The Spanish Flu (aka 1918 flu) was a worldwide pandemic virus killing between 50 to 100 million people worldwide within 18 months. These numbers completely dwarfed that of World War I which was occuring during the same time. Arguably, World War I contributed significantly to the spread of the 1918 flu due to the increased mass movement of people worldwide. Mortality rates varied greatly between countries, but one thing is known for sure: Those countries that limited their maritime travel had significantly less mortality than those that did nothing to control the travel of people. For example, Japan had a 0.425% mortality rate from the flu due to restrictions in travel. Many other countries had mortality rates in the 5-10% range or more. With increased global travel is the world of today equipped to handle such a lockdown on travel?
The 1918 flu is also known as the Spanish Flu, but recently developments suggest that it actually first appeared near Fort Riley, Kansas and then spread worldwide. There are many parallels between the 1918 flu (H1N1 family) and the current H5N1 Avian flu. While the H5N1 seems to not be as virulent and does not transfer as readily as H1N1, there’s the possibility that it may mutate in the near future and repeat the destruction of the 1918 flu. While many people have some built-in protection to the H1N1 virus, few people would have any built-in defenses against the H5N1 strain. The current estimates for % mortality if H5N1 turns pandemic is approximately 2-7.4 million worldwide. While this number is significantly less than the 1918 flu, it doesn’t mean that the next pandemic will be the H5N1 virus. The next pandemic could be a more virulent strain equaling or even exceeding that of the 1918 flu.
With advances in medicine, isn’t this a Chicken Little / Boy Who Cried Wolf scenario?
When I hear the term pandemic virus planning, the first thing that pops into my head is the movie scene from “Ice Age” where the young Moeritherium (baby elephant creatures) are playing in the mud (oil??) pits and are repremanded by their parents. They then say “We were only playing extinction”. Many view pandemic planning as FUD exercises, but unfortunately we’ve already seen such pandemics happen. Also, despite advances in modern medicine we still don’t have adequate protection against extremely virulent strains (like the 1918 flu). While many people get their annual flu shots, they are created for the flu strains that are circulating that season and may/may not be effective against a flu that mutates. In addition, current flu shots are derived from chicken eggs which would be in a reduced production during any bird flu spread. Technically flu vaccines are being produced today without the aid of chicken eggs, but to my knowledge a majority of them are still produced via eggs because of production costs/difficulties in the artificial methods (Note to self: more research needed here).
We already have a Disaster Recovery / Business Continuity plan. Why is this any different?
Assuming that the Avian flu (H5N1) is capable of becoming such a killer virus, how long do you have to prepare a plan of action to continue your corporate operations? The answer is nobody knows. The Avian flu could mutate and begin worldwide spread tomorrow, or it may never happen. To properly prepare an adequate pandemic plan, the average enterprise would need between 6 and 18 months. If you haven’t started planning already, get to it. Why pandemic planning is different from a DR plan is because of the scope. In a DR exercise, you’re usually planning for a particular site failure. In case of failure, you have IT processes and people processes in place to arrange for the technology to operate out of an alternate data center, and in many cases for your people to converge at an alternate place of work. In the case of a pandemic scenario, having many people report to an alternate location would not be conducive to minimizing the spread of the virus. In addition, there’s guaranteed to be a large amount of fear and uncertainty on behalf of your employees to show up to this alternate facility when there’s a killer virus on the loose. Some organizations have adopted a work from home strategy for their DR/BC plans which fits in nicely for a pandemic scenario as it allows the employees to be close to their family/homes and at the same time be able to perform most of the duties of their jobs.
Employee Absenteeism and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs
During a pandemic scenario, there is going to be massive confusion and uncertainty for a company’s employees. Many employees will be fearful of going to work the next day. Many people will be more concerned about their families more than their jobs. Employee absenteeism is something that companies will have to expect in the days/weeks following a pandemic outbreak. Depending on the severity of the outbreak, many people many not even have the sanity to call in their absense. Abraham Maslow proposed a psychological theory in 1943 called the Hierarchy of (Human) Needs. In Maslow’s pyramid of needs, he states that human beings will attempt to obtain basic physiological needs first and then will seek successively higher needs as the lower needs are met. At the lowest level of needs are basic physiological traits such as the ability to breathe, eat, drink, sleep, etc. It’s your basic survival necessities. Only after satiating these basic survival needs, would a person become concerned about the safety of their family, home, work, etc. While I generally agree with Maslow’s pyramid, I personally think that most people would separate their need for security of their jobs from the need for security of their homes and families. I believe that only after security the safety of your family and home would someone start worrying about their job security, etc. However, once that does enter into a person’s mind, they will seek a minimum common ground with their employer so as to not risk the safety of their loved ones. Because of this, you have to assume that a number of employees would be absent from work. The absentee ratios would have everything to do with the media reports of the spread and mortality / effectiveness of the virus. Since no one knows how deadly a virus will be, you have to make rough assumptions at how many people of a particular job function will be unwilling to come into work. The only mistake commonly made in calculating this is assuming a linear percentage of workers based on their role. What I mean here is that some people may be less willing to come into work if their job role involves a greater amount of personal interaction with others (specifically I’m referring to people in retail, and especially people in healthcare since they are even more likely to be exposed to the virus). Rather that make assumptions about what percentage of people will be absent for a given role/job, what’s probably more effective is to assume everyone could be absent and identify whether or not their jobs could be performed remotely. You’re much more likely to receive cooperation from an employee who is told that they can operate from a remote site / home and perform their duties. This secures your ability to get the work done, and still provides the employee with a sense of control over Maslow’s 2nd tier of the pyramid of needs.
This is the first post in a series of blog entries that I’ll be commenting on pandemic planning. This is stemming from some pandemic planning exercises that I’m providing input on for a client of mine. I hope you’ve enjoyed my thoughts on this, and if this topic interests you, you might enjoy some of these links for further reading: