Handling the unimaginable

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I heard Scot Morrison say a few weeks back that where we are today with Covid 19 is unimaginable from where we were a week previously. Really Prime Minister? Where is the contingency planning a nation should be doing to protect its population? Could we not afford that?

Surely Covid 19 was not totally unforeseen. In 2003 we had SARS. Nine years later in 2012, we had MERS. In between those two, we had Bird Flu in 2005. Now eight years later we have Covid 19. Can we honestly believe our government did not expect another pandemic? If they did surely they would have planned for it. The confusion we have now between three levels of government would have been resolved. The response would be more streamlined. Shortages would not have been so bad.

The thing is we did plan for it. Back in the early 2000s, a plan was developed. It was accelerated by the SARS epidemic and the first test held in 2006. In 2008 another six-month exercise was held to test the response. Since then? Nada.

Why should regular testing take place? Organisational structures change. People change. Laws change. New technologies emerge. In fact what was a plan ten years ago probably will not work today.

Then there are the physical things like stocks of personal protective equipment, respirators, testing equipment and spare parts that should be held in reserve. Discussions with suppliers who may be able to switch production of their regular products to support the medical effort.

To digress, back in the 1980s, I worked for a multinational food company. They had one person sit down and write a product withdrawal plan. It took six months. A full, national product withdrawal had never taken place in Australia. Sure enough, a few years later, an infant related product had to be withdrawn from the market after a contamination scare.

If it sounds simple, think about this. Where is the product stocked? What stored do you have to check? How many people will you need to do this?

As it is a bulky item, there is a limit as to how much can be stored in a car. How do you transport it?

Where will it be stored? Who will do the independent testing?

How do you set up a hotline overnight? That includes the location, the physical lines, and staff trained to take calls. How do you answer questions?

Do you take back stock from consumers? How do you handle credits? For example, if the company sold it to the wholesaler for $1.00, and the retailer bought it for $1.50 and the consumer bought it for $2.00  what do you refund a consumer with half a can or a retailer who bought it on special from the wholesaler for $1.40? How do you even find out what it cost the retailer?

All those steps had been worked through, and things like contingency warehouse contract were in place ready to be signed if needed. Transport arrangements were ready to go. Mutual agreements were in place with competitors to use their sales force for collection if ever needed.

The stock was collected, transported to a central location, and tested by a university for contamination. After many weeks when the testing was complete, there was no evidence of contamination. It was believed the consumer inadvertently caused the contamination and rather than go back to the manufacturer, contacted a state health authority and the press. Kaboom!

We should expect our governments to have disaster plans in place for future risks including a pandemic. Plans which have been thought through, tested and regularly updated. Plans should include everything from earthquakes to oil spills to nuclear attacks and even pandemics.

Imagine if our army went to war but had never participated in a military exercise? Imagine a crash landing at an airport and there had been no drills for a couple of years?

In the US, Trump disbanded the White House Pandemic Response Team two years ago. It had been set up by Obama to handle global pandemic threats and consisted of experts in the field. When Covid 19 appeared where was the plan? Where were the experts? The current situation is not all down to the team being disbanded, but things might not have been so dire had the team been in place.

Covid 19 was foreseeable. We might not have been able to put a name to it but it was surely coming. A plan would have consistent levels of response escalation across the nation. We would have contingency plans for purchasing medical supplies. We would have agreed on what to do with schools. Testing would have happened more smoothly.

When all the dust settles, can someone please ask the PM what he meant by unforeseeable, and why we were not prepared. A more scary question is what else are we not prepared for.

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