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 / Summer 2006 / Issue 43(originally published by Booz & Company)


Avian Flu: A Test of Collective Integrity

Participants in the simulation take on different roles; they must work together not just to try to halt the pandemic, but to respond appropriately and prevent society from breaking down. The collective task is more challenging than anyone expects.

Indeed, after our experience with this simulation and others we have conducted with leaders from government, business, and nongovernmental organizations, it has become clear to us that pandemic conditions would be far worse than most institutions are prepared for. Work-force shortages, supply chain disruptions, and panic could overwhelm both the private and public sectors, even with comprehensive contingency plans.

To make any headway, a variety of organizations and individuals all need to act in diverse but coordinated ways:

• Government. The first responsibility of government is to maintain the public trust through honest and direct communication, and by taking definitive action. Governments can establish ways to limit panic, maintain transportation and logistics as much as possible, and promote coordination with large and small businesses so that they continue to operate — with a resulting positive effect on the social fabric of the affected area.

• Business. At no time is the maxim “if you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of others” more true than in the midst of a pandemic. Thus, corporations need well-thought-out contingency plans to ensure access to health care, food, and supplies for employees and their families. Investments of time and money are needed in advance to stockpile supplies and develop processes that will provide employee health care during the pandemic. Not everyone can be protected, so companies need to specify the essential worker population who will get treatment and medications first.

But because a pandemic is a broadly shared risk, businesses must also consider now how they would respond when asked to deploy their assets, such as stockpiles and facilities, to support a wider community response.

Currently, most companies’ pandemic contingency plans call for mass telecommuting, but they need to rethink this strategy. With thousands, perhaps millions, of people suddenly telecommuting at once, the telecommunications and Internet infrastructures will be severely strained and likely overwhelmed early in the pandemic. Some experts say that the extra traffic could render the Internet unusable within two to four days of an outbreak. It may be wise to anticipate this by preparing secure telephone or transportation links that would allow the most critical individuals to get to a common workplace even in a full telecommunications shutdown.

• Government and Business. In addition to their separate efforts, government and business must together identify the industries and services that would be essential in the event of an outbreak — especially those that would be needed for combating a pandemic. The industries likely to end up on the list are defense, public safety, media, food, transportation and logistics, communications, and all enterprises in the medical and pharmaceutical supply chain.

Because of unavoidable shortages of all resources, especially health-care services and medical supplies, cross-sector teams could be set up in advance to establish who would get care during a pandemic. It is equally important to define the resources available for medical support. For example, which people are authorized and prepared to deliver care in emergencies, and how well equipped are they across a variety of dimensions (the state of drug production, the forms of treatment available, and the methods of distribution)?

• Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs). As trusted sources of information, NGOs can “export” information from affected regions to the rest of the global community. They are also the best equipped to provide support to resource-constrained developing countries.

• Media and Communications Organizations. The media has a powerful role to play in helping government and businesses communicate critical information, accurately and honestly, to the general public and to employees. But a better basis for collaboration among media, government, and business must first be built. Businesses should consider identifying media allies to work with now in order to improve post-pandemic communications strategies in advance.

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