The importance of pandemic preparedness

International SOS shares valuable tips on how businesses can plan ahead

International SOS: A robust pandemic plan allows an organisation to provide their business and employees the resilience needed to withstand a pandemic and any future ones.
International SOS: A robust pandemic plan allows an organisation to provide their business and employees the resilience needed to withstand a pandemic and any future ones. Photo Credit: International SOS

SINGAPORE - Businesses have an obligation of duty of care for the health, safety and security of their employees. A pandemic preparedness plan outlines how an organisation can mitigate risks posed by a pandemic on their employees, minimise the impact of a pandemic on the business itself, and facilitate swift resumption of activities at a later stage.

In International SOS’ recent global survey on return to operations, it found that almost two in three respondents with pre-existing pandemic plans found these effective in reducing the impact of COVID-19 on their business.

Dr Greg Jakubowski, regional medical director, International SOS, shared some tips with M&C Asia: “A robust pandemic plan allows an organisation to provide their business, and even more importantly their employees, the resilience needed to withstand this pandemic, and future ones that will surely come our way.”

How organisations implement a pandemic preparedness plan
Identify the potential impact of a pandemic on the business. Consider issues like:
•    The risk of the pandemic on your domestic and overseas employees, suppliers, partners, customers, etc.
•    The business processes that can be done remotely, and those which must be performed on-site
•    The tools and technology necessary to enable staff to work remotely
•    The impact of travel restrictions or bans on your business
•    The plan in the event of significant staff absences
•    The necessary precautions to contain transmission of a virus at work premises
•    The healthcare options such as immunizations or certain preventive medications that can be used in minimizing the impact of an outbreak

Once these risks have been identified, start drafting a plan that ensures business continuity, and protects the health and safety of employees, customers and other partners. This will include processes for decision-making during a pandemic, the critical services required to keep the business running, the actions needed if there are active cases of an illness in the workforce, and the triggers for activating and terminating the pandemic preparedness plan.

If organisations have not already done so, they should appoint a pandemic coordinator or team to manage organisational changes that may occur during this period. This person would be in charge of communicating the plans to all internal and external stakeholders and ensuring compliance with local regulations.

They should also run drills of their pandemic preparedness plan to ensure that it is feasible and revise the plan accordingly. Additionally, it is always prudent to draft templated communications that can be used for internal as well as external communications at each phase of the outbreak.

Finally, the plan must take into consideration the impact of the pandemic on employees and their families or dependents – not just in terms of physical health and ability to continue working remotely, but their mental well-being too. The plan should factor in processes to monitor and manage employees’ fear, anxiety or misinformation during a pandemic, as well as addressing the unique stresses inherent in working from home.  

International SOS also provides advice specific to different health risks, compliance with local regulations across various geographies, and other industry-specific requirements to help clients to respond swiftly and manage threats at all times.  

In the case of the MICE sector, organisations must consider how a pandemic can alter the logistics of their in-person events. In the recovery phrase of the pandemic curve, organisers should put in place holistic safety measures, to give attendees a peace of mind. They should factor social distancing policies into their planning, planning for appropriate screening both before return to site and on site, ensuring that there is adequate space, and have adequate on-site resources like protective equipment and medical staffing.

Best practices
•    Anywhere, anytime
A new virus can spread quickly. It is important for an organisation’s pandemic plan to encompass all geographies, not just those where outbreaks have occurred. Especially in the MICE sector, the nature of the work exposes MICE planners to multiple environments (event venues, hotels, airports and restaurants) and various groups of people. The plan needs to factor in evacuation planning for events, health and safety guides for guests, on-site emergency medical responses and medical liaison officers in local hospitals.

•    Fast-moving
Outbreaks can evolve rapidly. Develop a pandemic plan that is responsive and adaptive that can be quickly and consistently communicated with staff, event organisers, hotels, restaurants, and the various touchpoints.

•    Severity informs response
Assessing the severity of an outbreak can be a challenge. Media reports and community sentiment can have a significant impact on perception of risk. Develop processes and guidelines to assess, and communicate that information to employees, customers, and partners.

•    Customised to the needs of different profiles
There can be confusion and a lack of definitive information about the nature of a new illness. The challenge for health authorities is to communicate the unknowns in a balanced, appropriate and tailored manner, focusing broadly on practical, actionable steps that everyone should take and, where necessary, enacting more severe measures to protect specific, affected populations. An organisation’s pandemic plan should further tailor the information based on employees’ needs as individuals or small groups, rather than as an entire population.

•    Variable capabilities
Some countries are better prepared to respond to an infectious disease outbreak than others are. Organisations are encouraged to examine the responses to recent outbreaks in the countries where they operate and develop plans that incorporate the global variations.

Client experience
Organisations with pandemic preparedness plans were able to clearly articulate the best course of action in a confusing time. As COVID-19 was an unexpected and stressful situation, having a protocol in place meant that the organisation could co-ordinate its efforts to prevent disruption to business and reduce health risks, because the processes and personnel were already in place.

Said Dr Jakubowski: “One of our clients in the energy sector approached us in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic with concerns about identifying and defining roles and responsibilities of a crisis management team, best practices if their sites were isolated due to travel restrictions, and how to evacuate international assignees to international safe havens.

“We were on hand to help them identify precautionary actions that they should take such as communication plans, hygiene, screening, access control, and quarantine measures. We assisted the organisation in identifying indicators of deteriorating medical and operating environments such as the spread of COVID-19, the ability of medical facilities to cope, and restrictions on mobility within the country. Stand-fast protocol assistance was provided, as well as location evacuation plans to ensure the safety of their employees.

“The outcome was very positive as we were able to help our client make timely and effective decisions, as well as the provision of clear and reliable information. We were able to ensure business continuity and crisis management support in this particular environment, along with ongoing planning and preparation for next steps, including return to work and de-escalation.

“Companies that were able to transition to telecommuting minimised disruption to their business, because employees could work from home without much difficulty. For employees who could not work from home, having an adequate supply of personal protective equipment like masks and hand sanitisers, and implementing practices like safe distancing reduced the risk of working during the pandemic. Having on-the-ground support for employees like 24/7 access to health and security advice and mental health support also helped employees weather the uncertainty of the pandemic.”

Lessons learnt
Preparing for the worst-case scenario is essential to preventing the worst-case scenario. Organisations that had reviewed key lessons learnt from previous pandemics such as the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), H1N1 and MERS would have uncovered strengths and weaknesses in their plans and implemented new processes to manage these hurdles. While it is not possible to pre-empt every possible situation, having a clear guideline on what to do in a pandemic can help allay fears and ensure that both the business and employees are well protected.