Zika virus

Zika: Lessons in responding to emerging threats

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Coming in the wake of the Ebola epidemic, the rise of the Zika virus is another reminder that emerging infectious diseases are a continual threat to human health and the global economy.

Although the Zika virus is generally not fatal, its recent alleged links to possible birth defects – as well as its rapid spread in South America – have led to significant press coverage and rising public concern. The WHO has declared the outbreak a global health emergency, warning that it is likely to “spread explosively,” advising pregnant women to avoid travel to affected areas, and to use mosquito repellent and otherwise prevent against mosquito bites, if they live in those regions.

As The One Brief pointed out last year, pandemics are often only top of mind after they have been declared to be serious, which can mean that governments and businesses are slow to respond appropriately when they do occur. The WHO itself was strongly criticised for the speed of its response to Ebola, with delays that may have led to the situation worsening.

Yet picking the right response can be a significant challenge. The fear of infection can lead to an economic impact and disruption just as detrimental as actual infection, so over-reaction can lead to just as much criticism and harm as failing to act at all. With all the concern about Zika – and the genuine threat that major disease outbreaks can pose to both individuals and the economy – what do businesses need to do to be better able to respond appropriately?

In Depth

Responding to emerging disease threats

“The more you are aware about a disease outbreak, the more you can act to reduce its impact,” says Irfan Akhtar, a pandemic modelling expert at Aon. “The quicker the news gets out, the quicker you can do something about it.”

However, there is a danger to speed at which news about diseases spreads – especially in the early stages, when details can be unclear. The rise of social media can be a particular challenge here, as misinformation and unverified claims can spread just as quickly as good advice, worsening the panic. That can not only lead to a greater economic impact due to more people avoiding travel, but self-diagnosis by worried individuals can overload health systems, preventing those actually infected from receiving timely treatment. This was part of the reason why the WHO failed to issue earlier warnings about Ebola.

An added challenge is that with each outbreak that fails to turn into a global disaster, such as Ebola, Swine Flu, Bird Flu or SARS, complacency can set in, meaning that we fail to respond appropriately to warnings, dismissing them as just another overreaction. This is why it is so important to remember that “the past is not always a predictor of the future, and that makes it even more important to leverage existing knowledge appropriately, and know how and when to adjust understanding”, says Nancy Green, EVP, Aon Risk Solutions and leader of Aon’s Ebola Response Task Force.

In any emerging threat situation, what is important is not so much the quantity of information and advice, but its quality. To respond appropriately, you need to keep track of verified facts and official advice rather than just the headline version of the story. However, the uncertainty surrounding an emerging threat makes reacting appropriately particularly difficult. Verified facts are hard to come by in the early stages, details can change by the day, and decisions must be made with information that is oftentimes incomplete. “This is where context becomes important”, says Green. “It is useful to understand the emerging virus threat as it compares to other viruses – such as pandemic influenza – so that characteristics can be more fully identified, potential impacts can be anticipated instead of just reacted to, and existing crisis management and business continuity plans can be customized to the threat for more impactful response.”

How businesses can be prepared for pandemics

Most importantly, you need to be properly prepared to react appropriately when action is needed. “Don’t think ‘we’re not big enough to have a pandemic response plan,'” warns Akhtar. “Smaller companies should also have a plan in place.” Beside the potential economic disruption pandemics can cause, disease outbreaks may leave employers with legal obligations. Many countries have laws in place making employers responsible for the health and safety of their employees while at work or traveling for work, and to put in place appropriate health and safety measures to protect them. You may also have contractual obligations to suppliers, customers or clients – and potentially, as a director, even shareholders.

Considerations to keep in mind in any pandemic scenario (not just Zika) include these questions:

  • Does your organization have employees located in or traveling to areas where there have been documented and diagnosed cases?
  • Does your organization’s industry increase the probability of employee exposure to infected individuals or to affected regions?
  • Do your employees work in close proximity with vendors or other strategic partners who may have employees who are at greater potential to contract the disease?
  • If any of the above are answered in the affirmative, do you have a contingency plan in place to address managing and/or mitigating claims or their potential impacts?

A worker who can confirm the exposure through his/her work, has Zika, and it is ultimately proven that the condition was contracted at work or through associated business travel, could make a claim for compensation. If an employee contracts Zika through work or through travel related to work and claims that the infection is a result of the employer’s negligence, he or she may sue under Employer’s Liability. Similarly, if a spouse is infected by the employee, that family member could also make a claim through the Employer’s Liability coverage or the General Liability policy. However, the general rule is that the matter would likely not be deemed compensable if the employee was considered at no greater risk than the general public.

If your staff become sick, you may be unable to deliver on orders. If a supplier is in an affected region, you may want to source their goods from elsewhere to prevent spreading the disease further, depending on how the pandemic disease is transmitted. In either case, if you breach a contract due to aiming to avoid pandemic infection, you could potentially be liable for damages if your contracts don’t include an appropriate force majeure clause, detailing situations in which you cannot reasonably be held responsible, and if the common law doctrine of frustration does not apply. Meanwhile, if you don’t have an effective response plan and your revenue suffers disproportionately as a result, your shareholders could potentially sue over lost profits.

A core part of your plan should also be crisis communications. Prepare communications strategies ahead of time so there is an opportunity to vet language with legal counsel and expedite the customization process once event characteristics become known. You should have an internal as well as an external communication plan. “In some situations, unmanaged employee fear can result in loss of productivity that is tantamount to that caused by an actual disease outbreak,” warns Gisele Norris, DrPH, Aon.

Consider what to say to employees with a focus on these topics:

  • State the facts
  • Demystify the fear
  • Outline safety steps your organization is taking on behalf of its employees
  • Promote safety steps that employees can take at work or while traveling for work
  • Describe the potential impact on your organization
  • Summarize company policies/positions.

“Prepare for the event impact, rather than predict the event type, if you want to truly enhance resilience” says Green, “and then understand how to customize your plan for the nuances of the event characteristics in order to expedite impactful response.” Insurance – especially business interruption cover – could be part of that plan, as could flexible working policies to help reduce the threat of your staff contracting a disease during an outbreak, even diversification of supply chains.

The early stages of the emergence of new threats often lead to periods of uncertainty and panic while people and organizations try to work out how best to respond. While the uncertainty may be hard to avoid until solid information becomes available, having a response plan already prepared can easily reduce the panic, leading to a calmer, more effective response that could – when it comes to disease outbreaks – save lives as well as profits.

Talking Points

“As with Ebola, Zika has once again exposed the world’s vulnerability to emerging infectious diseases and the devastation they can unleash. Alongside the emergency response that Zika necessitates, we must put in place the permanent reforms, health systems strengthening and proactive research agenda that are needed to make the global health system more resilient to the threat of future pandemics.” – Dr Jeremy Farrar, Director, The Wellcome Trust

“What happens in a distant part of the globe really does matter to the whole world. Viral diseases do not respect international boundaries. At the same time, an epidemic is not just a public health crisis. It is an economic crises, affecting all segments of society… getting things right, not only for this epidemic but also for future ones, is vital to global health and economies.” – Aon Global Risk Management Survey 2015

“The importance of the wording of the force majeure clause cannot be overstated. If it refers to performance being ‘delayed,’ it means that a party can rely on a force majeure event if performance is substantially more onerous… However, if the clause requires the force majeure event to ‘prevent’ performance, it usually means that a party will need to demonstrate that performance is legally or physically impossible, not just difficult or unprofitable. In each case, the level of disruption required to secure relief will depend on the wording of the commercial contract.” – Paul Palik, Associate, Birketts

Further Reading