Bird flu: paying the premium

I just returned from our University bird flu task force. We aren't ready. We aren't even close. The good news is that we know we aren't ready and we know we aren't even close. At least we're worried. This isn't some penny ante crowd of mid level managers, either. These are the top dogs at one of the biggest private universities in the country. They take it seriously. But it's tough. Our community is larger than many small cities but not as self sufficient. But if it's the planning and not the plan, we've made progress, because we're meeting regularly although we still don't have a plan.

That puts us ahead of some big companies who should know better. One of the departments that got hit hard in SARS and during the Asian economic depression was the IT area. Yet many of the IT departments (Information Technology, the computer system) don't have their act together. They haven't even started rehearsal. From Computer World:

January 08, 2007 (Computerworld) Monday morning, 9 a.m. The CEO calls you into an executive meeting as word comes that a full-blown H5N1 avian influenza pandemic is spreading rapidly from central Asia. Your job: Keep mission-critical IT systems working despite staff absenteeism rates that could reach 40% at the height of the pandemic, which is expected to run its course over a period of six to eight weeks.

Supply chain disruptions are expected as countries close their borders, so you can?t count on spare parts. With emergency travel restrictions in effect, you can forget about moving staffers between global locations to cope with labor shortages. You also need to enable remote access for an unprecedented number of employees who will either be out sick, caring for ill family members or afraid to come to the office. You have weeks, possibly just days, before the outbreak overtakes one of your major data centers.

Are You Ready?

For many businesses, the answer is probably no. (Robert Mitchell, Computer World)

Mitchell's article is long, but full of good information for IT folks. There are also some lessons for the rest of us. One I see close up in our own efforts. The minute you start to dig beneath the surface and begin to imagine the interlocking chain of consequences of an interrupted supply chain or a 40% absenteeism the problem starts to look hopeless and insurmountable. With the uncertainty about when and if a pandemic will occur, the natural way to handle this is to procrastinate. It's overwhelming. But there's really quite a lot that can be done if you don't let the enormity of the overall problem make you choke. Even if you only manage 60% to 80% of the challenge of a pandemic, that's a life saving fraction and likely a business saving one, too.

People in IT are talking about cross-training roles and using e-learning tools as quick-start reference guides for those having to do a task they aren't used to. Think about it. There's the huge manual. And then there's the "Getting Started" two-pager. A little forethought on the Getting Started side can save a lot of grief later when the receptionist is running the back-up system; or, for that matter, the IT person is answering the phones and connecting the caller to the right person. Certain essential kinds of work orders, the things that might take several levels of approval, can be pre-defined and a pre-approval trigger given, preventing the bottle neck of the absent link in the approval chain. These are just a few ideas. A lot can be figured out if some effort is invested.

And why invest the effort? There are businesses for whom their IT is the whole game. Like UPS. Without their tracking system they are pretty much out of business. And so is everyone who depends on UPS for their supplies. Mitchell quotes UPS's IT person as saying she is confident they can function with an absentee rate of 25% but not 40%, at least not at this point.

Many other large (and many medium and small) businesses also live and die by their IT systems. One company that does is Aetna Life Insurance. They have made a serious pandemic planning effort, integrating it into their overall crisis management plan. They are employing the latest technology to enhance communication and cross-training by e-learning tools and 70% of employees are set up for remote access. The gateways are being expanded to handle the additional traffic and a recent table top showed they might be able to operate at 50% staffing.

Stop and think about this for a minute. An insurance company, essentially self-insured for this, is investing heavily in a self-premium to keep going if there's a pandemic. This should tell us something about what the pros think.

I'll say it again. A huge insurance company is investing heavily in pandemic flu protection -- for themselves. Maybe they know something about evaluating risks?

More like this

Kudos to Aetna for planning in such a comprehensive manner. Unfortunately, I worry that another "pandemic" casualty may be massive reorganizations (i.e., layoffs) as corporations realize the efficiencies that pandemic planning has forced them to identify could translate into more robust pre-pandemic earnings .

Speaking of insurance companies, it would have made a lot of sense for these many and moneyed companies to invest in research and vaccine development with private sector grants.

They should be analyzing the cost savings to themselves of helping the PUBLIC--and then they will perhaps consider helping someone besides THEMSELVES.

There will be no insurance needed if there is no one left with money to buy it.

and, will the electrical grid stay up?...

..."The minute you start to dig beneath the surface and begin to imagine the interlocking chain of consequences of an interrupted supply chain or a 40% absenteeism the problem starts to look hopeless and insurmountable. With the uncertainty about when and if a pandemic will occur, the natural way to handle this is to procrastinate. It's overwhelming. But there's really quite a lot that can be done if you don't let the enormity of the overall problem make you choke. Even if you only manage 60% to 80% of the challenge of a pandemic, that's a life saving fraction and likely a business saving one, too."...

