Updated: Could your organization cope with a mass flu outbreak?

The Inevitable Pandemic

By Rick Lyke

Please feel free to forward this article to your company’s leaders, especially your COO and HR team. At the end, you’ll find a link to a comprehensive guide: Making your Organization Pandemic-Ready.

At the recent International Economic Forum of the Americas Conference at Montreal, a panel of experts on public health and emergency preparedness addressed “The Globalization of Epidemics” and the threat to the global economy that a pandemic would pose.

Panelists showed some pretty sophisticated and chilling models illustrating how diseases can spread around the globe. One of the panelists showed work that was done leading into the 2010 Vancouver Olympics describing what would have happened if that city had been exposed to a disease outbreak during the games. Another talked about a mapping study from Harvard University that illustrates how, with the ease of global travel, an outbreak of a serious disease would spread rapidly.

The basic takeaway from these models is the only hope to isolate a disease is if the outbreak happens in a remote village with no air, train or boat service, and very limited road access. And even then, health officials would have to quickly figure out what is going on in order to contain the outbreak.

The challenge in preparing a business and communication plan to meet the inevitable pandemic is real. As one panelist said during the forum, “The clock is ticking on the next major pandemic. We’re just not sure what time it is, but for certain we will face a pandemic in the future.” In fact, another speaker showed a chart of 21 different diseases with outbreaks occurring right now around the globe that could threaten economic conditions. These range from AIDS, which panelists felt had a relatively low threat to trade and commerce because of the ways it is transmitted, to illnesses like tuberculosis and cholera. One in three people in the world carry TB, but much of it does not develop to disease form. However, when it does, the new strains are proving to be highly drug resistant.

One panelist pointed out that a measles outbreak was happening in Montreal at the very moment when people from around the globe were in the city for not only the International Economic Forum of the Americas, but also a Formula One race, the largest beer festival in Canada and a major art exhibition.

Some points of view expressed by the panel based on observations of recent disease outbreaks:

  • Stopping air traffic is no protection. Because people move around so much, just shutting off direct flights from the source city/country of an outbreak cannot possibly work.
  • Speed of information sharing is key. The emergency networks set up after the 9-11 terror attacks mean that the infrastructure is much improved.
  • Groups like (WHO) can offer guidance, but countries and companies will “do their own thing” to show they are “doing something.” This can have major implications to agricultural economies and the movement of people.
  • Air travel from poorer nations, where immunization rates against many diseases are much lower, is up more than 100% in the last decade, compared to 40% from developed economies. The democratization of travel increases exposure to a variety of threats from diseases.
  • We are in a period of “crisis fatigue” as we move from one natural disaster to the next — and one disease outbreak to another — in almost continuous fashion. When the public stops listening to warnings, they will not take basic steps that can help reduce an outbreak.
  • We face a major issue about stockpiling and sharing drugs to fight disease outbreaks. Getting medicine to where it can do the most good is an issue. Countries don’t want to give up their supply in fear of what will happen if the disease reaches their shores. Progress is being made in this area. For instance, it takes three eggs to produce one dose of flu vaccine. So if you wanted to vaccinate the entire North American population using standard technology you would need more than one billion eggs. Work is being done to roll out vaccines that are inhaled or administered using nano-patches that use 1/100th of the amount of the vaccine to be effective.
  • Risk pathways range from people with a virus to food that is contaminated to agents that can be carried from one place to another in ships, planes, trucks and even baggage (the spread of bed bugs was used as the example). The threat to trade and the economy comes when people judge the risk as too great and decide to hunker down.
  • Epidemics have been with us throughout recorded history. In 430 BC, the Peloponnesian War Pestilence killed 30,000 people in Athens, half of the city’s population at the time. In 2010, a cholera outbreak started in Haiti claimed 5,000 lives. That epidemic has been traced to a United Nations soldier from Nepal who was in the country as part of the response to the earthquake.

What does it all mean? The planning many public relations people have done for a pandemic flu was not a waste of time. Smart companies must have contingency plans in place for handling a business interruption caused by a pandemic as the part of normal emergency preparedness. Showing employees that their company has a plan and is prepared to survive an outbreak will reduce the potential for panic.

