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Managing Risk Before, During, and After a Global Pandemic

By Lynnda Nelson, ICOR:

While in the midst of a global pandemic that has non-essential workers world-wide sheltering at home, economies virtually shut down, and health care systems stretched to capacity, pandemic planning has finally gotten the attention of governments, businesses, and the people.

Pandemic planning has long been the topic of governments as part of emergency risk management for health and for businesses as part of business continuity management. However, attention has been fleeting and real preparedness has not been realized.

All too often, both governments and businesses plan for high probability risks rather than those with low probability and high impact  This has resulted in a world for the most part being unprepared to manage a high impact pandemic over the long-term.

This blog considers planning that should take place to mitigate the risks that arise from a pandemic and responding to it. It shares warnings from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in the US and from WHO, and it provides references to resources you may wish to consider to better understand how nations will respond moving forward.

Managing Risk as the COVID-19 Crisis Deepens
Knowledge@Wharton at the University of Pennsylvania published recommendations on “Coping with Coronavirus:  Five Strategies to Mitigate Business Risks” on March 17, 2020. (

The effects of the pandemic are predictable. The impact on our organizations, customers, vendors, and communities is knowable. Even so, as action remains elusive, there is a natural tendency for panic to arise. To help turn panic into productive and proactive steps to prepare, Knowledge@Wharton outlines five major risks and mitigation strategies that all organizations should explore.

  1. Risk 1: Disruption Due to Social Distancing
  2. Risk 2: Plummeting Employee Productivity
  3. Risk 3: Stressed Supply Chains
  4. Risk 4: Recession, Unemployment and Investment Pull-back
  5. Risk 5: Economic Instability and Civil Unrest

So now what? Organizations need to put in place mitigation plans to address each of these risks. By taking these steps they will be in a better position to reduce the risks that the coronavirus will have on their business.

It is not too late to prepare. Dust off your business continuity plan, review your business impact analysis, your risk assessment, and your current and considered strategies and solutions to use during a response.

Conduct a gap analysis to identify gaps between what you have planned for and implemented and what remains necessary in order to continue operations for the duration of this pandemic. If your planning efforts did not include planning for these 5 risks that are part of pandemic planning, it is time to begin planning.

Pandemic Risk in the News – BEFORE 2020

CNN reported on September 18, 2019 ( regarding a report published by the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board (GPMB), co-convened by the World Bank and the World Health Organization (WHO), who warned that the chances of a global pandemic are growing – and we are all dangerously under prepared.

“For too long, we have allowed a cycle of panic and neglect when it comes to pandemics: we ramp up efforts when there is a serious threat, then quickly forget about them when the threat subsides. It is well past time to act.”

The WHO called for world leaders to take seven concrete actions to lessen the risk, including monitoring progress during international summits, creating multi-year disaster plans, strengthening United Nations coordination, and building preparation systems across all sectors.

The Risk of Local Outbreaks Becoming Global Pandemics
According for the US Centers for Disease Control in 2017, (  there was concern expressed that many challenges exist worldwide that increase the risk that local outbreaks will occur and spread rapidly. The reasons for this include:

  • Increased risk of infectious pathogens “spilling over” from animals to humans
  • Development of antimicrobial resistance
  • Spread of infectious diseases through global travel and trade
  • Acts of bioterrorism
  • Weak public health infrastructure

Outbreaks take hold in the world’s most vulnerable areas – countries with few resources to stem the tide of infection before it reaches our shores. When a pathogen can travel from a remote village to major cities on all continents in 36 hours, the threat to our national security is greater than ever.

The WHO also warned of the risk of a global pandemic in May 2017 and published a document entitled, “Pandemic Influenza Risk Management – A WHO guide to inform & harmonize national & international pandemic preparedness and response” (

The guide provides direction on how prepare for and respond to an international pandemic and provides this figure to guide actions. They recommend a risk-based approach to pandemic influenza risk and that nations develop flexible plans based on a national risk assessment to inform management decisions for the benefit of their country’s specific situation and needs.

The guidance provided is relevant to organizations of all sizes and serves as a free resource.

This guide introduces a Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Framework (PIP) developed in 2011 for the global sharing of information and access to vaccines and other benefits. This framework supports a global approach to pandemic influenza preparedness and response.

