What Can Be Expected During a Pandemic: Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Risk Advisory

March 16, 2020

Key Takeaways

Pandemics have occurred throughout history. While each is unique, they have possessed certain common threads that help better predict future events.

Pandemic planning is an extension of business continuity planning, including multiple stages and layers within response plan areas, and relies on the precise synchronization of all audiences involved.


Now that a pandemic has been declared, what can be expected? While a pandemic of the potential magnitude of COVID-19 has not occurred in modern times, there is still much that can be learned about past events.

Pandemics are a natural event that have occurred four to five times every one-hundred years since the beginning of civilization. The most recent pandemic events:

  • 1918 Spanish Flu 100,000,000 deaths
  • 1957-58 Asian Flu 2,000,000 deaths
  • 1968-69 Hong Kong Flu 1,000,000 deaths
  • 2008-09 H1N1 Flu 203,000 deaths

The significantly lower deaths related to the 2008-09 H1N1 Flu can be attributed to better secondary care than during previous pandemic events and there was already an H1N1 influenza virus variant circulating via the seasonal flu. The 1918 Spanish Flu (which started in Kansas) was a much more virulent virus that the population had no system immunities. To date, the current COVID-19 is not predicted to have the impact of the 1918 Spanish Flu. However, it does have a similar trait that it is a totally novel (new) virus that the human population has no system immunities as it was a direct jump from animals (likely a bat) to humans.

Through a complete review of previous events, much can be predicted about what society and businesses will experience during the COVID-19 pandemic. Pandemics historically last up to eighteen months in duration and occur in three distinct waves. Each wave will have peaks and there will be periods of “normalcy” between them. The graphic below is a visual representation of how the waves will potentially occur. The graphic represents the impact of the virus in society and not the predicted number of related illnesses and deaths.

Historically, the waves have followed the seasons. Viruses do not live well in warmer temperatures but thrive in colder ones.  Additionally, colder seasons are when people are typically indoors and in close contact with one another. Close proximity increases the potential for the spread of communicable disease and is likely a larger contributor to the spread than the colder temperature. The spread of COVID-19 will likely decline over the coming summer months. This is considered to be one of the previously mentioned periods of “normalcy.” It’s also a time where society and businesses will be encouraged to not let their guard down and prepare for the next wave.

In 1918, populations were quarantined during the first phase but did not have the knowledge that additional waves would occur. As a result, people started returning to life as normal, as restrictions were lifted. In the fall of 1918, health officials had indications that the Spanish Flu was returning and encouraged public officials to re-institute public gathering restrictions. Public officials in Philadelphia did not take the advice of health experts and did not cancel the fourth Liberty Loan Drive parade. On Sept. 28, 1918, the war bond parade occurred as scheduled with approximately 200,000 people in attendance. Due to the close proximity of persons in attendance, the virus was able to freely spread. The unfortunate result was within two weeks there were 4,500 deaths and tens of thousands infected in the city. This history lesson is not intended to be alarmist, rather help people learn from the past and understand what preventive actions can be employed to mitigate the impact of a pandemic.

The aggressive actions that are being taken regarding minimizing public gatherings are not just slowing the spread of the disease, but more importantly, buying time. The time bought is providing the medical community the opportunity to develop antiviral medications and vaccines. These actions will ultimately lessen the overall impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic event.

Historically, pandemics only end when a virus is contained or everyone on the planet has been exposed. It is very unlikely that COVID-19 can be contained. The potential end to the COVID-19 Pandemic will be exposure to the entire global population.  Exposure will occur in one of four ways:

  • Become exposed with no illness, but develop necessary antibodies
  • Become exposed with illness, fully recover, and develop necessary antibodies
  • Become exposed with illness and do not fully recover
  • Vaccination – likely 10-12 months to develop

The vaccination option was not a viable one during the 1918 Spanish Flu and as a result, COVID-19 should not have near the impact of the 1918 Spanish Flu. That is, as long as society and businesses accept and apply what has been learned from previous pandemics.

