On the 100th anniversary of the 1918 influenza pandemic, it is tempting to believe the world has seen the worst epidemics. However, with increasing trade, travel, population density, human displacement, migration and deforestation, as well as climate change, a new era of the risk of epidemics has begun. The number and diversity of epidemic events has been increasing over the past 30 years, a trend that is only expected to intensify.
The risk of infectious disease can no longer be thought of exclusively in terms of rare but devastating events like global influenza pandemics. Potentially catastrophic outbreaks may only occur every few decades, but highly disruptive regional and local outbreaks, such as the 2014 Ebola virus crisis in West Africa, are becoming more common and pose a major threat to lives and livelihoods. Moreover, despite considerable progress, the world remains ill-prepared to detect and respond to outbreaks and is not prepared to respond to a significant pandemic threat.
Outbreaks and epidemics are also causing more economic damage when they occur. Recent work on pandemics suggests that the potential economic losses from outbreaks of infectious disease are massive and similar in magnitude to the annual impact of climate change. Framing economic losses on a global scale, however, has major drawbacks – it can make the problem seem too large to solve, and it conceals how impacts are distributed across geographic areas and economic sectors. For the future, a proposed alternative perspective provides tailored insights on the impact of outbreaks on companies and equips them to respond appropriately. Among businesses, the risk of infectious disease is rarely emphasized in their considerations of risk. If large enterprises fully appreciate the commercial threat, they will no longer be able to justify remaining on the sidelines of efforts to strengthen global health security.
While predicting where and when the next outbreak will occur is still an evolving science, it is possible to identify factors that make companies vulnerable to financial losses from infectious disease events. Factors such as the geographic location of a company’s workforce, customer base and supply chain, and the nature and structure of its business, can help inform estimates of its vulnerability to disease outbreaks.
Outbreaks of infectious disease may be inevitable, but the economic damage they cause is not. Helping companies to properly understand these risks will enable them to reduce their exposure, improve their resilience and deliver on key opportunities for public-private cooperation to strengthen global health security. In doing this, companies not only act in their own commercial interests, but also help mitigate the potentially devastating impacts of infectious disease, in both human and economic terms.