The death toll from the coronavirus has surpassed that of the SARS epidemic and the world is reacting. This virus will eventually be contained and things will get back to normal. However, what about the next outbreak? And what if the next one is significantly more contagious with a higher mortality rate? Is the world prepared? In addition, what role does the meeting industry have in responding to a global infectious disease outbreak? Let’s first take a look at worldwide preparedness.
The chances of a global pandemic are growing — and we are all dangerously under prepared, according to a recent report published by the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board (GPMB), co-convened by the World Bank and the World Health Organization (WHO). “For too long, we have allowed a cycle of panic and neglect when it comes to pandemics: we ramp up efforts when there is a serious threat, then quickly forget about them when the threat subsides. It is well past time to act.”
One hundred years ago in 1918, a strain of H1N1 flu swept the world. In two years, it killed as many as 100 million people—5 percent of the world’s population, and far more than the number who died in World War I. There were almost 2 billion people alive in 1918; there are now 7.6 billion, and they have migrated rapidly into cities. In these dense throngs, pathogens can more easily spread and more quickly evolve resistance to drugs.
On average, a new infectious disease has emerged every year for the past 30 years: MERS, SARS, H1N1, Nipah, Zika, Ebola, and now Coronavirus. Researchers estimate that birds and mammals harbor over 600,000 unknown viruses that could potentially leap over to humans. Intensifying efforts are under way to identify them all in places like poultry farms and live animal markets, where animals and people are most likely to encounter each other. Still, we likely won’t ever be able to predict which will spill over next.
It is clear that novel infectious disease outbreaks preferentially harm the economic well being of the meeting industry as social distancing, decreased travel, and cancellation of meetings is a direct result of these outbreaks. And the threat is growing considering the total number of outbreaks per decade has more than tripled since the 1980s.
Just last week, several clients I work with cancelled programs around the world. There are also reports from third parties such as CWT, Creative Group, and BCD that more cancellations are occurring in situations where a portion of the attendees are from China, or the destination is to countries in Asia, both in and outside of China. In fact, one my clients, a Fortune 100 high tech company, cancelled their global sales meeting of 4000 persons in Las Vegas just days before it was going to start due to the Coronavirus concern. Was this really necessary? What if meeting professionals had already developed tools to evaluate and proactively address this issue? Could they have averted these cancellations?
The meeting industry is becoming more intentional about implementing crisis management and Duty of Care. However, when it comes to infectious disease outbreaks, there appears to be a gap in developing industry wide strategies
to minimize the negative impact to the industry, organizations, and attendees they serve.
Beyond protecting the viability of the meeting industry, there is another reason why the industry needs to do more to address this challenge – a moral obligation. While disease, epidemics, and pandemics have always existed, greater population density and the ability to travel anywhere in the world within 36 hours means disease can spread rapidly through a country and then go worldwide.
It turns out that the meeting industry itself it is partially responsible for spreading infectious disease outbreaks. Just yesterday several Coronavirus cases were traced to a business meeting in Singapore. A cluster of cases in France, Spain and the U.K. confirmed over the weekend all appear to have links to a British man who had just returned from a conference in Singapore.
The meeting industry can be part of the problem, but also is ideally suited to becoming a stakeholder into creating solutions that can curb the spread of these diseases.
Organizations such as MPI, IMEX, SITE, PCMA, and other planner groups need to partner together to develop a strategic plan to address this growing threat. This plan then needs to be introduced to organizations that are hosting meetings globally. Successful adoption of the plan requires that meeting professionals, HR, security, risk management, and employee health stakeholders all have a seat at the table.
Ideally, standardized, annual tabletop exercises should be performed to stress test the plan. And this plan must be revisited frequently to ensure it remains relevant and effective for future infectious disease outbreaks.
If spearheaded by the meeting industry, these actions can elevate the meeting professionals in their organization and allow the entire industry to respond to a problem that, at least potentially, they can amplify.
To learn more about InHouse Physicians and our on site medical support and pandemic preparedness services for meetings, visit us at www.inhousephysicians.com.