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2008 conference foresaw pandemic challenges

I was fumbling through my old columns last week when I came across one that was published on Sept. 8, 2008.

Going over what I wrote nearly 12 years ago unnerved me greatly, in the sense that it provided an exact roadmap to prevent and be aware of what is happening today during the coronavirus crisis.

In that piece, I wrote about touring a maquiladora in Mexico and observing several people with the sniffles waiting to be seen at the in-house clinic. I made the observation about how people routinely cross the border, and how in the modern world, “the spread of disease has no boundaries.”

I continued writing in the column about a conference called “The Economic Consequences of Pandemic Influenza: Protecting Your Business and Employees,” that I attended in Sunland Park, New Mexico, held on July 30 and 31, 2008, and hosted by the New Mexico Department of Health and the New Mexico Economic Development Department. In retrospect, this conference, which I barely remembered attending until I saw my old column, is one of the most spot-on conferences I have ever attended.

At the event, experts from New Mexico, Texas and Chihuahua discussed how new influenzas develop and can cause pandemics. It was discussed how it is common nature for businesspeople to become so immersed in critical factors such as market identification, logistics, and documentation that the spread of diseases that could potentially affect their business isn’t a major concern.

The group discussed how the proliferation of worldwide travel and tourism allows a virus to travel thousands of miles in a very short time. Areas such as the U.S.-Mexico border region, where millions of people from two countries interact on a daily basis, are particularly susceptible to a pandemic. All of the experts agreed that the impact on cross-border business would be tremendous.

It was predicted that 40 to 50% absenteeism could occur in companies due to personal or family illness. At rates this high, ports of entry could be closed to prevent the further spread of the disease, disrupting cross-border flows.

It was discussed that because tight supply chains are now the norm in the maquiladora industry, production inputs from suppliers might slow to a crawl, thus affecting worldwide distribution channels. Additionally, rail, truck and air transportation modes would be disrupted. The strong trade in agricultural and food products between the U.S. and Mexico could be particularly impacted, as shipments are delayed or quarantined. These complications could cause shortages at both the wholesale and retail levels, and a rise in prices.

A wave of sick people could completely overwhelm hospitals and clinics, many of which are already operating on shoestring budgets. Medical supplies could be quickly exhausted.

School systems in both countries would grind to a halt, thus affecting the educational programs for students.

Does any of this sound shockingly familiar?

I stated in that column that this sounded like a scary science fiction horror movie, and remarked how I was unsettled for several days afterwards. Even more eerie, given our situation today, were the recommendations given to businesspeople to prevent and deal with a pandemic should one occur.

To minimize the disruptions that a pandemic could bring, the business community must be prepared. The conference focused on several courses of action that managers can take.

First and foremost is to develop a plan to prevent the spread of disease within your company. This entails very basic measures such as having hygiene requirements in place, which include encouraging employees to frequently wash and disinfect their hands, and keeping employees at home when they are ill so as not to spread the disease.

The experts discussed how businesspeople also must understand the effects of a pandemic on their employees and their families, and how absenteeism will affect their company. Managers must have an action plan in place with defined responsibilities for team leaders.

It was stated that in the case of a pandemic, it is likely that a company will need to operate with a significant portion of its employees absent. Therefore, a plan to allow certain employees to work from their homes could help alleviate a decrease in the company’s productivity. Was this prophetic or what?

The final recommendation was that an effective manager must educate his/her workers pertaining to the dangers of the spread of diseases and their effects. In this effort, communication with employees is critical. Managers were urged to coordinate efforts with other companies and organizations from the public sector in order to share information and best practices.

In closing the conference, the experts stated that “future pandemics are inevitable. However, by being prepared, businesspeople can ensure that their companies and employees can pull through these crises.”

Twelve years down the road, I am curious to see if the attendees at that conference heeded the sage advice, which predicted what the next pandemic would look like, the likely results, and how the business sector should prepare and deal with an outbreak.

Jerry Pacheco is the executive director of the International Business Accelerator, a nonprofit trade counseling program of the New Mexico Small Business Development Centers Network. He can be reached at 575-589-2200 or at jerry@nmiba.com.

 

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