By Arun Sharma
WASHINGTON DC – International headlines in recent weeks have begun to sound alarms about Middle-East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), an infectious disease that first emerged in 2012 and has since spread from the Arabian Peninsula to other parts of the world. Globally, infections still only number in the hundreds and the disease has not proven highly contagious. But viruses have the potential to mutate quickly, and the high mortality rate of those who do become infected has stoked fears that MERS could become a serious global pandemic.
The worst-case scenario still seems improbable. Medical experts appear optimistic that MERS will remain relatively contained. But this does not mean the risk should be ignored; especially by businesses. A global pandemic—be it MERS, avian influenza or some other disease—has enormous disruptive potential on global business. High rates of absenteeism can sap productivity. Should an outbreak claim employee lives, a company could face a morale crisis and possibly legal liability, not to mention the loss of talent. Companies with a global footprint, or whose employees travel internationally will face a higher risk. Those that fail to respond effectively could lose market share and positioning.
Steely corporate executives might quip that “everyone is replaceable,” but this mindset is antiquated. Institutional knowledge and operational experience are valuable corporate assets, cultivated over time. Without succession planning, organizations can experience significant disruptions to their operations should their employees become unavailable. Understanding human resource needs is vital to ensuring a successful response to a pandemic.
Even though the risk of a full-blown pandemic may be remote, the potential for such an event to disrupt business operations suggests companies should consider what their response strategy might be. This begins by asking a series of questions: What plans exist to replace employees should they become unavailable? Is there a knowledge management or knowledge transfer system already in place? What sorts of leave or telework policies are in place? How does corporate culture affect the company’s risk profile? What sorts of basic infection controls and hygiene features exist in company facilities? By answering these questions, an organization can begin to evaluate the risks it may face and identify mitigating strategies.
Of course, such a strategy cannot only look inward. Even if a company’s own personnel are healthy and safe, disruptions to its supply chains or third-party service providers can have a crippling effect. Business continuity plans for all sorts of disruptions must consider the resiliency of the services and providers that a company relies on.
The effects of a global pandemic can vary wildly. The 2009 outbreak of H1N1 influenza—“swine flu”—saw some countries impose travel restrictions and resulted in increased levels of absenteeism in some organizations. Though disruptive, most businesses maintained normal operations. By contrast, the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic infected between 20% and 40% of the global population, killing an estimated 50 million people. That outbreak caused noticeable dips in productivity, and while it did not result in cascading failures businesses or infrastructure, modern business networks are much more intertwined today than they were a century ago. Regardless of the severity of a pandemic, organizations that make plans in advance are far likelier to emerge unscathed.
Arun Sharma is a senior consultant at Control Risks, a global political, integrity and security risk consultancy. For regular updates on global trends affecting the business environment, sign up for a free trial of our PRIME subscription service.
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