Observation Post: The Global Guard’s Monthly Feature

Each month we’ll focus on a particular issue and examine how that issue affects what we do at Global.  In addition to our regular updates, the Observation Post will be a monthly feature where you can find an in-depth discussion on where our heads are at and where that focus will be.

In honour of our old H1N1 blog, this month’s feature takes a look at protecting public health and how the lessons each of us has had planning for the pandemic can help with that.

Rolling forward in the Aftermath of a Public Health Crisis

It threatens the kind of ending that comes not with a bang, but a whimper. It’s an upheaval whose aftershocks can torment an organization’s human resources, client base, and supply chain until the enterprise is set back years in its development or fails altogether. A disease outbreak isn’t the kind of breathtaking crisis administrators consider like they do floods, fires, earthquakes or even stock market crashes. But don’t make the mistake of underestimating them. Not when there are so many things you can do to mitigate their impact.

An influenza pandemic might be a once-in-a-generation event, but large-scale infectious threats occur more often than you probably think. In February 2001, a Congolese woman turned up in a Hamilton, Ontario hospital with symptoms of hemorrhagic fever. Her doctors were concerned the Ebola virus had arrived in Canada. The scare turned out to be a false alarm, but quarantine protocols were activated, and politicians called it a public health wake-up call. Today, we still don’t know what disease the woman had.

That September, anthrax powder started showing up in the US postal service. In reaction, Ottawa appointed a response committee. A year later, the committee chair said at an interview, “We’re getting together [for the first time] in December. Committee members have been frustrated.” Journalists called it another wake-up call, this time against bio-terrorism.

In February 2003, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) caught the health community off guard –even though many Canadians saw the outbreak coming. Ontario public heath was underfunded with no overarching plan to respond to a widespread infectious disease and had a lab with only one microbiologist on staff. Caregivers worked some of the longest days in their careers and, at times put their lives at risk; all with no official warning before or direction during the outbreak. SARS cost the Ontario economy billions of dollars. Guess what doctors called it afterwards?

Ontario in particular learned some painful lessons that spring, but the SARS cloud has a silver lining. Not willing to be taken unawares again, provincial public health officials drew up a comprehensive, 500-page pandemic plan. In 2007 Ontario Public Health assembled a new agency similar to the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and then they built the Sheela Basrur Centre for public health education. The facility is designed to double as an emergency operations command centre, which it did, 2 hours after it opened, for the H1N1 outbreak.

Now the pandemic appears to be fading from North America. It was milder than we expected, but we face a familiar choice. Will we hang on to the benefits we’ve realized through the outbreak and build on those experiences, or will we throw them away? There will be new threats and challenges to face in the future, and when people face those threats, they’ll look back to our response with 20-20 hindsight. What legacy will we leave for them draw on?

Here. Now is the time for us to answer that question. This is our moment. Don’t let it slip.

Prepare

If you’ve assumed the expense of drawing up a pandemic plan, don’t let it fall out of date and force yourself to draw up a new plan down the road. For a fraction of that cost, you can periodically review and adapt your existing plan. Consider an exercise or simulation to test your plan as it’s updated.

Don’t turn your back on this outbreak just because the major portion of the threat seems to have passed. Make sure you review and assess your response. There are rewards to be had. Now is the time to reap the advantages of having endured a pandemic. There will have been times where you’ve had epiphanies about how to protect your organization. Working in novel ways will have given you broad new insights both on how your company functions and how it malfunctions. All of these are valuable. Crystallize and record the lessons you and your staff have learned.

Your People

The single greatest asset you will have for meeting future disruptions is a staff that has already weathered a pandemic. They possess a quality you can’t train or buy; only experience can grant it. Keep your staff trained and prepared. With influenza activity tapering off, book refresher courses and keep your teams and committees active. Don’t disband any task forces you may have assembled when you can keep those assets in place by simply reducing the frequency of their meetings to once a month or quarter.

To Endure

If you have an infrastructure of material assets, hang on to it. Inventory systems don’t spoil. At relatively little expense, you can keep your personal protective equipment and anti-viral drugs up to date. The start-up for these programs was expensive the first time, and you know what? Next time won’t be any cheaper.

***

For all of the fret and worry on its behalf, the 2009 flu pandemic was not the scourge many people feared. Someone recently accused me of having a lot of chutzpah to still be talking about it. Maybe. When your job is to point out unpleasant possibilities and help prepare for them, sometimes you have to say unpopular things. And when your conscience won’t let you leave it alone, sometimes you find yourself saying it a lot.

When a car approaches my nephew’s friends as they play street hockey, he doesn’t say, “They won’t listen anyway,” or “They’re not gonna like this,” when he considers whether or not to raise the alarm. He just hollers “car!” and helps them get their net out of the way. If the car interrupts someone about to score, or stops short and turns into a driveway, no one expects an apology. They accept the disruption, put the net back and play on. That’s hockey.

And that’s life.

Even children understand that.

A public health crisis –even the mentioning the topic- seems like something vast and complex that requires armies of doctors and government experts to dissect and solve. Sometimes it is, but there is always something each of us can do; often using tools we already possess. Add a touch of forethought and preparation to the mix and we can, each of us, make a profound difference.

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