Dispatch from Davos: It's what I didn't hear that concerns me

(CIDRAP Business Source Osterholm Briefing) – I had the good fortune of participating last week in the 40th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland. Spending 5 days in close quarters with 2,000 world leaders from government, business, academia, and the arts was an eye-opener. But as I've reflected on the experience, I realize it's what I didn't see (or hear) that may be most telling—and troubling.

I surely don't fit the world leader category, but as chair of the WEF council on pandemics I readily accepted the invitation to attend presentations on topics as widely ranging as the audience itself.

As a whole, though, the WEC meeting focused like a laser beam on the global economy, which isn't surprising. Attended by more than 60 heads of state and leading captains of the financial world, the presentations, panels, and hallway conversations rarely strayed from the state of the global economy. First and foremost on the agenda was the uncertain future of world finances, particularly as the faucet from various government stimulus packages from around the world runs dry.

Questions about the pandemic, not the right ones

But I have to tell it to you straight. In that rarefied air, the prevailing sentiment was that the influenza pandemic was overblown, that it was essentially a non-event that wasted money on vaccine manufacture. I even had one CEO ask me if "heads should roll" because of it.

This mindset was actually consistent with what we witnessed last month when the Council of Europe's Committee on Social, Health, and Family Affairs took the World Health Organization (WHO) to task about the pandemic (See the CIDRAP News article for more details.) So I wasn't surprised. Still, having spent a lifetime working to protect people from the very threat that these leaders could pass off so glibly, I found their lack of awareness disappointing.

I know it's simply too soon to let down our guard. Whether a third wave will occur is unclear, but we have to continue to better prepare ourselves in case it does. We're talking about an influenza virus that took us all by surprise, a fact that, frankly, should come as no surprise.

I learned much in Davos, but I was troubled by the complete lack of attention to such critical questions as:

  • How do we protect global supply chains when we face another inevitable pandemic that could bring about widespread, severe illness?
  • How do we make our organizations resilient in the face of such threats as pandemics or acts of terrorism?
  • How do we take the lessons we've learned from our experience with H1N1 and embed them into our organizations so they're not forgotten?

Instead, the tenor of the conversations at Davos was about globalization and how to make just-in-time supply chains more efficient. We're only beginning to make sense of the lessons we're gleaning as we experience the first pandemic of the 21st century. Meanwhile, our world and business leaders are casting about for ways to further tighten supply chains that often originate in developing countries least prepared to cope with widespread illness and least likely to have access to immunizations.

This is not the time to narrow our vision. Yes, the global economy is a critical concern to all of us. But it isn't the only one. Just this week, the nation's top intelligence officers testified before a US Senate hearing that an attempted terrorist attack on American soil is likely within the next 6 months. Not a word was spoken of such a risk for the US or any other country at the WEF meeting. I find that startling.

The need to stay alert

So while your CEOs may be focused on the economy, it's our job in the trenches to remember the following:

  • The case isn't closed on H1N1 yet, and, even if it were, we have plenty of work to do to institutionalize the lessons we've learned.
  • We always have to be conscientious of influenza viruses. By way of example, consider what's happening with H5N1. Just this week, the WHO reportednew human cases in Egypt. Outbreaks in birds are still happening. And research published in a recent issue of the journal Eurosurveillance points out that, in 2009 alone, 79% of all infected individuals in Egypt were younger than 10 years old. Of course, none of us knows which influenza virus will cause the inevitable next pandemic or when it will occur, but we must be prepared.
  • When it comes to supply chains, we're often dealing with places in the world where terrorists emerge and dangerous viruses hitchhike on airplanes.
  • Social networking sites, where the sound bites can make for an appealing source of information for anyone, do not offer the whole story. If your organization's decision-makers are forming opinions from such snippets of information, your task is to offer the broader perspective.

Bottom line for organizations

Focus on the economy is a must. But so is focus on threats to our organizations. Don't get me wrong. I'm grateful we have the World Economic Forum to address important global issues. I'd like to see its vision expand. Imagine if a 1918-like pandemic were to occur now or in the next decade to throw the economy in a complete stall. Such a thought makes me all the more grateful that organizations have people like you who can be counted on not to drop the ball.

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