One of the aspects of the PIP Framework is the importance of Emergency Risk Management for Health (ERMH) and is based on the following principles:

  • Comprehensive risk management: A focus on assessment and management of risks of emergencies rather than events.
  • All-hazards approach: Use, development and strengthening of elements and systems that are common to the management of risks of emergencies from all sources.
  • Multisectoral approach: Recognition that all elements of government, business and civil society have capacities relevant to ERMH.
  • Multidisciplinary approach: Recognition of the roles of many disciplines in health is required to manage the health risks of emergencies through risk assessment, mitigation, prevention, preparedness, response, recovery and capacity strengthening.
  • Community resilience: Utilization of capacities at community level for risk assessment, reporting, providing basic services, risk communication for disease prevention and long-term community care and rehabilitation.
  • Sustainable development: Recognition that development of country and community capacities in health and other sectors requires a long-term approach to protect health and build resilience.
  • Ethical basis: Consideration of ethical principles throughout ERMH activities.

Assessment of Pandemic Severity
WHO states that gauging the severity of the pandemic – a critical component of overall pandemic risk assessment – is an important consideration. They recommend that severity assessments should be conducted at the community, national, and global level. Each of these assessments enable the refinement of risk assessments as other levels. A severity assessment can also be a valuable tool for organizations to implement and can guide decision making.

A risk assessment, incorporating severity, should provide as much information as possible to answer the following key questions about an emerging pandemic.

  • How rapidly are new cases accruing?
  • What types of illnesses and complications are being seen?
  • What groups of people (e.g. age groups or groups at risk of severe outcomes) will become severely ill and die?
  • Is the virus sensitive to antiviral agents?
  • How many people will become ill?
  • What will be the impact on the healthcare sector, including such factors as healthcare utilization and impact on the healthcare work force?

Operationally, these questions will help guide decisions regarding vaccine production and strategy for usage, antiviral use, mobilization of healthcare resources, school closures and other social distancing strategies.

Indicators – Data to Review
The data that answer each of these key questions will be considered in the context of three indicators.

  1. Transmissibility: Reflects the ease of movement of the virus between individuals, communities and countries.
  2. Seriousness of disease: An infection is likely to be much more severe for some segments of a population than others and descriptions of the groups at risk will be part of this indicator.
  3. Impact: If the healthcare sector and other critical essential services are impacted at a high level, it may not be able to accommodate the stress on its resources. The impact on the health sector will also be influenced by public concern and healthcare policies put in place in response to the event.

Whole-of-Society Approach
The WHO recommends a “Whole-of-Society Approach” as a pandemic will test the resilience of nations, businesses, and communities, depending on their capacity to respond. No single agency or organization can prepare for a pandemic on its own.

Inadequate or uncoordinated preparedness of interdependent public and private organizations will reduce the ability of the health sector to respond during a pandemic. A comprehensive approach to pandemic risk management is required.

As illustrated in Figure A.1, the whole-of-society approach encompasses three major groups in society –

  1. governments,
  2. business and
  3. civil society –

at the global, national, subnational, local and community levels. The nine circles around the disaster management continuum of mitigation, prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery represent nine key essential areas:

  1. health,
  2. defence,
  3. law and order,
  4. finance,
  5. transport,
  6. telecommunications,
  7. energy,
  8. food, and
  9. water

What Next?
Nations need to make policy decisions that balance the protection of its citizens with the need to keep their economy running. This includes a strategy for opening schools so that parents can return to work.

Businesses and organizations of all kinds need to do the same – managing the need to continue operations with limited access to their employees who may fear returning to work unless essential protections are in place.

  • How will your organization respond if employees get sick from being exposed to the virus while at work and are later sued for damages?
  • What if your supply chain is limited or completely interrupted?
  • What if you cannot operate at a level of capacity that allows you to open your doors?
  • What if you are unable to operate as usual?

The cornerstone of organizational resilience is the ability to adapt to change and to be agile. Most, if not all organizations, will need to modify HOW they will continue operations as well as TO WHAT EXTENT they will operate at different PERIODS of TIME.

These are basic business continuity principles and so organizations with rigorous business continuity plans should be at an advantage over those who do not. If your organization did not plan for a global pandemic of this magnitude (worst-case scenario), it is not too late to begin.

ISO 22301:2019 Security and resilience – Business continuity management systems – Requirements provides the requirements for implementing a business continuity management system.

ICOR’s BCM 3000: Implementing ISO 22301, provides education on how to develop and implement a business continuity management system.

Individuals/Employees need to make personal decisions on how to best protect their families while balancing the need to work and provide financial support.

None of these decisions is easy. But each of us has a role to play in living through this pandemic. We cannot panic. We need to manage one day at a time and make decisions to keep moving forward while managing current risks and new ones that come our way.

Learn more at ICOR.

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