Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Question: Are You Ready For The Next Pandemic?

The death toll continues to climb, slowly, from the current avian influenza strain that is spreading among ducks, geese and chickens around the world. As of this writing, 257 people have died out of 417 people who have been infected in 15 countries.

Just because it hasn't happened yet, doesn't mean the next worldwide influenza pandemic isn't coming. And, no matter how big or small your business, you cannot afford not to plan for it.

Remember how many millions of dollars and countless hours of worry and preparation were spent in anticipation of the Y2K Bug? Remember, nothing much went wrong? Did you ever go back and review what you did, what it cost and what it might have cost if you had not prepared?

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the United States Centers for Disease Control are warning of a far greater threat facing the world, than Y2K. And like Y2K, there is not a lot executives, managers and leaders of corporations, small business and other organizations can do to prevent the possible pandemic disaster. But there is a lot you can do to prepare your organizations to avoid total business disaster.

While a few good companies and organizations have begun to prepare for a pandemic, the public and most business owners, executives and managers have turned a deaf ear to the threat. But there is a great deal you can do to prepare, just in case, and without spending the kind of money that was spent on Y2K.

There are four key areas that you must consider:
1. Cash flow
2. Personnel Policies and issues
3. Legal Issues, i.e. contracts
4. How to communicate with key audiences before, during and after the pandemic.

WHO's Western Pacific regional director says the world is in "grave danger" and "overdue" for an influenza pandemic, since pandemics have occurred every 30 to 40years and it's been nearly 40 years since the last one.

The worst outbreak of influenza was in 1918 and it killed an estimated 50 million people around the world and 500,000 in the US alone.

The normal functions of society have been disrupted in the past outbreaks of 1957 and 1968, but nothing like the world-wide impact of 1918 with people too ill to work, others staying home out of fear, hospitals strained to meet the demand for care and basic essentials such as transportation, water, sanitation and power were threatened.

Forward thinking companies are already planning for the next pandemic.
Planning should proceed on these fronts:

How are you going to maintain a minimal level of productivity for two to six months?
How are you going to communicate quickly and effectively with employees and vendors and customers?

Human Resources, Finance, Legal, IT, Purchasing, Transportation, Marketing and Sales all need a plan to keep the business functioning. Plan for how you are going to keep operating with up to half of your employees out sick or afraid to come to work, and knowing that some will never be back. Or, plan for when you will shut down and how you will make that decision and communicate that decision to your employees, vendors and customers.

What's the minimum workforce with which you can continue to operate safely? When you have as much as half your workforce out sick, or afraid to come to work, what can you do to meet production demands? When a number of those sick employees never return to work, where will you find qualified replacements? How long will it take to train them?

When your vendors are facing the same sickness and absenteeism, and your delivery services are slowed by sickness, how will you maintain production?
The communication challenge is just as significant.

You need a plan in place to communicate with employees, to reassure them, if you can:
~ their jobs will be safe
~ this will end and life will return to normal (whatever that is)
~ the company will stand by them and their families if the worst happens

You will need to daily update employees, partners and customers about the progress you are making in overcoming the challenges of the pandemic. But, be honest. You may be slowed by the illness or work may be temporarily halted.

To compound the threat, companies doing business overseas have people traveling back and forth regularly. In fact, CDC is warning people that plan to visit Asian countries for more than ten days to immediately go to hospital with any hint of pneumonia or respiratory problems.

Healthcare insurers and providers should already be developing their plan, and charitable organizations need to prepare, also. If you depend on volunteers, and they are sick or afraid of getting sick, you will be impacted. If you depend on individual and corporate funding, and work is slowed or temporarily stopped by a pandemic, you will suffer immediate and significant financial loss.

Like preparation for Y2K, planning for something like a bird flu pandemic may seem far fetched and unnecessary. Y2K came and went with hardly a ripple. A flu pandemic will cause ripples even with preparation, but it will cause tidal waves if you do not plan, just in case.


  1. Larry,

    Thank you very much for your posting. I came across your blog through Linked-In and have enjoyed reading through it.

    I appreciate you raising the question of a possible pandemic and asking businesses how they would respond to such an outbreak. I'm curious, though - how much should businesses prepare for all the possible crisis which may occur. From suicide bombings to biochemical warfare to a national computer virus, so many things can happen. What do you suggest to companies? Thank you!

  2. Obviously, it is impossible to create a specific crisis plan for each and every possibility (and not necessary), but what we typically recommend is that each business/organization identify the most likely issues/crises they are likely to face, then develop a crisis communication plan for each broad crisis type.

    In most cases, a company will have 8 to 12 broad crisis categories covered in a crisis comms plan.

    For example: we developed a crisis comms plan for a large house-hold cleaning products company (a chemical company basically).

    One crisis section in their plan is entitled:
    Legal or Ethical Problems (Including government investigations, lawsuits, discrimination charges, sexual harassment, employee theft, fraud, etc.)

    And in six or seven pages that section outlines the basic steps to get started managing all those kinds of issues.

    Another section is entitled:
    Workplace Violence/Disgruntled Employee (Including terrorism, bomb threats, kidnapping, hold-ups, hostage taking, etc.)

    In fact, a Pandemic Plan will be good for a number of other crisis types including a major terrorist attack on the community or nearby city with fall-out that impacts your work site.

    Hope that helps.