Preparing Businesses for a Pandemic

There are a number of threats that companies face from a variety of unpredictable and possibly catastrophic events.

A global virus affecting more than a quarter of the world's population is an unpalatable, but increasingly likely prospect. The impact on human life could be catastrophic, but the potential economic impact to organizations across the world also cannot be ignored.

Consider the following:

  • A report of the US National Intelligence Council's 2020 Project, Mapping the Global Future, identified a global pandemic as the single most important threat to the global economy

  • The London Chamber of Commerce found that one in five businesses would be unable to survive a 12-week outbreak of avian flu.

  • The Asian Development Bank said in a report that "it is only a matter of time" before there is a major flu pandemic.

No one knows when or indeed if avian flu will transmute into a form that can be passed from human to human. But is there any justification for businesses to ignore these warnings?

For companies, anxiety levels should be rising fast. Companies would most likely face severe restrictions on international and possibly local travel, significant disruption to their supply chains as increased inspections disrupt logistics, and a potential general slowdown in business. Due to the number of uncertainties with avian flu, companies can plan only for what might happen. However, avian flu needs to be viewed as only one of a number of threats that companies face from a variety of unpredictable and possibly catastrophic events.

Given some of the terrible and disruptive events of the past few years, it might be safe to assume that businesses have learned lessons and implemented measures to ensure that they can carry on normally in the event of a worst-case scenario. Such confidence, unfortunately, may be misplaced.

Preparing for the Worst

Business continuity and crisis management are two sides of the same coin. While companies may have previously viewed these as discrete projects or activities that could take place alongside "business as usual," more progressive businesses now ensure that business continuity considerations are embedded in general operations. What a company does, its processes and activities, must be considered in terms of how it would continue should a significant proportion of its workforce become incapacitated.

According to Gartner, companies need to consider that avian flu could be more contagious and virulent than SARS. In many ways, the SARS pandemic of 2003 prompted governments and businesses to take a proactive approach to addressing avian influenza, and many different agencies have outlined recommendations. Often, this includes remote working of one form or another. Though remote working is part of the solution, it fails to address the realities of a likely pandemic. If people are too sick to work, they will still be too sick to work at home. In addition, school closures will force many employees to remain at home to look after children, and overwhelmed health systems will mean that many people diagnosed with the infection will have to be cared for at home, again limiting otherwise-healthy employees' ability to work.

In the event of a pandemic, remote working will allow segregation of the workforce. People will wish to avoid areas of mass congregation -- such as an office -- as well as situations like air travel where large groups inhabit confined spaces for long periods of time. So in addition to remote working, organizations should also consider identifying "skeleton" teams of key staff who would be the only ones to come to work in the event of a pandemic. Primary and backup teams for key activities should be identified and organized on a split-shift, split-site basis to reduce the risk of cross-contamination. Implementing a change freeze on all systems development will allow IT development staff to be redeployed into support positions if required.

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