Thursday, May 23, 2013

Don't Underestimate The Next Pandemic

I have been talking about the need to plan for the next worldwide pandemic since this time in 2005.

Since our founding in 1989 the Institute for Crisis Management has been warning leaders of all kinds and sizes of businesses and other organizations about the need to plan for crises and prevent as many as possible.

We have had a measure of success in helping businesses around the globe plan and train for the inevitable bumps in the road they are most likely to encounter.  But it continues to frustrate me when we talk about pandemic planning and so many intelligent executives, owners and leaders ignore the threat.

It doesn't matter what you do or how big or small your organization is, a pandemic could have a devastating impact on it.

China has been dealing with a new strain of "bird flu" identified as H7N9. In the past two months 131 people have been infected and 36 have died. It has not reached pandemic status yet, and it may never.  But, if this strain of bird flu is not the beginning of the next worldwide pandemic, there will likely be another strain develop that will.

For hundreds of years and about every 20 to 30 years, the world has experienced a major pandemic, which killed thousands of people. The worst in modern times struck in 1918 and killed 500,000 people in the United States and 50-million worldwide.

Healthcare has advanced significantly since then, but it hasn't figured out how to fully prevent another pandemic. 

If you are not concerned about the human suffering, sickness and death that has accompanied pandemics throughout history, how about the economic impact on the people and governments?

Let's take one segment of the world's economy -- our food supply. 

Beginning nearly ten years ago, supermarkets and a few restaurant chains realized they could take a big hit on their bottom line if the public was afraid to buy and eat some of their biggest and best sellers, such as chicken.  And a few of those companies began to plan for the potential impact of that possibility.

We now have a clear view of the potential impact.  In China, in the past two months, with only a relative handful of deaths and illness from a new "bird flu" virus, the Agriculture Ministry reported this week it has cost the country's poultry industry $6.5-billion because consumers are afraid to buy and eat chicken, turkey and duck.

You don't have to be in the food industry to be concerned.  What if you make cars and trucks?

The normal functions of society were disrupted in the 1918 outbreak with workers 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 should already have a plan.

Planning should proceed on two fronts:
1.      How are you going to maintain a minimal level of service/productivity?
2.      How are you going to communicate quickly and effectively with employees, vendors and   customers?

Human Resources, Purchasing, Transportation, Marketing and Sales all need a plan to keep the business functioning. 

What’s the minimum workforce with which you can continue to operate?  When you have 20-30 percent of your workforce out sick, or afraid to come to work, what can you do to meet production or service 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 operations?
 
You need to anticipate:
    ·         What will you do
    ·         What will you say
    ·         How will you decide if you have to close a plant, store, distribution center or office, even   temporarily.

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

That's just a starting place!