Asia’s corporates ready business continuity management plans as global pandemic fears grow

With suspected cases of imported Ebola being reported in several countries, businesses across Asia are assessing the pandemic plans that have been fine-tuned since the 2003 and 2005 SARS and H5N1 outbreaks.

The World Health Organization has confirmed that more than 1000 people have now died in the outbreak, which has hit Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria.

An elderly Spanish priest became the first European to die from Ebola on Tuesday, succumbing to the virus in a Madrid hospital five days after being evacuated from Liberia.

Another case of suspected imported Ebola was detected in Saudi Arabia last week, but Saudi Arabia’s Health Ministry has since stated that the man who died after returning from Sierra Leone did not have the virus.

Tracey Linnell, general manager at Africa-based business continuity firm ContinuitySA, said that companies that documented pandemic strategies for the SARS outbreak in 2003 could use them as the basis for an Ebola strategy.

“Companies that haven’t implemented a business continuity management plan should consider doing so as a matter of urgency,” Linnell said.

“This means that they will have an integrated response and mitigation strategy to this and other risks in place.”

Countries across the Asia-Pacific region learned much about pandemic preparedness from the devastating outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003, which infected more than 6500 people worldwide and damaged consumer confidence in countries around Asia.

Outbreaks of the H5N1 virus (avian or bird flu) in 2003 and 2005 sent scares across the region as well.

New pandemic?

A new pandemic could bring Asia’s economic growth rate to zero or even push it into recession, according to a study by the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

A lingering outbreak could reduce the global trade of goods and services by 14% and cause economic losses in Asia of $283 billion, or around 6.5 percentage points of gross domestic product.

“The psychological impact of the disease may be long lasting,” the study noted.

“Much of the Asian boom is built on confidence in the region’s growth potential. A pandemic could shake that confidence and lower future investment.”

Such an epidemic could have a much broader impact than simply a regional health scare, according to another ADB study.

It could send a message to the investors who drive much of Asia’s economic growth and poverty reduction that countries in the region are unstable.

“From the perspective of foreign direct investment, a health shock such as SARS is likely to have economic effects akin to those seen after a political shock such as a revolution or an assassination,” the report stated.

“This is quite different from the effects of widespread endemic prevalence of other communicable diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis.”

If such an epidemic were to strike, and could not be brought under control, the poor would be hardest hit. With limited access to the health care system, they likely would delay seeking health care would could result in catastrophic illness and medical fees that drive them deeper into poverty.

Protocols in place

Linnell said companies to look at what risks the Ebola outbreak poses to them and their employees, and put protocols in place now.

“At the same time, they should make sure their overall approach to pandemics is in place,” she added.

Linnell said that companies with employees who travel into West Africa or that have business relationships with it need to be sure they are educating staff about symptoms and are monitoring the health of at-risk employees.

She added that businesses needed to have a plan for getting employees out of countries they might be visiting if borders are closed. For example, some airlines have stopped flying to Liberia.

“The possible impact on employees is inevitably the first thing people think about, but businesses also need to pay strict attention to their supply chain dependencies,” she said.

“What would the effect on business operations and the wider supply chain be were borders to be closed owing to a pandemic?

“Remember, the direct effect could be on a business partner, but if it is are vital to your operations, the knock-on effects are likely to be severe.

“You need to understand exactly what the risks are and have mitigation strategies in place.”