Ok; so tell people you're overwhelmed and going to drop the ball because you're going to either panic or space out over this pandemic thing; too big for normal channels, wasn't in your job description, don't want the public to notice it in your budget, ect.

Doesn't cost anything to tell your city-sized university or business citizens to browse the Flu Wiki during their spare time (or even start a page for their own there; for group brainstorming outside the box, if no one is allowed to contradict the low attack and cfr rates at work, and better preparation and communication is not happening because of that) (even though the plans so far may be charcoal toast, in a fortnight.)

Use the places people have already been brainstorming, collecting useful information, keeping a better eye on developments than the msm, use the places online; no time to start from scratch; use online resources that are a year or two ahead of your business or organization, or community.

Want survival and recovery, whatever shape that will be? These are not normal times and normal bureaucratic channels will not serve. Continuity of the people; that's what all other institutions usually can take for granted but, not while looking at H5N1 today.

The grid and internet are still up; use them. People online at the various pandemic flu sites have been willing to look at worst-case, (and, they're not rioting in the streets) and everyone should be using and contributing to those free resources. Nature may not give you another year or two to roll out some "information product" or whatever all these meetings and paper plans seem to think this situation is. Stop gambling we'd even have yet another month or two; stop procrastinating.

By crfullmoon (not verified) on 09 Jan 2007 #permalink

I'm a technical writer who specialises in end-user documentation and training materials for IT applications. If people kick up their pandemic preparedness in the ways suggested in this article, I'm going to be very busy.

By Interrobang (not verified) on 09 Jan 2007 #permalink

Maybe they know something about evaluating risks?

Yes, they do. For ex. They will no longer grant mortgages for beach front homes in parts of Florida, and other 'hurricane' or 'sea rising' challenged places. For. ex. They won't lend money in Switz. for any leisure development that is under 1500 meters. For ex: (again Switz) they will insure shallow geo-thermal projects but are wary of deep ones by now (3.4 Richter scale earthquakes caused by the first deep project! Yikes!)

This basically means Bank-insurance (or Bancassurance as we call it here, their ties are so tight) are the no. 1. actors in the anticipation of global warming and 'peak oil', and are those who actually decide what measures should be taken, thru the calculation of what projects, businesses or infrastructure are reasonable or viable in an 'economic' sense, and refusing those that are not. Gvmts, with their elected politicians, pander to voters and biz interests and so cannot take on that role. Apparently.

'Economic' calculations are better than nothing, but not good enough. A good example of that is that corn to ethanol manufacture in the US is approved of as it is subsidized by tax payer; whether it is viable in other ways is left aside by banks, to make it short.

Actually, this is simply good disaster planning in general. It doesn't take a pandemic for IT departments to have to deal with this kind of situation - any sort of disaster can do it. In fact, a company I worked for several years ago had a 50% layoff and only the technical support people were left - and in fact we did have to figure out how to work the company telephone switchboard!

I know that Fedex is moving right along with their preparations having bought enough equipment for a 35% workforce to be in place at any given time. That is specifically PAPR units and special USAF type bio masks and helmets for the aircrews SCBA. Lots of problems for sure. As for their IT its all about the phone lines and there being electrical power. They are addressing that now with SATCOMS for stations. Everyone of them wont have it and not all would be open, but open they will be. Their truckers are being told to expect long haul mom and pops to take over and limit their exposures by meeting them with food and supplies at key points on their routes. Yeah, they are getting the big picture here.

By M. Randolph Kruger (not verified) on 09 Jan 2007 #permalink

Ana your post reminded me of a cartoon in The New Yorker that showed a CEO winding up his speech at a board meeting with the following sentence: "And so, while the end-of-the-world scenario will be rife with unimaginable horrors, we believe that the pre-end period will be filled with unprecedented opportunities for profit."
This link I think will work for viewing the cartoon

I love the smell of fear in the morning...

By Chum McGlimbus (not verified) on 09 Jan 2007 #permalink

There are over 6.7 Billion people on this earth, hundreds of countries, hundreds of languages, thousands of dialects, hundreds of; economies, medical systems, governments, etc. The united nations is unable to control this morass of humanity. How in the hell does anyone think that we are going to avoid a pandemic.

Victoria: We cannot avoid a pandemic. If the biology is right, it will happen, if it isn't, it won't. What we can do is manage the consequences.

Off topic comment-

For some reason, it appears to be impossible to add any comment to the "Big Muddy" post after the comment posted by M. Randolph Kruger.

For some reason, a screen comes up that says:

You do not have permission to access this document.

...But the comments feature works for your other topics.

bc: The MT systems is very flaky about some words. I tried to title this "Bird flu: paying the insurance premium" and it gave me the same error message. The problem was the word "insurance" which ran afoul of some spam filter. So my guess is there is some word, even one you wouldn't suspect, that is causing the problem. Since all big blog sites have trouble with comment spam, this is something we are learning to live with, although if you figure out what the word is by a process of elmination, sometimes we can change the filter to avoid it happening in the future. Sorry this is happening.