Remember SARS? It was going to wipe us all out in 2003. 775 people died out of some 8,000 who contracted the disease, which is not trivial, but hardly the global epidemic that was feared. Although it did disrupt the Far East for a while, it wasn’t a disaster. Then in 2009 came a strain of the H1N1 virus, sometimes called swine flu, that could jump the so-called species barrier. It did but failed to find a way, thankfully, to infect human to human although 17,000 people died before the pandemic was declared over in 2010 by the World Health Organisation. For some reason chicken sales fell in the west, but we soon moved on.
Now Ebola dominates the headlines. And I’m not going to be dismissive, but neither will I stoke the fires of wild speculation. Ebola is undoubtedly a very nasty disease. Around 50% of people who catch it die, and there is no vaccine, nor the prospect of one in the immediate term. Although experimental drugs do exist, even the doctors who administered it to a medical worker who had contracted Ebola admitted they had no idea if it helped or if he would have survived anyway. The main protection is by barrier methods. Ebola deaths have reached just short of 5,000 at the time of writing. All but a handful are in West Africa, and it appears that anyone in the US or Europe who has contracted it has been to West Africa or is a medic attending to a sufferer. As Rod Liddle, writing in The Spectator, says – you have a better chance of dying by being struck by lightning than by Ebola. But things change. Lightning can even strike twice. The risk is that Ebola spreads exponentially, even though it requires fluid transmission – hence the carers being most at risk.
One of the legacies of the earlier epidemic panics is that most businesses have a section of their business continuity plan dealing with an epidemic. It may be based on something first written 10 years ago – a lifetime in IT – but there is something to work with. Make sure your business continuity plans are up to date, they should be all the time anyway. You need to ensure that you’ve got access to the bandwidth you’ll need for widespread working from home and that you can communicate with staff and customers about what is going on. One case of Ebola contracted in London, for example, will completely change the game. Be prepared for it; it may never happen, but if it does you will have no time for planning.