Scientific experts concur that a future pandemic is inevitable. Economic experts concur that it will result in massive disruption. And informed government and business leaders concur that preparation is the key to mitigating the risks and disruption, and recovering after the pandemic.
Speakers and participants agreed that preparation — which is a never-ending process of plan and test—must take place now. It must link the public and private sectors, must involve the creation of detailed plans with specific triggers, and must emphasize education and communication. It requires the commitment of leaders, who must be educated regarding the magnitude of the risks faced — even in a moderate, not a worst-case, pandemic.
With investments in preparation, the risks of a pandemic can be mitigated, and more businesses and individuals will survive and will be able to resume their normal lives after the pandemic passes. In addition, the benefits of achieving resiliency, flexibility, and more effective communications will be seen beyond the pandemic.
A pandemic is seen as inevitable, with significant societal and economic impacts.
There is little argument among the scientific community about whether a future pandemic will occur. What is uncertain is when it will occur and how lethal it will be. A key takeaway from many participants was a new recognition of how quickly a pandemic could spread across the globe. Detection in Asia on one day could trigger pandemic plans in the US the following day.
The consequences of a future pandemic in terms of loss of life and economic disruption are potentially enormous. The effect of SARS in Toronto provided a glimpse of what could happen. While this virus resulted in fewer than 50 deaths in Toronto, the panic associated with SARS crippled travel, resulted in tens of thousands of lost jobs, and depressed the GDP of Canada by perhaps three points. Dr. Sherri Cooper estimates that a severe pandemic could cost the global economy $3 trillion.
Required action: achieving preparedness.
Hoping that a pandemic doesn’t occur, occurs elsewhere, or isn’t severe is not a good strategy. The human and economic risks of a pandemic demand preparation. Virtually every session dealt in some way with the theme of effective preparation. Among the key takeaways related to preparation were:
Being prepared requires a plan. (But having a plan does not equate to preparation.)
This plan must be detailed, stating who does what in what circumstances. It should have clear “triggers” for action, should anticipate high rates of absenteeism (40% was frequently cited), and should take succession planning into account. It also should have a method for determining what business and personnel are essential, with processes for equipping essential personnel to work and communicate from home.
A plan should be put in place ASAP. It was repeated that “perfect should not be the enemy of good.” Organizations should put plans in place and then continually improve them.
Creating the plan requires a crisis response team.
The composition of this team is important, with representation from all key functions, including operations, HR, legal, and IT. A learning for many attendees was the need to include a medical person on this team. In several sessions it was mentioned that companies should first create general crisis response and business continuity plans, and then tailor those plans to the unique realities of a pandemic.
Develop appropriate HR policies.
In a pandemic should people report to work or work from home? Will they be paid? Will they be provided with TAMIFLU®? These questions can’t be answered in the middle of a crisis; the answers must be developed and communicated in advance.
Communication is the most important component of a plan.
In particular, fast and accurate employee communication is essential. Communication tactics and messages should be planned in advance.
Effective messaging communicates:
1) here is what we know;
2) here is what we are doing; and
3) here is what you need to do.
Communicating quickly and continuously is more important than waiting to communicate until all information is available. External communication is also important, as corporate reputations are made or broken in crises. (Also, addressing the communication infra-structure is important. Many organizations will use satellite phones if other means of communication don’t work.)
Improving the plan requires real-world exercises. Plans are developed based on the best current thinking from the right group of people. These plans must then be tested through real-world scenarios and exercises that challenge the organization and identify gaps in the plan.
Employers and government should help individuals prepare.
Because in a pandemic people could be isolated in their homes for weeks, they must receive information and education about what they need to do to prepare.
Investing to achieve preparedness requires strong support from senior leadership.
Achieving preparedness requires a significant investment of resources—both people and money—which only comes about through the support of leaders. Much discussion focused on how to secure the needed leadership. Among the approaches discussed were:
Educate leaders that pandemic is a “predictable surprise.”
Predictable surprises are those where the facts show overwhelmingly the likelihood of an event, such as 9/11, but barriers exist that impede acting. Action can occur when leaders are exposed to the concept of “predictable surprises” and to the consequences of not acting.
Include pandemic as part of enterprise risk management. (ERM).
Increasingly ERM is a corporate function that looks at all of the risks a company faces, quantifies them, prioritizes them, and then takes action to mitigate them. Those with knowledge of the magnitude of a pandemic must get pandemic on the ERM agenda, and must quantify the exposure. This quantification will get leadership attention and action.
A mild or moderate pandemic still makes a compelling business case.
Too often, discussions about pandemic cite statistics related to a worst-case scenario. Such statistics are almost beyond belief. Presenting data from a mild or moderate pandemic is more believable, more credible, and will still be compelling enough to get leaders’ attention.
Professor Yossi Sheffi observed that companies that are well prepared for a disaster are good at prioritizing, are flexible in responding to changes in demand, are resilient, and work together well as a team—all qualities that equip companies to compete in rapidly changing market conditions. Thus, doing what is necessary to prepare for a pandemic or for any disaster helps build the foundation necessary to compete more effectively day to day and creates competitive advantage.
Preparedness requires connectivity.
In today’s interconnected, interdependent world, no company is an island. Achieving preparedness requires replacing the notion of independent silos with one of linkage and connectivity. Companies should connect with others in the same industry and connect with government, especially local public health officials.
The need to forge relationships with local health officials prior to a pandemic was repeated numerous times during the conference with the refrain, “Take a public health official to lunch.” And the time to do that is long before a pandemic outbreak.
Achieving this linking of silos requires meta-leaders who can lead within their silos, lead up, and lead across silos. Meta-leaders bring disparate groups together to act for a common purpose. Each person at this conference needs to become a meta-leader in his/her own organization and industry.
Desired by participants is more specific guidance from the federal government on pandemic planning. Participants see lots of information coming from the government, but they perceive a lack of leadership, guidance, and consistency. It was hoped that the creation of a new Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Emergency Response would help address this.
Responding effectively requires leaders who are prepared to lead.
While much of the conference focused on detailed pandemic plans and clear trigger points, not lost was the human element of a crisis. Plans are absolutely necessary. But also needed are leaders who understand the emotions of a crisis and can manage their own emotions in such a way that they can inspire others.
Humans are wired to respond emotionally in stressful situations. Leaders must understand this and in stressful situations such as a pandemic must be able to move beyond their instinctive emotional reaction to activate higher levels of their brain. A tactic for doing this is to recognize the stress and to resort to routines and protocols. Comfort with routines allows a leader to then engage the parts of the brain needed for hope, compassion, and inspiration, creativity, and effective problem solving.