Thursday, April 30, 2009

Why a Flu Pandemic Is Disruptive

As we have said in an earlier post, an influenza pandemic has the potential for disrupting the critical infrastructure of our society, such as health care, utilities, and public safety. Any disruption to these essential services can make everyday life more difficult, disrupt our businesses, create additional health risks, and reinforce the economic downturn.

Why would critical infrastructure be threatened? A pandemic could potentially be disruptive because it has the potential to sicken so many of the essential personnel responsible for our critical infrastructure -- as well as the rest of us. The Homeland Security Council has made it very plain that the effect on workplace absenteeism could be severe throughout society:

There will be up to 40% workplace absenteeism at the peak of the pandemic in any given community -- National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza

In our highly interconnected world, many factors will combine to keep people out of the workplace:

  1. Up to 1/3 of the workforce can be expected to be sick over the course of the pandemic (which will come in waves); some will die

  2. Some who are well will stay home to care for sick family members (most healthcare will be supportive care)

  3. Government and workplace policies to control the spread of the disease will keep others home

  4. As the pandemic worsens, fear will keep others home

  5. Persons exposed to the disease may be quarantined, even if they are not sick

  6. If schools are closed, some will stay home to care for children

  7. Official disease containment measures could limit commerce further: Non-essential businesses may be closed, and non-essential workers furloughed

  8. Border crossings could be limited, thus limiting the availability of parts and materials needed by industry, as well as limiting access to customers in other countries

  9. Effects will multiply as supply chains are disrupted. One business's closure will have a domino effect on its customers, its customers' customers, etc.

In today's highly interconnected world, a worsening in any of these factors will act on other parts of society to create even greater friction to the normal working of society. With all these interactions, perhaps it is plausible that the cumulative effect could reach the 40% absenteeism estimated in the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza. If that happens, we will all need to be very well prepared.