Given our recent experience and learnings from COVID-19, there are no excuses for business leaders not to be prepared for the next pandemic event. Mike Steere says that although COVID-19 impacts are reducing, businesses must accelerate planning to strengthen resilience for the next pandemic.
Research predicts that in the next 25 years, there is a 50 percent chance that a global pandemic with the severity of COVID-19 will rear its ugly head.
The difference between surviving and thriving during that situation will be the extent to which businesses are prepared with the right plans and tools to maintain operations.
However many businesses are not prepared for the next pandemic - that is the simple truth. Few, it seems, have taken heed of the lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The current international spread of monkeypox and COVID subvariant BA.5 highlights the ongoing reality of pandemic risk and the ill-preparedness of businesses that aren't set up to survive the next health crisis. A case in point: some companies downplay the threat monkeypox poses, choosing to see it as a sexually transmitted disease rather than an illness transmissible via respiratory droplets - just like COVID. Businesses taking that view are putting themselves at risk.
Where some organizations may have some sort of plan or policy in place, these are often outdated or lack sufficient detail, tools, or proactivity to make a difference to the organization as a whole, the health of employees, and business productivity. The pandemic plans, strategies, and processes that were used at the beginning or for the first two years of COVID are now redundant.
Businesses that are not ready with the appropriate plans, tools and strategies for the next pandemic are negatively impacting their risk management strategy, business continuity planning and may even place themselves at compliance risk should the issues start to cause disruption to their organization.
Executives and boards should not find the need to instil business continuity and enterprise resilience surprising. Those principles require businesses to be ready for critical incidents and implement the appropriate governance, risk management and compliance processes to manage through these situations.
Common pandemic planning mistakes
The first basic mistake that organizations make is underestimating the likelihood or impact of the next infectious virus or pandemic.
In addition to the huge surge in business closures that COVID drove, there was also little protection against lost revenues. Figures from the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) show that of the more than 210,000 business interruption insurance claims made in 2020, less than 2 percent were accepted by insurers. This highlights the pandemic's significant impact and how the best protection against future shocks is having the appropriate pre-planned tools and processes in place.
Another common mistake in pandemic preparation is having various departments formulate plans in isolation. This siloed approach poses a risk in itself. Businesses need an integrated, multi-department, effort to ensure every aspect of how a pandemic affects the business is covered in unison. Whether it is safety, operational leadership, IT, supply chain and logistics, or site security - all of these challenges are intertwined and must have a unified plan.
What is needed to get ready?
Businesses must develop an integrated response to best prepare themselves to handle a dangerous infectious virus. Organizations should be able to activate that response within a moment’s notice of a virus' risk surpassing the company’s risk tolerance.
Integrated planning requires collaboration between human resource teams, business continuity, risk management, safety, IT, production/operations, and corporate communications departments. They all need to be actively involved, with executive presence and support, and working in concert to get their company pandemic ready.
The purpose of this work is to ensure that the business has the required strategies and virus response assets in place - ready to be deployed at the appropriate time without any interruption. The ‘ready to be deployed’ element is key, because a side-effect of a pandemic is major supply chain and logistics disruption as we witnessed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, planning could prove fruitless without a supply or guaranteed supply of required tools.
Don’t forget that, just like in other areas of business continuity, all plans need to be tested and exercised. Companies that fail to do this may find they have overlooked certain ‘blind spots’ in their plans.
Leading organizations are creating, or have already created, virus toolkits that are held in a state of readiness and will protect the organization when required. These toolkits should include the following:
- Personal protective equipment and a supply of hygiene supplies such as wipes and hand sanitizers. It’s always a good idea to ensure that the company has secured a regular supply of these goods because the company’s operational capabilities will be impacted should their PPE run out before the next shipment arrives.
- An automated contact tracing system that includes a supply of wearable devices.
- A system for companywide health checks that is ready to go-live in all locations that the company has offices or facilities.
- Business continuity planning that guides how workers will work, where they will work, and how they can continue with physical separation to ensure workers that need to be on site, and those that can work remotely, can do so without issue.
Benefits of a pandemic response plan
The ultimate benefit of a pandemic response plan, which includes a virus toolkit, is being able to keep business operating when others struggle to do so. Consider this: companies that have workers testing positive for monkeypox will likely see each worker isolated for up to four weeks in the event of an outbreak. A cluster of cases inside one company has the potential to cause significant short-term operational problems that will cascade up and down supply and value chains.
Companies should aim for a faster response, better tools that keep the virus out of the organization, and effective controls to slow or stop virus spread when it enters the organization. These businesses will be better able to service clients and meet contract obligations, since they will have fewer staff infected at any one time.
Added benefits include employee confidence to come to work, compliance with regulations related to protecting worker safety, and a boost to brand value for marketing and employer perception – with an enhanced reputation for looking after staff.
Business leaders ought to learn from the companies who have successfully navigated the COVID-19 pandemic with minimal disruption - and adopt the strategies and actions that have made them successful.
The best step to be better prepared for the next pandemic - which could be upon us faster than we can imagine - is to prepare a virus toolkit and virus response plan that are proactively stocked and ready to use at a moment’s notice.
Having the toolkit and plan already in place will give company leadership, employees, partners, customers, and suppliers the confidence that the business will be resilient in the next major virus outbreak.
Mike Steere is a co-founder of SaferMe, a global contact tracing and safety software company, with products used across more than 30 countries. Through the pandemic, he has worked with Fortune 500 businesses and other well-known international organizations, helping them to manage their risks and maintain their productivity and continuity of operations. Contact him at email@example.com