How Ready Are We?
The encouraging news is that many large companies have begun to take seriously the need to develop pandemic plans. A survey of ASIS members conducted in conjunction with this article found that about three-quarters of respondents have both a documented pandemic plan and a pandemic coordinator or a team with defined roles and responsibilities for pandemic preparedness and response planning. (About two-thirds of respondents were from the private sector, with about 9 percent from a federal, state/provincial or local/municipal agency. About 76 percent of respondents were from entities with more than 1,000 employees.)
These pandemic plans also appeared to be scalable, an important factor because a flu pandemic usually occurs in waves and unfolds over a longer period of time. More than 70 percent of respondents said their plans contained a phased response that could escalate as necessary.
Less encouraging, however, was the finding that nearly half of the respondents indicated that their companies had never tested the plan. Despite that low number, survey respondents are likely doing more than the general business population because ASIS members tend to be ahead of the curve.
Other studies support that theory. For example, a survey of a broader business audience by the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions released in 2007 found that while the vast majority of respondents (72 percent) believed that planning could help protect their business from a pandemic’s impact, only 52 percent had adequately planned.
A Mercer Human Resource Consulting survey in 2006 similarly found “a considerable gap between organizational concern about the impact of a pandemic and organizations’ current state of pandemic preparedness.” Countries affected by SARS were “generally more advanced in their pandemic planning,” the Mercer study found. “Conversely, for the United States and other economies that were not impacted by SARS and have not had direct exposure to the avian flu, planning is in its relative infancy.”
Surveys of business executives have shown that pandemics are not top-of-mind among decision makers. For example, “One thing that comes out loud and clear [from Deloitte research] is that corporate pandemic preparedness is simply not a CEO or COO [chief executive or chief operating officer] or board-of-directors level topic,” said Michael Evangelides, a principal at Deloitte, speaking at a 2007 conference titled “Business Preparedness for Pandemic Influenza: Second National Summit,” sponsored by the University of Minnesota Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP).
There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is the current economic downturn, with its more immediate consequences. Other reasons include the perception that U.S. corporations may have overreacted to the perceived threat of Y2K. Some studies suggest that the United States might have wasted as much as $40 billion because of fears of massive worldwide computer failures on January 1, 2000. As the Conference Board titled a briefing paper: “Is Avian Flu the Next Y2K? Can We Afford To Think So?”
Another factor reducing the willingness of businesses to spend on pandemic planning is that media coverage of the potential threat—and, thus, public concern—is waning. An Associated Press–Ipsos Public Affairs poll found that only 27 percent of Americans described themselves in July 2007 as concerned about avian influenza, down from 35 percent in 2006. Conversely, 41 percent said in 2007 they were not concerned about avian flu, up from 31 percent in 2006.
Commenting on the noticeable drop in mainstream media coverage, Peter Sandman, a critical incident communication expert, wrote in the CIDRAP Business Source Weekly Briefing: “Journalists are novelty junkies; they get bored fast. For a while, the risk of a pandemic was novelty enough for them. Then, inevitably, reporters started longing for a new angle. The one they found was: ‘Whatever happened to the risk of a pandemic?”’
The problem is, regardless of public and media perceptions or the priorities of corporate decision makers, the possibility of another pandemic has not diminished, nor has the need to have a pandemic plan.
There have been three pandemics since the start of the 20th century. Besides the already-mentioned 1918-19 pandemic, less destructive but still serious global flu events occurred in 1957-58 and in 1968-69. “Both history and science clearly tell us that influenza pandemics are inevitable,” said Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in testimony at a 2006 hearing on the issue before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies.
Part of the difficulty is that top-level decision makers are generally focused on quarter-to-quarter performance. This is often called “short-termism,” or the overwhelming pressure of meeting short-term quarterly earnings. Pandemic planning, on the other hand, requires a long-term perspective. The challenge, said Dr. Gerberding, speaking at the CIDRAP conference, is: “How do we run this marathon when we’re living in a society that only wants to sprint?”
The bottom line: Whenever you put together a business plan for creating a new pandemic preparedness program or sustaining an existing one, you need to keep in mind what’s topmost on executives’ minds and the status of other business drivers like public opinion and mainstream media coverage.
Broader benefits. One way to counter short-termism and any skepticism about the value of allocating resources to pandemic planning is to make a business case that the investment in such plans yields much broader benefits. It does so by making the organization more resilient and better able to survive a variety of more common catastrophic critical incidents, such as those caused by severe weather.
“Pandemic planning definitely creates value,” says Bernie McCabe, chief security officer for Marathon Oil Corp. of Houston. Marathon, the fourth largest United States-based integrated oil company and the nation’s fifth largest refiner, has a cutting-edge pandemic plan.
The company has also invested heavily in the infrastructure necessary for employees to work from home in the event of a pandemic. It has seen this investment pay off. “We’ve had a couple of ice storms the last couple of winters, and we activated our pandemic infrastructure to see if we could operate remotely, and it worked perfectly,” says John Weust, manager of emergency preparedness at Marathon.
A pandemic plan will help a company achieve the following goals, outlined in the ASIS Business Continuity Guideline: save lives and reduce chances of further injuries/deaths; protect assets; restore critical business processes and systems; reduce the length of the interruption of business; protect reputation damage, control media coverage; and maintain customer relations.
Another selling point: An Oxford University study showed that companies that effectively manage critical incidents gain market value, while the shares of ineffective ones can lose a lot of value. The study found that corporations lost an average of 15 percent in net stock value in the months following an ineffective response to a large-scale emergency. An effective response increased companies’ total market value by about 22 per cent.