What, me worry?

An influenza pandemic will most likely hit Canada quickly and wreak havoc. Very few businesses have written a pandemic plan despite the likelihood of both high risk and high impacts:

• Absence rates between 15% and 35%.
• Serious and prolonged effects on supply lines and customer spending.
• Overwhelmed government, health care, and other essential services.
• Ineligibility of most disability claims under current group contracts.
• Fear and uncertainty among employees from inadequate human resource policies, procedures, and communication plans.

All organizations should assess their risks, find and allocate resources, check with suppliers, and identify all business-critical functions and roles.
Just ask your friends at any media outlet: bad news sells. The World Health Organization believes there will be only a 3-4 week interval between confirmation of human-human transmission of an avian flu virus, and a pandemic that is very likely to hit Canada. Viruses are highly mobile. Bad news also travels fast, and a pandemic is about as bad as it gets.
But wait a minute. While the experts agree a pandemic will occur, they freely admit they do not know when. It could be this winter, or in five months, or in five years. Is this really today’s news, or is it another Y2K-like story that, fortunately, never happens?
Businesses can judge threats and opportunities according to risk and reward, and risk and impact. We should not ignore high risk and high impact, though this has mostly been our approach to pandemic preparation, according to the Conference Board of Canada. Though a pandemic concerns them, fewer than 20% of Canadian businesses, even those providing essential services, have completed a pandemic flu plan. Behaviour has to follow knowledge.
Smaller businesses, our own included, do not tend to spend a huge amount of time on formal planning. It is easy to say pandemic flu planning is the government’s responsibility, and public health organizations at all levels in Canada have done very well in this regard. Does this mean complacency can be excused? No; those reports advise businesses to plan for a pandemic as part of their overall business continuity and risk planning.
The business issues are clear:
  • Absence rates among workers are expected to be between 15 and 35 percent, due to personal or family illness, lack of transportation, quarantine, school closure, or inability to return home from travelling elsewhere. The virus has killed over half those with confirmed infections.
  • Supply chains will be affected, both local and global. Consider how manufacturing, transportation and retail operations are so closely linked.
  • Customer spending will be reduced. Businesses, yours and those that buy from you, will conserve their cash and see their customers do the same. For a time, there will be widespread shortages of essential equipment and supplies, and the prices of remaining stock will balloon. Non-essential goods and services will not sell.
  • Governments, health care systems, and essential services will be overwhelmed for a significant period. Surge capacity is very limited already.
  • Smaller businesses have little if any slack to cover essential roles that generate revenues and profits. BMO-Nesbitt Burns projects annual GDP in Canada may be reduced by $20 – $60 billion.
  • Most claims for absence and many pandemicrelated short-term disabilities will be ineligible under current group plans. Quarantine may affect income, but it does not allow a benefit.
  • Similarly, most employers do not have HR-related pandemic policies and procedures in place. Employees healthy (and brave enough) to come to work may expect a financial incentive to do their work and that of their missing colleagues. They will certainly need quick, sensitive and reliable direction and information from their companies.
Where does this leave us? We have a serious, widespread, fast-moving and fear-provoking pathogen before us, but one that may not hit this year or next, or anytime in the next few years. But it might hit tomorrow, just as easily. Governments and public health agencies have been very proactive, and their planning will help mitigate the effects in Canada. Surveys indicate that although businesses are aware of the risks, they remain largely unprepared, even those offering essential services.
What might you do? Each organization must assess its own circumstances. Weigh the potential human and financial risks and impact of a pandemic flu on your business, and the communities and families of those who work with you. Review available resources, and check on the plans of suppliers and customers and local business associations. Determine a reasonable amount of time to invest in planning, identifying business-critical functions and roles, and allocating adequate funding to properly prepare. Review those plans annually.
Even if a pandemic does not soon occur, such an exercise is prudent for all organizations, and will help ensure you are both prepared, and a survivor.Good news for all.


Categories: Editorial