Perhaps the only funny thing to say about the feared bird flu pandemic comes from Hong Kong-based Kiwi blogger Cathy Odgers. She quotes her father, who said: "We are so far away from the rest of the world, the bloody sick birds will have died by the time they get all the way down here!"
But New Zealand, like most governments across the globe, is taking the threats of a pandemic seriously, and actively preparing responses for such an incident. Number one, should the bird flu reach New Zealand shores, the whole country will be quarantined.
The New Zealand Ministry of Health believes up to half the population will be infected. During the first six to eight weeks of the first wave, some 60 per cent will be off work sick, caring for the sick or at home looking after children because the schools have closed.
The government has stockpiled 850,000 courses of Tamiflu - enough for one person in five. Priorities will be set for those who get infected, such as health workers, and those in essential services like water, power, petrol and telecommunications.
The economic impact would be significant. Businesses may grind to a halt, with a lack of cash flow putting their operations at risk of bankruptcy. Food and medicine panics are likely and the NZ Refinery has already been advised by the Ministry of Economic Development to employ private security firms should "social unrest" occur.
In the meantime, the Health Ministry is co-ordinating a "whole of government" approach involving 300 staff from 30 government and the private sector groups covering issues such as health, school closures, law and order, border management, infrastructure, welfare and tourism.
Fortnightly, meetings have been held since July 30 and by Christmas, each group is expected to have a plan and from that a pandemic emergency plan will follow.
A clear chain of command now runs from the Cabinet through the Health Ministry, the Ministry of Economic Development, the education department, police and other emergency services.
The Ministry of Economic Development is taking a lead in spreading the message to business, with model plans available for use by other organisations on its website. It also plans to issue a leaflet urging all employers to explore how they can close their businesses for at least a week.
Tony Fenwick, director of resources and networks, says the New Zealand government is more prepared than most governments. It has been working with infrastructure providers, like telcos and power companies.
Firms need to grapple with issues of business continuity, handling labour force issues in terms of health and safety, and how to manage a healthy workplace, Fenwick explains.
"A pandemic won't strike suddenly. It will strike overseas and take some time to arrive in New Zealand. This will be a time to strengthen and prepare. Don't undertake major changes to your IT systems. We don't want people not to develop systems, but if it looked like a pandemic was coming, it would be a matter of stabilisation and keeping backups up-to-date."
More people will want to work from home, so IT bosses should prepare their systems to allow this.
"IT executives should be involved in planning an organisation's overall business response and this needs to be brought to the attention of the CEO or the board. Some businesses like tourism will see their demands fall, but IT will rise. IT managers will need to know what other managers are thinking about their strategy. They will need to talk to their contractors and subcontractors and reach understandings about levels of service," he says.
One of the MED's Workplace Influenza Pandemic Management Plans has been produced by Shell Oil. Shell has appointed an 'influenza manager' to coordinate company policies, such as containment. "Social distancing" or reducing the amount of personal contact between people in a workplace, will be paramount.
Staff will be emailed on how to stay apart, say by shift changes, working in different areas or at home. Meetings will be avoided, with telephone, video and email used instead, even when people are in the same building. Unnecessary travel will be avoided, along with public transport. Staff should try and eat alone, away from canteens or tearooms. And if meetings must happen, people must sit at least a metre apart and avoid shaking hands and hugging.
Naturally, the cleanliness of toilets, PCs, work surfaces and air conditioning units would be stepped-up. Anyone who has sniffles will be asked to go home and stay there until it is clear they only have a common cold and not the bird flu, according to the guidelines from Shell.
Fenwick concludes what is good for companies is good for the economy. If they can stop the flu from spreading, then the whole country will benefit.
Failure to do so could mean the whole economy catches a cold.
By now, the Treasury will have completed its plans, which centre on supporting the government in giving economic advice, how it will ensure government and crown departments have liquidity, and how organisations can get extra funding during the crisis.
Paul Jones, Treasury strategic support advisor, says organisations must see IT as critical infrastructure and that it will be prudent to have as many people at home and as few in the office. Companies should look at spreading key personnel through distributing remote access equipment and having as many back-up staff as possible.
