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Business Impact of Pandemic

A pandemic outbreak will have many direct and indirect impacts on people and, therefore, business operations:

Direct Impact

The direct impact from a pandemic will be due to sickness and perhaps quarantine and isolation. While there is a normal expectation of personnel taking sick days during flu season, this can be expected to be much more dramatic during a flu pandemic. Initially businesses can expect a much higher rate of infection and, therefore, people on sick leave. Once the pandemic has been identified, the various authoritative agencies will start to initiate what’s known as voluntary isolation. As the spread of the pandemic progresses, isolation may become enforced by appropriate authority. The result will be a higher rate of sick leave than is experienced during even a bad flu season.

As the general population becomes aware of the spread and impact of the pandemic, there will be an increase in those working from home, either under their own isolation or to care for family members. It may even progress to the point where people leave an affected area to try to avoid infection. As a precedent, during Hurricane Katrina, many members of the police force in New Orleans abandoned their posts in order to care for their families (http://www.usatoday.com/educate/college/firstyear/articles/20060226.htm).

Indirect Impact

The indirect impact from a pandemic will be due to challenges caused by changes in the ways people communicate, especially from increases in the number of employees accessing work remotely. Further external considerations may lead to complications with normal business operations.As more people work from home, there will be a cascading effect on local infrastructure that is likely to affect remote operations. It has already been shown historically that infrastructure can fail during times of heavy load. Examples include the overload of both conventional and cellular phone communication, as well as Internet congestion. During 9/11, in the affected areas of New York and the Washington DC Metro area, it was nearly impossible to make phone calls for several hours. This applied to both landline and cellular phones. Everyone was calling friends and loved ones to check on their safety or simply to discuss the events. Additionally, news sites on the Internet were overwhelmed as people turned to them for up-to-the-minute reports of the events. As a pandemic is likely to affect a wider area, the impact may not be as great but may be more widespread.

With more people out sick, there will be a tremendous need for remote access capability. This requirement is likely to be beyond that existing in many/most organizations today. In addition to overloading organizational resources, this will place an additional load on local infrastructure including:

  • phone lines
  • dsl/cable
  • mobile internet (an additional load on cellular infrastructure)
  • BlackBerries
  • power considerations (similar to excess load during extreme heat—would there be rolling blackouts due to excess load with everyone working from home, possibly adding other extenuating circumstances such as extreme heat?)

While not directly affecting business operations, secondary concerns may have a trickle down impact. As the spread continues, the impact to operations will affect all types of businesses. This means there may not be sufficient gas at the gas station for everyone that does need to travel. There may be difficulty keeping food on the shelves at the local supermarket, possibly due to travel restrictions or lack of staffing. Commerce of all sorts may be impacted due to travel restrictions as well.

These scenarios may seem extreme, but I don’t think so. During the 1918 flu pandemic, approximately a fifth of the world's population was infected. The estimated world population at that time was between 1.6 and 2 billion people. The WHO has compiled a sobering list: Ten things you need to know about pandemic influenza, that clearly shows the scale and scope this event is likely to have.

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