Pandemics and Business Continuity Plans

Pandemics are good material for Hollywood disaster films. They also feature in various disaster recovery planning documents issued by governments as advice, or by private sector organisations as disaster recovery plans. In true Hollywood style, projected pandemics are often almost too big to be believable. That makes them great subjects of conversation at the coffee machine, while public health organisations spend considerable amounts of time and money estimating impacts and stockpiling remedies. What is less obvious is whether we’ve recognised that the pandemics with overall bigger impacts may not be the disaster-movie variety at all.

The inclusion of pandemics is already a good example of how business continuity plans have moved beyond the confines of IT and IT Disaster Recovery planning, even if both pandemics and IT often share common vocabulary, such as “virus” and “infection”. Pandemics however, meaning global epidemics that cross international boundaries, started rather earlier in history. The Antonine Plague from 165 to 180 killed 5 million people, and the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918 was responsible for over 10 million deaths. The Asian Flu Pandemic of 1957-1958 was more quickly brought under control, although it claimed 2 million victims. Avian Flu figures from early 2007 reported far lower casualties (in the hundreds).

Today, public awareness and medical knowledge about such pandemics has dramatically lowered the probabilities of deaths or even infections. Business Continuity plans or a Pandemic Plan supplement to the Business Continuity Plan should cover these pandemics because although probabilities are low, an unchecked pandemic can cripple an entire workforce.  A Pandemic differs from other sorts of triggers for a Business Continuity or Disaster Recovery plan such as a building fire or other catastrophic incident in that a pandemic builds up and goes through a series of stages. These stages are typically managed and declared by the National Health Authority such as the CDC in the United States or the Department of Health in Australia. The government health agencies collaborate and monitor the situation across the world and raise the alertawareness level so that ideally, action is taken early to prevent the spread of the disease or to contain it.

We can’t wait until the government declares a full blown pandemic before taking action. Each of the earlier stages, such as the ALERT or DELAY phases are before the pandemic has  reached our shores, and they should be triggering preventative actions to ensure business continuity and to prepare for limiting the spread of the disease.