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Should we be planning for an Ebola pandemic?

Charlie Maclean-Bristol, FBCI, discusses whether the time has come for business continuity managers to make contingency plans for an Ebola pandemic.

Spain is now dealing with the first case of direct infection of Ebola in Western Europe; the first Ebola death has occurred in the United States; and the World Health Organization has warned that ‘Ebola is now entrenched in the capital cities of all three worst-affected countries and is accelerating in almost all settings’. So has the time come for business continuity managers to make contingency plans for a possible future Ebola pandemic? I think the answer to this question is, yes, we should be.

I am not suggesting that you immediately go out to the supermarket and buy lots of tinned food and water, barricade the house, be prepared to operate on battery power and bottled gas and then lie low.

What I am suggesting is that we should be quietly thinking about how a possible Ebola pandemic might affect our organization; thinking through what an Ebola plan might look like; and monitoring the situation to ensure that you are ready to react if the situation escalates further.

So what at this stage should business continuity managers be doing?

1. One of the first tasks we should be doing as business continuity people is looking at what our possible exposure to Ebola is. What is our staff exposure to the disease, do we have staff travelling in areas, which have had cases of Ebola? As the disease spreads further, which most commentators are saying that it will do, then cases of Ebola may arise in a variety of places. We may have to react quickly if our staff are in the same area or they may be stranded by a country travel ban.

2. What is our supply chain exposure to the disease and does it involve West Africa? Again, like staff travelling, as the disease spreads and turns up in expected areas then it may affect our supply chain.

3. If the disease was to take hold in our country how would it affect our organization and would it create more work for us or less? If we work in an organization that would be responding to a pandemic (for example healthcare services) or are a supplier to such an organization, then it is likely our workload will increase. If our organization supplies essential services or part of the country’s ‘critical infrastructure’ such as power, food, water, etc. then we will be under a lot of pressure from government to keep working. Whilst if our organization does not supply something critical then we can perhaps temporarily close down our organization without a major impact beyond our own employees. Any contingency planning should reflect how it affects the individual organization!

4. Once we understand our exposure, then we should be engaging with senior managers in our organization and discussing our organization’s exposure and what action we should be taking at the moment. It we have no exposure then perhaps we should be agreeing to continue to monitor the situation. We may want to agree at this stage what sort of events might trigger further action. If we have a larger exposure then perhaps we should start some contingency planning and engaging with those parts of the business or people who may be at risk.

5. I think at this stage it is very important that we are not seen to panic or to overreact, as this might undermine any other contingency planning for other events; may undermine the credibility of the individuals involved in contingency planning; and may undermine any further escalation within the organization if this is required. Especially if there is a risk to our organization, some measured communication to staff informing them of appropriate risk reduction measures to take, any travel bans and what to do if they think they have been in contact with someone with the disease may help reassure them that you are thinking about the risk and taking appropriate action.

6. It may be appropriate for your organization to carry out some contingency planning to cover scenarios such as loss of a key supplier; if a staff member becomes infected; or if parts of your organization were quarantined. This may involve dusting off influenza pandemic plans and other contingency plans and seeing how appropriate they are in response to Ebola and amending the plans accordingly. I suspect if there was a full pandemic, government would in the main very much dictate the response and precautions to be taken by businesses and individuals.

7. I think, in the end, if we do nothing else we should monitor the situation on a day by day basis; so that we can react quickly if Ebola might, or is likely to, have an impact on our organization.


The author
Charlie Maclean-Bristol, FBCI, FEPS, Director of Training, PlanB Consulting. PlanB Consulting is able to provide continuity planning risk assessments, advice and contingency plans for any organization that has an exposure to Ebola risk. www.planbconsulting.co.uk

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Reader comment

I’m interested in this subject as I’m now driving a set of actions to warm-up our internal correspondents and to define suggestions and points of attentions. I do agree with most of the topic exposed in the article, especially with suggestion number 5.

It seems to me, however, that the real point about business continuity here is to manage unforeseen consequences just because of panic or a negative case. It is predictable that business disruptions would happen for a false case with temporary building closings and relevant absenteeism levels. In a specific case, our colleagues just stopped work for one day, following the latest news on the Internet.

So basically, in my opinion, Ebola is just a potential scenario for these kind of issues that could affect the business.

Limiting the discussion to Ebola/non-Ebola outbreak from a BCM perspective is just missing the opportunity to develop a more conscious horizon risk in companies, understanding connections and really working it out from a business continuity perspective. At least this should be considered in a learning process coming from SARS and going on with H1N1.

Nicola Bolis
Group Crisis Management & Business Continuity Officer 

This is a worthwhile opportunity to look at business continuity planning through an Ebola lens. Yes, there are people and supply chain related problems to be explored. I also think issues around public perception – most likely blind panic - and the effect it may have upon businesses (and good social order) is perhaps an equal partner in this discussion. We only need to hear a distant rumour of a sugar shortage for shelves to empty – re-enforced by government sources saying ‘there is no need to panic’. Transfer this to something potentially more devastating and we can see the need for very careful planning – particularly for governments and public health institutions. For a start, information about risk will need to be timely, honest, clear and consistent. It might not be helped if these organizations, as part of their first strategic response, is to have a meeting in a bunker!

Alan Pawsey MA CIRM

I particularly enjoyed this article as it highlights key points for organisational consideration. Let’s not forget that knowledge is critical here, but that is ineffective without appropriate communication of that knowledge! In effect, it is critical for Government communication officers to advise the public within their area of concern, what is happening as part of the Governments’ action plan for the management of the issue. Regular updates including identification and control applications should also be discussed particularly when the Government learns of new and critical information that needs to be captured and implemented even if it contradicts previous information. This demonstrates the ability for the Government to effectively address arising critical elements and advising its obligation in communicating this to its constituents.

Michael Sandford, Principal

•Date: 10th October 2014 • World •Type: Article • Topic: Pandemic planning
UPDATED 11th NOVEMBER

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