The man in front of me was very elegant, had impeccable manners, if only he had been smoking less. His corner office in the Tokyo HQ of his corporation, was indeed slowly delivering to its occupants, including me, an unbreathable cocktail of fine dusts and nicotine-tar loaded particles that probably still stains my lungs today.
We had been discussing how my company (Riskope) could deliver to his organization emergency planning, crisis management in that difficult time, during the 2003 SARS outbreak. They had operations all over the world, including China.
The green tea, brought in by a very nice secretary, kneeling down in front of us in compliance with long to die traditions, was helping me to endure the chemical attack. I was at my third cup, and the man was telling me how each one of their expatriate managers and their families in continental China was critical for operations.
When I asked if they had crisis management/emergency planning in place the man replied swiftly: “No”, and sipped another little green tea, lighting another sigarette.
I immediately asked him, frankly mesmerized: “…But, what will you do, if the worse happens and your managers and/or their families fall sick there?”
The reply came down as a dagger: “…Then we will send in the second wave!”
What has changed between 2003 and today?
Well, as far as I can see, not much: there are still organizations who sit totally unprepared and will decide later what to do, when, may be, the bulk of their personnel will be home infected with the new flu.
That’s not precisely the way a responsible corporation/manager prepares to a very likely hazard which may bring in serious risks!
An epidemic is a crisis: a crisis like another, and “survival techniques/rules” exist.
The first step is to systematically anticipate and respond to threats. Crisis-prepared companies suffer fewer disasters and recover more quickly than crisis-prone firms. They also stay in business longer and are more profitable.
To be one of those long term survivors recognize the barriers preventing foreseeing risk scenarios:
psychological biases, information silos, prestige and arrogance.
Develop formal risk assesments and crisis/emergency plans.
Then, if and when risks become reality, follow your pre-defined plans, contain the crisis by acting decisively and quickly.
As a reminder: the SARS Outbreak (2003)
SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) was a pneumonia like illness that claimed more than 50 victims across Asia. In February 2003, this disease spread to Hong Kong: of the 1,755 people who were infected, 299 died.
The disease raised questions about tech companies’ operations in Hong Kong, similar to the issues raised by an earthquake that shook Taiwan in 1999. That quake severely disrupted manufacturing at the Hsinchu industrial park south of Taipei, and in the process created shortages of graphics chips, memory chips and other components necessary for building personal computers and laptops. Personal computer makers took a indirect but rather significant hit from that quake.
As Asian authorities scrambled to contain the outbreak of SARS, citizens in the region reportedly turned to the Internet and mobile communications to protest public health policy and spread word of traditional Asian remedies for the deadly virus (Maunder et al., 2003).
The SARS outbreak in Toronto, which began on Mar. 7, 2003, resulted in extraordinary public health and infection control measures.
In a 4-week period, 19 individuals developed SARS, including 11 health care workers. The hospital’s response included establishing a leadership command team and a SARS isolation unit, implementing mental health support interventions for patients and staff, overcoming problems with logistics and communication, and overcoming resistance to directives. Patients with SARS reported fear, loneliness, boredom and anger, and they worried about the effects of quarantine and contagion on family members and friends. They experienced anxiety about fever and the effects of insomnia. Staff was adversely affected by fear of contagion and of infecting family, friends and colleagues. Caring for health care workers as patients and colleagues was emotionally difficult. Uncertainty and stigmatization were prominent themes for both staff and patients (Skowronski et al., 2005).