible most important driver, climate change itself. The death rate of epidemics and pandemics will also be higher because more and more bacteria are resistant to anti-biotics. In intensive husbandry anti-biotics are preventively complimented to the fodder and thus enter the human food chain. Not all spillovers will result in a pandemic of course, most will be local epidemics, but there is a real possibility that COVID-19 will prove to be a dress rehearsal for something even worse[6]. 

My ideal PMT would extend a warm welcome to the ethicists, behavioural scientists, demographers, philosophers (and even economists), which the OMT so skillfully managed to keep out to guide the way to a prosperous way down. I would also like to add a couple of ecologists to the team, because it is clear that only a fairly radical departure from the non-committal approach to global nature conservation policy, combined with a rethink of agriculture and our chain of food supply, can reduce the risk of a next pandemic disaster[7].

At first the PMT will operate on a national level, so we have to ask ourselves what can be done in our own backyard? As the world’s second-largest agricultural exporter, Holland can do what is necessary by phasing out industrial livestock production and scaling down the use of antibiotics. Internationally, too, our food industry (think Unilever) has a leading role to play, to which the PMT can contribute: stop cutting down rainforests, stop the reclamation of the Earth’s last ‘wastelands’. Via the Port of Rotterdam and Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, Holland can play a pivotal role in the strict prohibition and punishment of poaching and the resulting trade in exotic animal species and animal remains for food and traditional medicine.

Once it is up and running, this Prevention Management Team will certainly be able to put the pandemic in an even broader perspective, r, which is more far-reaching. It will recognise underlying suffering, namely the underlying suffering of the Earth due to the disruption of the climate by the emission of greenhouse gases. Both sides of climate policy are central to prevention planning. Mitigating and stopping emissions by energy and land use policy, covering energy-related greenhouse gasses and direct emissions by agriculture.  Adaptation and disaster management – to address the inevitable effects such as sea level rise. The Crowned Death certainly fails to match up with the far reaching consequences of the perfect storm that is building up in the conundrum of climate disruption, the acidification of our oceans that comes with it, the impact on the global geo-chemical cycles, the loss of biodiversity through the spectacular land-use change in the form of reclamation for agriculture and sprawling urbanisation. Making the system less fragile to the effects of this perfect storm will go hand-in-hand with making it less environmentally destructive.

Are we invited?

To extend this thought experiment one step further for us as a design community, an interesting question would be: what meaningful role designers could play in this PMT? Before trying to answer that the design community must ask itself whether it will pass the ballot. Designers have been the lifelong complicit of modernism, one of the root causes of the conundrum we find ourselves in. Designers are not automatically the ‘good guys’ in the play, just because– as architects – they feel themselves part of the cultural sector, or landscape architects that boast they are working with living material. We have to render account that we are fully aware that sometimes (landscape)architects and urbanists, in their daily practice could be part of the problem rather than part of the solution. They cannot solve the problems with the same instruments that brought us into trouble in the first place. Designers have to be able to make the mental (and commercial) switch from modernist new frontier thinking to a humble ‘planet repair-man’ kind of attitude. Second, designers must leave behind the idée-fixe that almost all societal problems can be solved with spatial means, the fading echo from the period of ‘spatial determinism’ of the mid 20th century. If we pass these two tests in reflective modesty, we quite literally still have a lot of ground to cover as spatial designers.

I am convinced that the design community can play a meaningful role in this imagined Prevention Management Team if only because these global problems all have spatial aspects; ultimately the necessary transitions will meet each other in the spatial domain. To give an example: they could think up new strategies knowing that there is a head on collision in the making between urbanisation and the biodiversity hotspots of the world[8]. Strategies that conserve and reserve a rightful places for the non-human inhabitants of our urban landscapes, address climate adaptation in the urban context at the same time, include water structures to battle the urban heat island effects and ways to reweave these urban carpets in a way that food production and electricity generation find their logic. It is possibly naïve because these kind of problems on this scale never will get a (paying) client. That is where our laboratory and the practice of research-by-design comes in. In the PMT there can be no immediate surrender to ‘impossibility’. Freedom is pivotal to conceptualise possible configurations that meet all these requirements, like the way that pharmaceutical companies are racing for a vaccine right now. Our contribution in this line to the PMT could be identifying and instrumentalising connections and shortcuts between the different transitions in the spatial domain.

These are daydreams, of course; it would take an ingenious deep fake to make our Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, give a speech on climate change that is as penetrating as the one he gave on the corona crisis. But our very real and tangible first step could be to reinstate the spatial planning on a national level that eroded away in the neo-liberal age where it was considered a ‘stagnating arrangement in our economy’. In the post corona era adequate spatial planning, in a new guise, more experimental and more probabilistic could be one of the corner stones of disaster prevention.

Dirk Sijmons
September 2020

About the author and the feature

Dirk Sijmons is a landscape architect trained as an urbanist in 1990 he was one of the founders of H+N+S Landscape-architects. He received numerous awards and was appointed first State Landscape Architect of the Netherlands (2004-2008).

He held the chair of Environmental Design (2008-2011) and that of Landscape Architecture (2011-2015) at the TU-Delft. Dirk Sijmons was the curator of IABR–2014 themed Urban-by-Nature. At the World Design summit 2017 in Montreal he was awarded the IFLA sir Geoffrey Jellicoe award.


[1] Kerosene enjoys duty free taxes internationally since the Chicago Convention in 1944 to boost international trade. This completely tilted the playing field with other modalities of transportation and like Pandora’s box opening allowed international tourism to open up to, ever further, new frontiers.

[2] Laura Millan Lombrana & Akshat Rathi Germany Just Unveiled the World’s Greenest Stimulus Plan Bloomberg June 5, 2020

[3] Žižek, Slavoj, The Spectre of Ideology Introduction to Slavoj Žižek (ed.) Mapping Ideology, Verso. 1994.

[4] Nassim Nicholas Taleb Antfragile – Things That Gain from Disorder, Random House, New York, 2013

[5] David Quammen Spillover, Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic W.W.Norton, New York, 2012

[6] Being better prepared if an epidemic or pandemic strikes again is first step of course. The basis is formed by well-equipped institutions that are always ready with sufficient capacity for intensive testing, extensive source and contact research, and possibly isolating sick people. Expensive, but only a fraction of the cost of a pandemic, like we have seen. Actually about 2% an article in the Guardian shows: Damian Carrington, Cost of preventing next pandemic ‘equal to just 2% of Covid-19 economic damage’ The Guardian 24th of July 2020

[7] Andrew P. Dobson, Stuart L. Pimm, Lee Hannah, Les Kaufman Ecology and economics for pandemic prevention Science  24 Jul 2020: Vol. 369, Issue 6502, pp. 379-381 DOI: 10.1126/science.abc3189

[8] Richard Weller (et All), The Atlas for the End of the World,  https://atlas-for-the-end-of-the-world.com/ PENN, Philadelphia, 2018


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