The Pillars of Pandemic Planning

Updated:2020/2/7 16:34

By: Gartner Enterprise Risk Management Research Team,

Greg Li, VP, Advisory at Gartner

A pandemic is not your normal business disruption. Unlike a cyberattack or natural disaster, it can affect operations globally for months and threatens the workforce directly. A new coronavirus strain that emerged in Wuhan is the latest reminder - like SARS, MERS and H1N1 before it - that companies need to plan and prepare for large-scale outbreaks of dangerous disease.

Preplanning is essential during any crisis, but pandemics require extra activities. That includes keeping close contact with epidemiologists as well as monitoring and modeling the impacts over months. Hopefully, you already have a business continuity management (BCM) plan for pandemics. Below, we will share important basics for assessing the risk of a pandemic, identifying critical roles and vetting pandemic preparedness plans of important third parties. But first, any response should have two guiding principles:

Firstly, put people first. It is the smart thing to do as an employer (and the right thing to do for the species). When SARS spread to four continents in 2003, executives at seven companies out of ten told us that managing employees' concerns and questions was one of the most time-consuming associated activities. Even when a disease's impact is limited, uncertainty can create fear and anxiety. If employees think that they could be exposed at work, morale will suffer as well. In addition, companies face potential for poor public opinion of company actions and of employee lawsuits.

Secondly, improve the company's overall capabilities. Even if the new coronavirus is contained and suppressed in the coming weeks, it still provides an opportunity to see where the company is exposed and which business activities may not go as planned during the spread of infectious disease. After all, more common medical disruptions can be more costly over the long run. Document your response this time around; note surprises or assumptions in your plan that turned out to be wrong.

After understanding the afore-mentioned two principles, please focus on core pandemic planning activities.

Assess the Risk and Establish Thresholds to Implement Pandemic Preparedness and Response Plans

You should talk to epidemiologists to inform your own analysis. This can be as simple as picking up the phone to get advice, but ideally companies will have consulted them ahead of time to prebuild pandemic risk models. You should also monitor releases from the WHO and government health agencies in all affected regions. The media often overhypes pandemics and misses nuances in epidemiological analyses. The information you gather should feed into your impact analysis and determine triggers for action. And pandemic thresholds should trigger the invocation of your response plans.

Identify Critical Roles

A pandemic strikes directly at your most valuable asset - your workers, and when an outbreak could last for months, you will need to plan for absenteeism. During your impact analysis, here is how to work with HR partners and the business to determine which roles are necessary for the organization to function.

First, task each business unit or region to identify roles that had:

  • Functions that were directly linked to business priorities in that part of the world.
  • Functions that were directly linked to mission-critical products in that location.
  • Relationships with contractors and customers that the company needed to adhere to as long as possible.
  • Functions related to potential “surge” activities, which might be created or increase in number or intensity if a pandemic occurred.

Next, place each in one of three categories:

  • Essential: Roles and functions which must be completed under all circumstances.
  • Temporary Suspension: Roles and functions which may be suspended for a short time.
  • Extended Suspension: Roles and functions which can be suspended for an extended period.

Assess Third-Party Pandemic Preparedness and Response Plans

The new coronavirus is already putting pressure on supply chains as factories shut down in China. Vetting your third-parties' pandemic preparedness and response plans will give you a chance to understand how you might be affected by their decisions and to improve vendor preparedness if a pandemic (global by definition) strikes your network.

Segment third parties by risk level, including pandemic-specific criteria, like proximity to the outbreak's origin along with the more usual factors like contract value and types of services provided.

Let the most critical third parties know that your team is willing and able to help test their plan and improve it if needed. When evaluating a plan, look for the following indicators.

Checklist for Pandemic Preparations

This article hereafter highlights questions to ask during an outbreak, questions to ask once an outbreak becomes a pandemic and which actions you should perform regularly afterward to make sure you are prepared.

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