Pandemics of The Past and Lessons Learned
My 95-year-old great uncle remembers the 1919 school year as being abbreviated, cut short as a second round of infections that hit the central Indiana community where he and my maternal grandmother grew up.
My great uncle a few years back took my sister and me to visit a local Mennonite cemetery next to a church he helped restore in the town of Hope where many of my mother's family are buried. As I looked at some of the gravesites, I noticed the names of infants, children, teens and young adults with their birthdates and death dates of 1918 or 1919 etched on the weathered granite tombstones, their youth cut short by a pandemic that killed millions around the globe over those two years.
The asset that a pandemic hits can't be easily replaced - it's all about people when a pandemic hits.
I left the cemetery with the hope that the lesson learned from this earlier generation would not be repeated when faced with a similar, sudden onset of a disease. Some of the lessons are just common sense, such as the good hygiene practice of hand washing, even without a looming pandemic.
My knowledge of the 1918-1919 pandemic also came from my maternal grandmother when I was a youngster roaming the fields and playing with the farm cats and working dogs outside her home. Before I did anything inside the farmhouse, I headed straight to the sink to wash my hands with soap and water. Her kind voice strengthened when reminding me of that "must do." I always complied.
As a 13-year-old in 1918, my grandmother remembered the schools and churches closed in the area after the flu hit. People neither came around to visit nor was she allowed to visit friends. She remembered that many people were sick and some died within a day or two after falling ill.
Even among large families in farming communities, a death could be devastating, hindering a family's ability to support the survivors or remain in the community. My grandmother recalled a schoolmate moving away to live with an aunt after her mother died. Grandmother remembered she didn't get to say goodbye, and despite efforts, never saw her friend again.
Now we're facing the possibility of another pandemic. The swine flu strains that have spread around the globe means we should consider the lessons of the previous ones.
So what does this pandemic mean to financial institutions? The basic business continuity plan is focused on keeping your institution open and viable after a disaster hits. The asset that a pandemic hits can't be easily replaced - it's all about people when a pandemic hits.
How should your institution handle this threat? First, talk to your employees. Calm their fears. Tell them what you're expecting of them. Layout the steps your pandemic plan has in place and when actions would be triggered. Communicate your plans to your customers, too, including any service cutbacks such as confining direct contact with customers to a single branch or location.
Like my grandmother always emphasized, hygiene comes first. Put out the hygiene items such as hand sanitizers and wipes for employees and customers to see. It's reassuring for a customer to step up to a teller window and see those items. They'll know that you're taking precautions to prevent germs and viruses being spread. You may not be ready to implement social-distancing actions and mandatory hygiene, but customers will know you're prepared. That's just good PR.
Remember, the core of a pandemic are people, not buildings, not vaults, not capital. Your staff is your key asset. Treat them as though they matter during this time (actually all the time) and you'll see their ability and resiliency.
Use your leadership skills and best human resources practices to avoid absenteeism issues. Be clear in your expectations and use prudent and wise judgment when making decisions. If an employee's family members are sick, they'll likely become ill, too. Fear of illness or death must be considered when making staffing decisions.
Your customers are important assets, too. Protect your business and look to offer remote services, such as online banking and only offer drive through services at branches to also protect your employees and customers from unnecessary contact.
Here's hoping I won't be telling stories like the ones I heard from my great uncle and grandmother to future generations.