A scientist’s view on business continuity strategies in pandemics and disasters

In our first guest column for 2021 Ben Harris, Medical Microbiology Scientist, shares his tips on what businesses can do to prepare for and sustain themselves in and despite of pandemics and disasters.

Ben Harris is a medical microbiology scientist

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” – George Santayana, 1905, The Life of Reason

Unfortunately, natural disasters (which pandemics are) can end small businesses – between 40% and 60% of them close permanently after a disaster. Among businesses that are closed for at least five days, 90% fail within a year without Government support[1].

The good news is that my decades of work in pandemic and disaster management have taught me that while we may not be able to prevent a disaster occurring, we can manage the magnitude of the outcome and the disruption to business operations.

Lessons from current and previous disasters show businesses need to, at an early stage, fully consider and review their current knowledge, tools and strategies for preparing, managing and recovering from the impact of a pandemic or other disaster.

Plan for the unimaginable

It may be one of the worst widespread health crises any of us have lived through, but the COVID-19 pandemic is certainly not the first such crisis to ravage humanity. Nonetheless, the world was utterly unprepared for something that, from a medical microbiological perspective, was a matter of ‘when’ and not ‘if’. The socio-political and business consequences have been much greater than the morbidity and mortality from the virus, though that has been significant too.

Internationally, the COVID Infection Fatality Rate (IFR) sits at approximately 0.8%, for primarily over 60-year-olds. Comparatively, other viruses like SARS, MERS and the bird flu (H1N1) have IFRs of 10%, 36% and 58% respectively. Think what could have happened, or could happen next time.

What businesses can do:

Maintain an ongoing alert-antenna approach to emerging potential disasters

As the saying goes, ‘a stitch in time saves nine’. The same is true for a pandemic or other risk that could lead to major disruption if it eventuates.

Detection, awareness, and discussion of (at least) a rudimentary strategy helps develop a business culture that is consistently adaptable to risk mitigation and opportunities.

The thought processes and knowledge that go into planning and developing pandemic and disaster plans are extremely important. It’s unlikely you and your team have time to sit down and devour a large, comprehensive document when a major event happens.

Whether the crisis is slow to emerge or sudden, having a baseline plan will allow you to adapt and update your response quickly and effectively, helping keep your business and employees safe.

Risk management

All businesses are interconnected and inter-reliant (nationally, internationally, economically, through supply chains, suppliers, contractors, couriers, freight, financials, cash flow, IT/communications, customers, community/staff, infrastructure, media, legal, insurance, relocation capacity and more). This interdependency demands ongoing high-level SWOT analysis to proactively identify risks and manage them in advance to mitigate them.

Think and widely discuss risk potentials with staff in terms of:

  • Point source eg. fire, flood, explosion, cyber attack
  • Region source eg. earthquake, volcanic, storm/flood
  • National eg. industrial, biosecurity, financial, epidemic
  • International eg. pandemic, geopolitical, financial
  • Foster organisational agility and responsiveness in planning and building scalable capacities to meet whatever eventuates. Respond to the situation, not the plan.  Command and control may be impaired
  • Think leadership, involve staff, delegations, infrastructure, power, public transport, staff emotions/support, PPE, critical equipment, maintenance, opportunities, risk mitigation, ethics, social responsibilities, priorities, cash flow, insurance, asset register, health and safety, people management, critical business/data records and back-up, contact numbers/email (emergency, staff home/work), critical stock/inventory, critical staff and back-up alternatives, practice, training


It cannot be overstated how crucial good communication is during a crisis.

According to the World Health Organisation:

“Around the world, the SARS experience has shown – once again – the power of a poorly understood new infectious disease to incite widespread public anxiety. As many observers have noted, this fear of SARS has spread faster than the virus, causing great social unease, economic losses, and some political changes. Unwarranted discrimination has been another unfortunate problem. In such cases, clear, factual, and reassuring messages need to be issued by trusted authorities.  Panic is fuelled when information is concealed or only partially disclosed.”[2]

And SARS did not even become a pandemic. Think COVID-19.

In my experience, the key points to bear in mind are:

  • Be transparent, honest and reliable in all communications. Say what you do know and what you do not know. Mass media sources, and specific sub sources, can be much faster than official or formal organisation-based sources
  • Rumours are powerful and destructive. Having management ‘boots on the ground’ to build empathy, trust and stop false rumours among staff is also important. Observe, listen, ask questions and then respond
  • Offer ongoing staff meetings and be open to meeting staff individually if required. We’re all human, and concerns around mental and physical health, financial impacts and family safety are all possible additional stressors that it helps to speak about openly and with empathy
  • Notify the Government, stakeholders, key people internal and external, staff, and of course your PR team or agency

Lessons in the foreword of the Chair of the 2005 London Bombings[3]:

  • Keep an outward focus by taking a strategic view of the big picture
  • Focus on working together for the public good
  • Focus on individuals not incidents; people, not processes, will make the difference
  • Manage surge in demand for mobile, landlines and website access (e.g. after natural disasters like earthquakes)
  • Work with the media. The lead agency responsible for communicating with the media must be clearly identified to all stakeholders. Communicate all urgent and important messages via various channels (e.g. website, email, text, radio, buddy system); communicate on the full breadth of issues on the disaster (not just issues under its immediate responsibility);  regularly report (e.g. hourly or daily) even if there is nothing new to report (a good example was the New Zealand Government’s daily COVID briefings during lockdown and regularly thereafter

This article is contributed by Ben Harris, Medical Microbiology Scientist who has been featured in the media regarding the COVID crisis regularly. You can read more contributing articles by other experts and ourselves in the blog section of Company Crisis. 

[1] Federal Emergency Management Agency, United States.

[2] WHO: Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS): Status of the outbreak and lessons for the immediate future Unmasking a new disease Geneva, 20 May 2003, Page 8

[3] https://www.london.gov.uk/sites/default/files/gla_migrate_files_destination/archives/assembly-reports-7july-report.pdf

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