Flu pandemic threatens business

Businesses in the Cayman Islands could face economic devastation if they fail to put in place measures to combat a possible influenza pandemic, a leading US public health expert is warning.

Dr. Elaine Pierce, who is speaking Thursday at Cayman Business Outlook 2008, says the threat of a pandemic remains very real, despite waning media interest in bird flu – one possible strain of influenza that could spark a global pandemic.

‘From an historical perspective, we are now overdue for a pandemic. It’s not unreasonable to think there will be another,’ she said.

Ms Pierce said businesses in the Cayman Islands are better positioned to respond to a pandemic than many countries, owing to years of hurricane planning.

‘It’s like hurricanes; we don’t know whether there is going to be another Ivan in the next five to 10 years, but it’s not reasonable to think there will never be another hurricane in the Caribbean.

‘Businesses in Cayman are pretty sophisticated in so far as knowing how to operate without power; how to stockpile clean water and so forth. They are at an advantage because they have already looked at those social disruption issues,’ she said.

‘The difference in a pandemic is that physical structures will be fine; it is people that will be affected.’

That could mean up to 40 per cent absenteeism from workplaces during a pandemic as employees battles illness, care for family members or simply avoid work for fear of becoming infected with the virus.

The only choice for businesses is to reduce and accommodate absenteeism, she said.

‘Employees must be able to care for themselves and their families before they can think about their jobs,’ Ms Pierce said.

That will require businesses to help employees ensure they are personally prepared, as well as implementing hygiene and sanitation measures to cut the chances of infection in the work place.

That in-turn could mean implementing policies that reduce the amount of face-to-face contact employees have (teleconferencing as an alternative to staff meetings is just one idea she will suggest at the conference) and putting systems in place to ensure staff can work from home for prolonged periods.

Ms Pierce pointed out that, historically, influenza pandemics have come in waves, inflicting recurrent damage over periods of up to 18 months.

She said a liberal sick leave policy that accommodates both sick employees and employees whose family members are sick, will pay dividends long term.

The influenza risk

Bird flu – also known as avian influenza – can pass from birds to humans but cannot yet pass between humans. There is concern that the virus will eventually acquire this capability through genetic mutation, allowing the virus to spread much more rapidly.

The Cayman Islands Government last year warned that the universal susceptibility of the world’s population to viruses that have not previously circulated, coupled with the mobility of human populations, means that ‘every corner of the globe and every element of society are likely to be touched’ if a pandemic occurs.

It said 13,000 people in the Cayman Islands are likely to be affected, possibly overwhelming some government agencies, necessitating the mass closure of schools and requiring restriction to be placed on mass gatherings.

While those forecasts are sobering, Ms Pierce said the government contingency plan gives cause for optimism.

‘It looks like the Cayman Islands Government plan includes very appropriate response measures that are similar to the US and UK Government’s plans.’

The next step, she said, should involve public-private partnerships to ensure businesses are ready.

‘It is no secret that the Cayman Islands are one of the premiere sources of private funds in the world. There should be very robust support for private health operations.

‘If those things don’t exist, [companies in the Cayman Islands] need to be asked why they are not contributing,’ she said.

While these Islands may be better resourced to put in place proper contingency plans, the flip side, she points out, is that this country has more to lose economically than poorer states.

‘You can be heroes if you do it and if you don’t, you could see your business go down in flames.’

Ms Pierce’s presentation is just one global risk to businesses that will be examined at the conference.

Experts from Cayman and abroad will also counsel business figures on how they can respond to the credit crisis in the US emanating from the sub-prime mortgage crisis; the effects of climate change in the Cayman Islands; energy supply disruption and oil price shock; and the rise and fall of nation states.

The conference, which is being held at the Ritz Carlton, begins 8.30am Thursday. For more information, visit www.caymanbusinessoutlook.com