Continued Planning

How can businesses continue to prepare for a pandemic event? Pandemic Planning is an extension of Business Continuity Planning. Essential Business Continuity Planning elements:

  • Identification AND agreement of business priorities and business recovery sequence. During periods of reduced capacity, businesses need to have a clear understanding of how these limited capacities and resources will be leveraged. Which business functions must be continued without disruption and which ones can be delayed for a short period or indefinitely. Additionally, in the event of reduced capacity, which customer will receive limited goods and services. Achieving organizational agreement may seem simple, but it is far from it.

A simple exercise to confirm this point is to ask senior leaders to independently write down their top ten business priorities in order of importance and then compare their lists. The vast majority of the time the list will not be identical. This may not be a significant obstacle in normal times, but at the time of an event, an uncomfortable conversation can quickly become escalated.

  • A pandemic event is different in the sense that facilities are not physically impacted, but employees are either unable or unwilling to come to work. As with any planning effort, assumptions should be developed that anticipate the conditions that will likely be present at the time of the event.  In order to be prepared for a pandemic, planning assumptions should be modified to account for conditions that can be expected.

Businesses should make their own determination of the conditions that they expect to present for any given planning scenario. The utilization of planning assumptions is considered absolutely essential to the success of any effort. Planners from all business areas need to consistently consider the assumptions when developing their respective plans. If they are not consistently followed, the response and recovery effort will not be coordinated and effective. Lack of planning coordination will result in confusion and the reduced ability to recover in a timely basis and meet customer needs.

  • Along with consistent plan development at the business unit level, organizations should have clearly determined plan activation criteria for each stage of an event. Every event will include the following stages:
    • Warning (potential exception) – events with the “luxury” of warning stage provide the ability to freshen plans specific to the potential events. Other events such as fires, tornadoes, earthquakes do not provide this “luxury.” Accordingly, this is why is so critical that organizations are always in a state of readiness by having a thorough business continuity program.
    • Life Safety
    • Damage Assessment
    • Short Term Recovery
    • Long Term Recovery

A pandemic event is somewhat different in the fact that additional stages within each stage will need to be accounted for. Every organization should determine the conditions that they believe will be present in order to move from one stage to another. There is no single set of alert level descriptions that will be universally used. The key to success is organization agreement to the alert levels and development of consistent actions for each functional area. Actions should be moving forward at consistent levels and similar degrees of proactive and reactiveness. One group being too far ahead, or behind other groups can result in poorly coordinated efforts, delayed recovery and loss of an employee, supplier, customer, and public confidence.

The organizations that take a proactive approach to plan for a pandemic will not only be doing the right thing but will also have a distinct competitive advantage in the marketplace. Organizations that choose to not plan will have a significant impact, lose long-term customers and potentially not survive the long-term impact of the event.

As referenced, organizations that plan have a competitive advantage. While most organizations have performed some level of expedited planning due to the rapid onset of COVID-19, the plans are likely not thorough and designed in a method that will result in the best possible outcome. Organizations are encouraged to take advantage of the period between pandemic waves to aggressively plan.

There are many potential twists, turns, and dead-ends in any planning effort. The most efficient method to plan is to engage a business continuity professional, who will leverage years of planning and consulting experience to develop a program that will achieve a maximum possible return on investment. There are very few professional planners with pandemic planning experience.  Organizations should seek to secure consulting commitments while they are still available.

It can also be expected that it will become common-place for an organization to be required to have a pandemic plan as a condition of customer and contract relationships. Additionally, the impacts of COVID-19 will prompt organizations to prepare for other types of events – many of which will not have the “luxury” of a planning stage and will require proactive and regular planning.

Should you have any questions or need relative to planning for the potential impact of COVID-19, please contact me directly.

Jim Hedrick
Director Risk Management & Client Experience


Note: This communication is for informational purposes only. Although every reasonable effort is made to present current and accurate information, Oswald makes no guarantees of any kind and cannot be held liable for any outdated or incorrect information. View our communications policy.