For most, the coronavirus pandemic has ushered in an era of unprecedented uncertainty. For businesses, this dangerous, novel virus has introduced unparalleled issues in employee health, business continuity, and supply chain disruptions, to name a few.

Yet, in the midst of mayhem, knowledge is power. History is one area to mine for such knowledge. Thus, past pandemics—and there have been four others in the last 100-plus years—offer critical lessons for businesses that are striving to make socially responsible decisions today while also remaining operational in the future.

The H1N1 pandemic of 1918 and the “swine flu” pandemic of 2009 are two such examples. Each event shares certain resonances with the pandemic of today—the coronavirus known as COVID-19—and unpacking these resonances is what lends business leaders, including compliance officers, valuable and practical knowledge they can carry forward into the uncertain days and months to come.

Prepare for waves

Lesson 1: It will behoove business leaders to fully anticipate and prepare for a second—or third­—wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Develop and plan your business’ pandemic preparedness plan accordingly.

Consider the pandemic of 1918. The most severe in recent history, the H1N1 spread worldwide in 1918-1919, exacerbated largely by mass troop movement during World War I. Control efforts were limited to non-pharmaceutical interventions: isolation, quarantine, personal hygiene, use of disinfectants, and limitations of public gatherings.

On Monday, President Trump introduced a 15-day plan requesting all Americans to stay home as much as possible and avoid collecting in groups of more than 10, among other interventions aimed at curbing the transmission of the virus. The 15-day plan was prompted by a scientific report, “Impact of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to reduce COVID19 mortality and healthcare demand,” authored by a team of British researchers.

The U.K. report directly compared COVID-19 to the 1918 pandemic: “The global impact of COVID-19 has been profound, and the public health threat it represents is the most serious seen in a respiratory virus since the 1918 H1N1 influenza pandemic.”

Importantly, the 1918 pandemic occurred in three waves: one in spring 1918, another in fall 1918, and a third in winter 1918-19. While the H1N1 virus subsided in summer 1918, it was actually the second wave in the fall that proved most fatal in the United States. Thus, even if the number of cases drops in several months’ time, businesses should be amply prepared for a resurgence.

Indeed, pandemics are actually known to occur in waves. Infections spike, peak, and taper off, only to rebound and repeat the process later. This was true in 1918-1919; in 1957-58 with the H2N2 virus; and in 2009-2010 with the swine flu, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Topical evidence may point to a relative respite on the COVID-19 horizon if one looks to China for any sort of forecast (provided the United States adopts stringent measures, per the report’s guidance). China has been on lockdown since late January, and after more than six weeks of tight control—requiring a quarantine of households nationwide—new COVID-19 cases in China have slowed to a trickle.

Still, the U.K. report warns the transmission of the virus can quickly rebound when intervention efforts are relaxed, suggesting that another wave of the COVID-19 pandemic is conceivable.

“While experience in China and now South Korea show that suppression is possible in the short term, it remains to be seen whether it is possible long-term,” the report states.

Be vigilant, be communicative, be proactive

Lesson 2: Resist the urge to bury your head in the sand between waves. Ask important questions, revisit weaknesses in your company’s initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and refine your plan going forward.

The impact of the swine flu in 2009-2010 was less severe than previous pandemics, though to frame it as such feels insensitive: estimated deaths worldwide reached anywhere from 151,000 to 575,400, according to the CDC. (By comparison, however, the pandemic of 1918 saw 50 million deaths worldwide. The COVID-19 pandemic, which is considered an emerging pandemic, has seen over 8,200 deaths worldwide as of mid-March.)

Nonetheless, the swine flu of 10 years ago forced businesses to confront their preparedness for the next 21st-century pandemic. In hindsight, business lessons gleaned from the swine flu feel like rudimentary practice for the challenges of today.

After the first peak of swine flu in fall 2009 as well as in the second wave’s tapering-off period in spring 2010, news outlets covering public health and business intelligence published various articles reflecting on lessons learned. Some pertinent and noteworthy lessons for business leaders are:

  • Having a fixed plan is insufficient. Six months after businesses received a “real-world crash course in pandemic response,” Risk Management suggested “re-visiting plans to assess [their] company’s response,” “putting structure behind the evaluation process,” and “gaug[ing] the employee opinion of how the company responded” to the initial outbreak.

Relevance today: Obviously, every business’ initial pandemic preparedness plan is being pressure-tested by the reality of today. Still, even in a trial by fire, companies can be thinking aloud about the full range of contingency plans going forward, striving for the highest level of flexibility as they consider how various scenarios could play out, and how those scenarios will impact employees, suppliers, and customers.

  • Employer communication is paramount. Straightforward information alleviates fears, minimizes speculation, and inspires employees’ trust. Four months before the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the swine flu pandemic over, the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Response (CIDRAP) suggested to businesses that they be “providing information in bite sizes rather than long lectures or meetings,” and “offering email addresses to receive and respond to employee questions.” 

Relevance today: Good communication between business leaders and their employees cannot be overstated. With the full gamut of messages spread by the media, from facts to misinformation (such as a fake text message spread virally on Monday), along with the added exacerbation of social media fanning the flames of people’s hysteria, it is critical that employers cut through the noise. Employees need a strong beacon to communicate updates, amended plans, and procedures.

  • Maintain business operations by managing absenteeism. As the swine flu virus put a strain on a workforce, absenteeism had to be monitored and managed to the greatest extent possible, “increasing [a business’] chances of maintaining normal operations throughout the pandemic and minimizing the financial impact on [the] company,” Risk Management said at the time, recommending employees be categorized into four groups:
    • Essential to the work site
    • Essential but can work remotely
    • Non-essential but can work remotely
    • Non-essential and not necessary to work remotely

Relevance today: Now that a national emergency has been called, businesses have been obliged to either shut down operations for the time being or attempt to transition to a fully remote workplace. Risk Management’s advice is particularly relevant to larger companies today that are remaining operational during the pandemic and that have a wide base of employees. It is important to track absenteeism numbers as they trend upward to keep a pulse on the overall percentage in the likelihood that employees and/or their family members get sick. Then, assess essential business functions to determine maximum thresholds of absenteeism and categorize healthy employees accordingly to maintain business continuity to the greatest extent possible.