Panasonic addresses speculation over employee pandemic order

Feb 12, 2009 (CIDRAP News) – A spokesman for Panasonic Corp. said today that the company had no proprietary information about any increased risk of an influenza pandemic in December 2008 when it instructed some of its overseas employees to send their families back to Japan by September.

Jim Reilly, a Panasonic spokesman based in New York City, also denied speculation that the company ordered the families to return to Japan as a cost-saving measure to mitigate the effects of the global economic downturn.

However, he told CIDRAP News that the company realizes its move may seem unusual, given that they are the first major company to enact such a pandemic planning measure. "They realize that there are different perceptions around the world," Reilly said of Panasonic officials.

No change in pandemic risk
Masato Tashiro, MD, PhD, a virologist at Japan's National Institute of Infectious Diseases and a consultant to the World Health Organization (WHO), told CIDRAP News that he hasn't seen any increase in the global pandemic risk. "As far as I understand, the recent situation of poultry outbreaks and human infections in China is within our prediction," he said.

Panasonic said its request to the employees was based on a review of where the H5N1 virus has been detected and an assessment of medical facilities in the areas, according to previous reports.

The regions that were named align with its operational divisions, Reilly said. He reiterated that Japanese employees have been asked to return send their families back from Asia (except Singapore), China, the Middle East, Africa, the Commonwealth of Independent States (the former Soviet republic states), and Latin America. Divisions that aren't subject to the repatriation request include North America, Western Europe, and Oceania (Australia and New Zealand).

He said it was difficult to determine how many people are affected, but he said, for example, that Panasonic has 60 factories and about 100,000 employees in China. The company has 307,000 employees worldwide, including 13,500 in North America.

Panasonic gave the affected employee families several months to make their moving arrangements, because Japanese families aren't typically as mobile as those in other countries, Reilly said. Making new living and school arrangements might be more complicated and take longer, because families don't frequently make such adjustments.

Importance of business preparedness
One element of Japanese culture is that the country is very prepared to address natural disasters, Reilly said. "People from outside of Japan are always impressed when they see lots of information on what to do about earthquakes," he said, alluding to a 1995 earthquake centered in Kobe that killed nearly 6,500 people and one in 1923 that killed 140,000.

"Companies know the importance of continuing business," he said.

Japan's pandemic plan, posted on the health ministry's Web site, contains 14 pages of guidance on business preparedness. It urges employers to consider options for evacuating employees and their families assigned overseas in regions that experience pandemic outbreaks, minimizing travel to outbreak areas, and ensuring that returning employees and families follow quarantine guidelines.

William Raisch, executive director of the New York University International Center for Enterprise Preparedness, told CIDRAP News that Panasonic's action shows that some of the largest corporations still see a pandemic as a continuing and real threat.

"Further, this announcement by Panasonic indicates that they are actively monitoring the prevalence of bird flu and have begun to assess the capability and access to healthcare in key elements of their supply and distribution networks," said Raisch, who is an editorial board member of the CIDRAP Business Source.

Earlier this month, Japan's defense ministry said it had developed a plan to fly Japanese citizens in foreign lands home in government-chartered jets in the event of an influenza pandemic, the Yomiuri Shimbun, an English-language newspaper in Japan, reported on Feb 4.

Strict quarantine, mass cremation
The country's health ministry today announced some new details of its pandemic plan, which includes strict quarantine measures such as shutting down all but four airports and three ports, the Associated Press (AP) reported today. Other plans include closing schools and conducting mass cremation of pandemic flu fatalities.

The ministry said, "It is important to delay as much as possible the virus' entry through measures such as strengthening quarantine to take advantage of the special qualities of our nation as an island nation," according to the AP report.

Some pandemic flu experts have said that closing borders won't stem the spread of a pandemic virus and could hamper the flow of crucial supplies.

Health minister Yosuke Yamaki told the AP that Japan is updating its pandemic plan, based on public feedback collected in recent weeks.

See also:

Feb 10 CIDRAP News story "Panasonic's pandemic-related move fuels questions, concern"

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