"Look at how many business activities can be substituted by electronic means with minimal human contact," he advises. "Don't forget to consider external dependencies and make alternative arrangements. Identify another ISP if they need to step in."
Chris Peace, director of consultancy Risk Management, a government advisor, also calls on businesses to assess how they might be affected by a pandemic.
"Most people do not understand how connected up organisations are today -how reliant they are on just in time deliveries, IT systems, internet banking and so on. Then consider how dependent we are on more conventional utilities.
Any partial failures in any suppliers of goods and services inside New Zealand could have a significant effect. We also need to worry about overseas suppliers. For example, many organisations rely on call centres in other countries. What do we know about their pandemic planning and health services? Are they as good as ours?" Peace asks.
The 'influenza manager'
Government cannot legislate everywhere, so firms need to act to curb the damage from a severe pandemic. An IT manager who knows a firm's weak spots just might be the right 'influenza manager'.
"The impact of a severe pandemic could shut an IT department or contractor in a typical office. How long it will take for the IT systems to grind to a halt (and with them the business), would depend on the resilience of systems. Preparation is down to how you can keep the disease out and get people to exercise the best personal hygiene," he says.
Peace agrees people might better work from home, provided Telecom can supply enough broadband capacity, something he says they are working on.
"Otherwise, it's a question of looking at each workplace and checking out how to spread working hours, curb air conditioning recirculation, etc. Every firm will have different exposures and ways of minimising risks," he says.
Scary as it sounds though, people should not panic. "Get plenty of good sanitation supplies, and clean telephones and keyboards regularly. Know where your people are at all times and how to contact them," he concludes.
When MIS contacted organisations in early November, it was apparent preparations were already well underway.
Warwick Wright, chief information officer of the State Services Commission, confirms government agencies are working with the Ministry of Health and others on a pandemic plan.
The IRD, Air New Zealand, Telecom, Vodafone, Auckland City Council and Contact Energy, also stressed the robustness of their disaster recovery plans.
"As part of its pandemic planning, Inland Revenue is considering specialist roles it may need, including an influenza management function, with responsibility for health and safety across all department sites. IT staff can perform critical tasks remotely.
The detailed IT disaster recovery plans already in place clearly describe the roles, responsibilities and deputise functions of the IT management team, the processes to maintain services, including support if necessary, from vendors to key outsourced services such as desktop support and mainframe processing," says a spokesperson from the IRD.
Ian Rae, CIO of Auckland City Council, says his department is coordinating with other council departments on how they will respond to a pandemic to ensure essential services are kept working. More staff will work from home and the council is already liaising with health authorities.
Air New Zealand claims it is "well advanced in pandemic planning" based on its business continuity plans, which also include IT operations.
Russell Anderson, general manager risk and performance, says a review is underway and the airline is talking to various government agencies about directing a national response to a pandemic, including minimising risk of infection.
Telecom New Zealand is also working with government agencies and other telcos through the Telecommunications Carriers Forum to keep the country's communications infrastructure working.
"Telecom is creating a response plan for this event and also identifying actions that need to be taken in advance of an outbreak," says Telecom business risk manager Brian Potter. Staff will be trained in flexible work schedules and get advice on utilising Civil Defence survival kits and avoiding infection risks.
Vodafone's HR and disaster recovery teams have created a pandemic preparation and management plan, which followed the operator's own exercise based on an anthrax attack that assumed 80 per cent of its staff were incapacitated for two days.
"Overall there was no impact on the ability of our network to function. We have used our learnings from this exercise for our preparation and management plan for a potential bird flu epidemic. The network itself can pretty much function by itself unless there is significant congestion," says Vodafone public policy manager Roger Ellis. He adds Vodafone staff are already mobile, though wireless cards, etc, so remote working presents no issue.
Contact Energy, which is also working with government agencies on the issue, also says its operations can continue with little IT or staff involvement, says spokesperson Patrick Smellie.
If the bird flu strikes:
Ask the 'influenza manager' to coordinate and implement company policies, including containment.
Practice 'social distancing' or reduce amount of personal contact between people in a workplace.
Ensure cleanliness in the workplace.
Join the CIO New Zealand group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.