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Not If, But When: Preparing Your 
Business for the Avian Flu Pandemic

By Maurice Ramirez

A pandemic is an epidemic that occurs worldwide and simultaneously, so that almost every place on the planet is in either the early or late phases of the disease. Roughly every ninety-one years, give or take three or four years in either direction, a worldwide pandemic of influenza hits. The last worldwide influenza pandemic was the 1918 Spanish flu, so the next one will happen between the years 2005 and 2013. That is an absolute mathematical certainty, because the genetic mutations that cause a new type of virus occur with a clock-like regularity.

Of the flu strains on the horizon, the avian flu, known as H5:N1, has the greatest potential for being a true business disaster. Why should businesses care about a pandemic flu? Consider this: In 1918, the pandemic affected forty percent of the workforce, which had a tremendous economic impact. Scientists currently project that, at best, the world can expect a similar set of percentages as in 1918. As much as forty percent of the workforce will be out of work; fifteen percent of those who contract the flu will die. So overall, roughly six percent of the world’s workforce will disappear.

Under the best circumstances, few businesses can withstand a two to four week absenteeism rate at forty percent, and even fewer can afford a six percent death rate randomly through their workforce, all within a span of six weeks. Add to that the rates of absenteeism and death among every one of your suppliers and your customers, and you can quickly see how a flu pandemic can become a business disaster.

The Risks of Face-to-Face Business: If your business is open to the public, you will have to accept a relatively high level of risk. As in 1918, those businesses that continue to offer the human touch throughout the period of the illness will almost certainly see an increase in business, even though people are afraid of getting the disease. Many will start missing human contact long before the disease burns itself out, which could take six to twelve weeks. So if your business can maintain human contact, you will do well but at a risk as high as thirty percent that your people will get sick. In other words, employees risk a one in three chance of becoming ill every time they talk to a customer in person, and a forty percent chance of being out of work if they become ill. Then there’s a fifteen to fifty percent chance of them dying if they catch the disease without treatment.

Protect Yourself and Your Business with a Plan: Your best response to all of this is to have a good plan. You will not be able to evacuate, because the pandemic will be occurring worldwide. Therefore, your ability to respond depends on planning. Remember, this disaster is an absolute certainty, and you and your business are certain to suffer if you don’t plan.

Create an “institutional memory” archive: Right now, much information that is relevant to your business’s operation is in people’s heads, and it needs to be written down and replicated. Say your sales manager and materials manager get sick; your business is dead in the water while those two people are out of work. Even if they come back in two or four weeks when they’ve recovered, chances are, they’re going to come back to an empty office because you’re out of business if you were unable to get the materials you needed to make your business run, or you had your product or service but couldn’t sell it to anybody. Therefore, commit to paper all of your business’s institutional memory, so you know who you rely on within your business, what they do for you, and how to replicate their work, if necessary, in their absence.

Plan for contingencies: You need to be prepared if businesses outside of yours with whom you normally work, especially suppliers, abruptly close their doors because they didn’t plan as well as you did. If they suddenly go out of business, or are so affected by the disease that they temporarily shut down, you don’t want their failure to plan to become your business failure.

Look at each of your external stakeholders and consider how you can continue to function without each one. For example, if you can’t function without a certain product or service, where could you get it if you can’t get it from your normal supplier? Take those contingencies as far as you can project them, knowing that there will be circumstances you do not anticipate and areas in which your plan will fail. You will simply have to learn to adapt on the fly.

Take steps to isolate your people from the disease: No one will be quarantined when the avian flu outbreak occurs. A pandemic will break out worldwide and very quickly, so containment by quarantine is simply impossible. You can decrease your risk of exposure by curtailing your personal travel and contacts to a degree, but this has to happen before you know that there’s an outbreak, so that’s very difficult to do. However, here are some steps you can take immediately:

  • When the flu season is starting to hit, the best isolation is vaccination. Right now, an H5:N1 vaccine has not been developed, but when a strain of the virus goes from human to human, development will begin very quickly.

  • Early treatment with medication will also help to isolate you from the disease once it breaks out.

  • Depending on your business, at the disease’s onset, consider telecommuting, which will allow you and your people to isolate but continue to run the business.

  • As personal protection, curtail your shopping by stocking up once a week or even once a month. Fewer trips mean less potential exposure.

Have a treatment plan: With treatment, that fifteen percent death rate can be reduced to about eight percent, which is standard for any other flu. Two very good treatments are available right now that all avian flu strains are sensitive to—Tamiflu and Relenza. Also available are two less effective treatments that can still reduce absenteeism and the death rate to no worse than they are with the regular flu.

Your business should definitely get to work with your insurance company now to ensure that they will pay for vaccination and medication, whether the disease is H5:N1 or a different pandemic virus, because the outbreak is still a statistical certainty. We will have a pandemic. The only questions are “When?” “Which virus?” and “How bad will it be?”

Plan for your employees’ family care: While all of this business planning will be immensely valuable, naturally your first priority when the pandemic hits will be for your loved ones, just as it will be for all of your employees. If you want your employees to feel secure enough about their families’ safety to come to work, you need to do your part to reassure them.

Be flexible about scheduling so parents can care for sick children or spouses, and offer your employees applicable health benefits such as home healthcare, which will be a mainstay of treatment for less severe influenza patients because hospital beds will be in short supply. Home healthcare also relieves your employee of some caregiver responsibility.

Plan Today for Ensured Long-Term Success: As frightening as the prospect of a bird flu pandemic may be, it is one of those rare disasters for which, if you’re unable to make a plan yourself, you can hire a consultant to do it for you. In any case, you can’t turn a blind eye to this; you must make plans if you hope to be one of the businesses left standing.

Read other articles and learn more about Dr. Maurice Ramirez.

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