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Panic and confusion seem to go hand in hand with bird flu. And governments, the media and business leaders appear to be adding to the problems rather than helping the situation. Lack of planning, disorganized information releases, and outright lies to protect economic interests are all in abundant supply.
The situation appears to be the worst in the poorest regions. This is partially because it is more difficult for governments in these areas to distribute information to citizens. Many people in these regions dont have access to television or even radios. But governments overseeing these areas should be able to overcome such issues by placing officials in the field, providing them with timely and accurate information, and letting the citizens in the area know where they can turn for the latest news. It is perfectly clear than nobody is doing this.
As a result, rumors abound in even the most heavily populated areas. Yesterday in Cairo, a rumor that dead birds carrying the H5N1 virus has been deliberately dumped in the citys water supply began to circulate. The result was a citywide panic causing a sell out of bottled water.
In India, there has been virtually no coordination in the release of information between the national, state or local governments. At the same time that one state is saying that bird flu is present and that culling of birds has begun, neighboring states are telling their citizens that bird flu is not present in India or that it is impossible for bird flu to affect their particular region. Its as if they want their citizens to believe that there is some magical line that bird flu cant cross.
And businesses are no better. The CEO of the first hatchery in India to be impacted with bird flu told her workers that there was no bird flu in India. She did this after the Indian government had announced that H5N1s presence. And there is now growing evidence that this hatchery actually tried to cover up the outbreak in order to prevent the cancellation of an export contract with Japan.
But the problem is not just present in these regions. Europe has had its share of mishaps too. The Bulgarian government announced that it may have its first case of bird flu. Within hours, they were forced to announce that they had quarantined a man who had no symptoms of the disease because he told his doctor that had come in contact with a dead bird several days earlier.
The press announced that Denmark had bird flu, only to retract that statement within 24 hours.
While European countries have better infrastructure and communication capability than countries in the Middle East and Africa, there is little evidence that they are using their resources wisely to educate their citizens. Both government and business are leaving it to the press to educate the public. This inevitably leads to panicked decision making and misinformation.
It is important to keep in mind that all of these issues surround a disease that at present can only be passed to humans from birds.
Now imagine what will happen if bird flu mutates in a way that it can be passed from person to person. Most of the scientific community working on H5N1 believes that this is a very real possibility within the next eighteen months.
For anyone thinking that the situation in other countries is reminiscent of the Keystone Cops and that it couldnt possibly be as bad when H5N1 arrives in the United States, think again. We only have to look back to Hurricane Katrina, just six months ago, to realize that the chances for the same types of problems to occur here are extremely high.
Katrina demonstrated that our federal, state and local governments are ill equipped to deal with major disasters. Since Katrina, politicians have done a lot of talking about how to fix the problems, but there have been very few substantive changes made to allow for a better national response.
Both consumers and businesses need to be prepared to deal with a situation that could be unlike any they have ever faced. A variety of plans by various government agencies call for quarantining of large geographic areas. In a fluid situation that is rapidly changing, this could very well mean that employees will be stranded at their offices for prolonged periods of time. How are businesses supposed to cope with that? For instance, how do you feed them? Where are they going to sleep? And how are you going to care for them if they become ill?
And if large numbers of employees are stranded at home, how do you keep your business going? Have you given your employees the necessary tools to continue to work?
This may sound like a doomsday scenario, and it could be. Most of the scientific community is in agreement that if H5N1 makes the jump to person to person infections, it will become far less deadly. And not all pandemics are created equally. For instance the 1918 flu pandemic killed 40 million people. But the pandemic in 1968 was little more than a blip on the radar screen for most western nations.
Nobody really knows what will happen if H5N1 becomes contagious. But we do know that even if H5N1 doesnt spark a pandemic now, another flu virus will. And probably within the next ten years. The time to plan for this inevitable event is now.
Jim Malmberg provides consulting services to business in the areas of planning and business development. Believing that bird flu poses a significant risk and a planning challenge for businesses, he established fluFactor (http://flufactor.blogspot.com). fluFactor delivers news and information on the spread of the bird flu. The site has a user forum section, and users can also subscribe to receive daily updates by e-mail. the site pays special attention to the economic and business consequences of bird flu outbreaks.