· 2 min read · Features

Why global businesses should be prepared for pandemics

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How companies prepare for infectious disease epidemics has been revolutionised by the Ebola outbreak

The recent spate of emerging infectious disease outbreaks has led many international companies to question just how prepared they are to deal with pandemics. The Ebola outbreak in West Africa has particularly changed the way society at large considers, prepares for, and responds to health crises.

Since the outbreak earlier last year, people have realised that health security is an issue of global concern, and preventing the spread of infectious disease requires complex and multi-sector preparedness and response. Global C-suite executives are asking 'are we adequately prepared to protect our employees, our communities and our overall business objectives when the next outbreak occurs?'

Workers are more mobile than ever, and with PricewaterhouseCoopers predicting that there will be a 50% growth in international assignments by 2020 the movement of international labour is firmly set to continue. However, the increase in business travel and cross-border labour migration can spread infectious diseases across a wide geographic area in a short amount of time. Regardless of where a company does business, if they have employees they have risk.

While most nations have made pandemic plans, the degree of preparedness and the extent to which all sectors of society are included in those plans vary greatly. Especially vulnerable are organisations that operate in, or have travellers to, developing countries. These places are likely to have limited public health systems and less extensive preparedness for outbreaks of infectious diseases.

Authorities have urged everyone, including the business community, to prepare for the next pandemic. A much closer partnership with regional, national and international stakeholders – including multilateral health agencies – is essential in order to reduce the risks of health emergencies.

Infectious disease and pandemic preparedness is a necessity for business continuity and the long-term viability of operations. It is a business-wide initiative involving risk managers, human resources, occupational health practitioners, and the C-suite. Organisations are advised to consider the following five best practices when reviewing or developing their pandemic response plans:

  • Anywhere, anytime: A new virus can spread quickly. It’s important for an organisation’s pandemic plan to encompass all geographies, not just those where outbreaks have occurred in the past.
  • Fast-moving: Outbreaks can evolve rapidly. Develop a pandemic plan that is responsive and adaptive so you can quickly and consistently communicate with staff.
  • Severity informs response: Assessing the severity of an outbreak can be a challenge. Media reports and community sentiment may have a significant impact on perception of risk. Develop processes and guidelines to assess severity in your communities, and communicate that information to your employees.
  • Responding to the unknown: There might be confusion and a lack of definitive information about the nature of a new illness. The challenge for health authorities is to communicate the unknowns in an appropriate manner, focusing broadly on practical, actionable steps that everyone should take and (where necessary) enacting more severe measures to protect specific, affected populations. An organisation’s pandemic plan should further tailor the information based on employees’ needs.
  • Variable capabilities: Some countries are better prepared to respond to an infectious disease outbreak. Firms should examine the responses to recent outbreaks in the countries where they operate and develop plans that incorporate global variations.

Doug Quarry is group medical director, medical information & analysis at medical and security risk services company International SOS