Planning is just the first step. Holding crisis drills and reviewing emergency preparedness is critical to being ready. Being prepared will help limit the disruption to business as usual and help maintain customer confidence. What recent cases have proven is that companies that fail at the basics in communicating during a crisis may not emerge on the other side.

Preparing for the worst:
How would a massive flu outbreak impact your business or operations?

There’s an old expression that “Economists have successfully predicted ten of the last three recessions.” So it seems with the doomsday-style predictions of the last few years warning of imminent flu pandemics.

We shouldn’t become complacent however, because like recession forecasts, sooner or later a massive flu outbreak will occur. Whether it’s swine flu, avian flu or some other flu, it will present a very real threat to your company or organization, one for which you would be wise to prepare.

Whenever an operational crisis strikes any organization, the most important group of stakeholders — its employees and their families — demand to know “What’s going on?” And, of course, nowadays they will share the answer with the outside world.

When the crisis is of the magnitude of a flu pandemic, it’s even more critical for companies to keep employees fully informed and well prepared to cope, even though such an event is clearly out of any individual organization’s control. As we all discovered on September 11, 2001, major widespread crises can and do affect businesses and operations everywhere, whether directly involved or not.

Preparation for likely crisis-triggering events is simply good management. In the event of a nationwide or worldwide health crisis, preparing for the worst becomes a reasonable and necessary task.

How will you stay in business or continue operating if employee absenteeism reaches 25 percent or more? If travel is suspended, suppliers are unable to deliver and revenues plummet as stricken customers become unable to purchase?

If you hope to prevail in this situation, your organization must be ready to sufficiently communicate relevant responses, beginning with what it’s doing to protect its own employees.

When jobs, lives and livelihoods are at stake, employers must be able to address questions such as:

  • What are we doing to make sure we can stay in business?
  • Will I still have a job if the flu forces us to shut down?
  • If the flu does force us to shut down, how long will we be closed?
  • Will I get paid if I get the flu and have to stay home?
  • Will I get paid if schools close and I have to stay home with my children?
  • What will happen to my health insurance coverage if we’re shut down?
  • How will I find out what’s happening around our organization and how it might affect me?
  • How will I find out what I am expected to do as the situation changes?
  • Which aspects of my job will change, and which will remain the same?
  • Will it be possible for me to work from home using the Internet and phone?
  • I don’t want to be forced to work next to someone who’s sick. What is our policy?
  • What is our policy regarding people who insist on coming to work when they have the flu?

Surely there will be other questions unique to your organization. But as you can see, it is nearly impossible to answer these questions properly without thinking about them in advance.

Clearly, now is the time to carefully review attendance and sick day policies to make sure they anticipate and correspond to a mass flu crisis, and, most important, that old policies don’t conflict with new situations and messages. If existing policies require modification, the sooner you publish them, the better.

Consider whether you need a policy that enables you to protect people by preventing sick employees from coming to work. You need one if your company employs some of those “do-or-die” types that insist on being at work no matter how ill they are and how many others they might infect.

Effectively communicating your preparedness beforehand is one of the critical strategies for successful crisis management.

In the end, your management will not be judged on the fact that a flu pandemic (or any other mass disaster) struck. Instead, management will be judged on how it responded… and specifically, how well it communicated with everyone affected.

Will your management team be seen as well-prepared, thoughtful, calm and helpful?

Or will it “just wing it,” making it up as it goes along, lurching from one hasty decision after another, always reactively rather than proactively? Will it come across as caught off-guard, uncaring, out of control? Did it create panic or was it reassuring?

In situations like these, how well or how poorly a company or organization responds to internal and external audiences will affect its reputation for years to come.

See your doctor and get your flu shot! And make sure your organization gets one too. We would be happy to consult with you regarding how to prepare to meet the four key parameters of crisis communications relevant to a potential flu pandemic.

Download a comprehensive guide to Making Your Organization Pandemic-Ready.