No business would have an easy time of it during an influenza pandemic.
In addition to high employee absentee rates, companies might have to deal with disruptions to essential services like electricity and garbage collection as well as disruptions to critical supply chains.
Some industries will be hit harder than others.
The biggest losers in an influenza pandemic would include the tourism, travel, and transportation sectors, along with the hospitality industry, theaters and casinos, sports facilities, convention centers, retailers and restaurants.
Any business that depends on people leaving their homes and going out to gather in groups will suffer in a pandemic. On top of that, government officials could impose travel restrictions and quarantines.
Poultry producers, meanwhile, are already experiencing a decline in demand as consumers lose their appetite for chicken.
Hospitals, on the other hand, would be overwhelmed with patients in a pandemic and unable to handle the surge.
Below are a few of the industries that are at the greatest risk from an influenza pandemic, and why.
Alex Lee, a regional wholesale and retail food company based in Hickory, N.C., issued a white paper in August exploring the ramifications of a pandemic for the industry, well before most companies had even begun to think about the risk.
Effects of a pandemic on the industry include a decline in the number of visits by consumers to grocery stores, higher demand for Internet shopping, more people using self-checkout systems, more demand for home delivery, and more interest in bulk quantities, along with a shift away from perishable products to prepackaged goods.
On the vendor side, disruptions to the supply chain and product shortages would become the norm.
The report also made recommendations for management.
It advised companies to set "trigger points" as a pandemic takes hold. Each trigger point needs to have a set of well-defined checklists of responsibilities as the virus spreads.
The paper also advised managers to look at product lists to determine likely demand shifts during a pandemic. A plan should be developed to scale up Internet shopping operations. Companies should also develop an employee database to track the whereabouts of employees and their families. Companies need to develop a corporate chain of command so that no matter which executive becomes ill, leadership is well understood, the report advised.
Hospitals would be very quickly overwhelmed with patients in an influenza pandemic. There would be shortages of critical medical supplies and equipment such as ventilators, syringes, intravenous equipment, linens, towels and disinfectants.
Health-care workers also would be in short supply.
With few exceptions, hospitals are unprepared for a major flu pandemic and are not involved in national, state or local planning efforts, according to report issued in October by the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
According to the report, hospitals, short of staff in normal times, are likely to face a critical shortage of health-care workers due to illness, quarantine, fear, or caretaking of sick family members. Hospitals do not have realistic plans to augment staffing, the report also said.
The report also found that hospitals lack sufficient supplies of masks and gowns to protect their staff or prevent the spread of flu between patients. Nor do they have isolation rooms for even a fraction of the contagious flu patients anticipated in a pandemic. Most hospitals do not have plans to screen and isolate infectious patients on arrival, the study also found.
In early March, the Center for Biosecurity convened a working group of about 50 people representing a cross section of U.S. hospitals, according to Molly D'Esopo, a spokeswoman for the Center.
The working group is looking for ways to overcome the obstacles that hinder hospital preparedness.
TRAVEL AND TOURISM
Travel, tourism, hospitality and airlines would suffer. A human bird flu pandemic could halt up to 70 percent of commercial air traffic, according to Richard Branson, the head of Virgin Group, who was a speaker at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January.
Planes could be grounded if governments decide to ban entry into their countries. The airline industry would look to the federal government and the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for instruction during a pandemic, says Katherine Andrus, assistant general counsel for the Air Transport Association of America.
Even if the planes could get off the ground, however, there would probably be very few people interested in traveling. During the SARS outbreak in 2003, the World Health Organization warned against travel to Toronto. Travel to Canada declined sharply as a result.
The airlines are updating their current crisis-management plans to address the specific issues related to a pandemic.
The CDC meanwhile, is working on a plan that would address how to handle arriving passengers if the H5N1 virus mutates and begins to spread among people, she says.
The poultry industry has already started to suffer as a result of the avian flu virus. Some countries have banned poultry imports and consumers are eating less poultry because of fear of the virus. There also have been mass cullings of poultry.
According to a report, "The Avian Flu Crisis: An Economic Update," issued in March by Sherry Cooper, global economic strategist and executive vice president of Harris Bank and BMO Financial Group, U.S. poultry exports dropped 28 percent in December.
Another analyst has even suggested that exports may be down 40 percent in the first quarter of this year.
The largest poultry exporters in the world are the United States and Brazil. About 15 percent of the $30 billion U.S. chicken industry is exported.
Pilgrim's Pride, the second-largest poultry producer in the United States and Mexico behind Tyson Foods, recently withdrew its second-quarter and full-year earnings forecasts, partly because of fears about H5N1.
More than 40 countries imposed bans on French poultry products soon after the H5N1 strain hit a commercial turkey farm in southeast France. France's poultry industry is a $7.1 billion industry. It is Europe's largest producer and exporter of poultry and poultry products with most of their sales to the Middle East and Asia.
Restaurants specializing in serving chicken dishes will be hurt.
PATRICIA VOWINKEL lives in New Jersey.
April 15, 2006
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