It was April 2009. I was away for a weekend with the family. Discovering a new town, wandering around the shops and taking in the sights. The weather was glorious.
Around midday on Saturday we began to notice that the shops had unusually tuned their radios to the news channel. My Spanish was still developing, so most of it went over my head. But I worked out that there was talk of a virus. When we arrived at a hotel for lunch, the doormen were wearing face masks and I asked in my best Spanish what was happening. That’s when we first realised it was serious.
I discovered later that we had been at the very source of the Swine Flu (H1N1) outbreak in Mexico. I was the Corporate Affairs Director of the local subsidiary of a multinational FMCG company and would be thrown in the deep end of an issue I had no experience of. Reassuringly, none of my fellow Board members had either.
The natural first instinct was to conduct business as usual (BAU) whilst information emerged about the virus and its risks. Absorbing government advice, listening to medics from the local university hospital and talking to other companies and Head Office helped to size up the task. Health & Safety and Security Managers were thrust into the spotlight to provide guidance. It must have been a scary time for them.
Immediately, the priority became to protect the health of employees and their households. Its people focus was a key strength of the company and employees needed the company to back them at this scary and uncertain time. Prioritising people was also a commercial imperative as the company’s most prized asset was under attack.
Containment via modified BAU
Without credible viral treatment or a vaccine, the initial belief was that if people shielded themselves from the virus, it could be contained. Hand gel was placed on every corner, information boards erected, protective equipment such as face masks, gloves and shoe covers provided. Without best practice to rely on, overprotect was better than underprotect.
Changing behaviour was far more difficult, to ensure people used the protective items provided. As a European, I also underestimated how difficult it is to stop physical contact in a tactile culture.
Luckily, the government was decisive, with clear and consistent campaigning quickly getting underway. Visible, sustained leadership across the organisation reinforced those messages and employees were reassured that the company and government were talking the same language.
Within a week or so, the shortcomings of modified BAU became clear in the government’s infection data, and mass gatherings were banned across the country. Schools were closed soon after because H1N1 affected the younger population disproportionately. Using the window of a Bank Holiday, the government finally ordered a five-day full lockdown and stopped all non-essential activity. Of course that decision was questioned and the government was accused over overreacting. But the lockdown was short and time-bound, which prevented companies from wriggling out of it. And yes, it was called a lockdown already then, and social distancing was a thing too.
The end point
There is no doubt that the H1N1 outbreak was halted by the rapid identification of effective antiviral drugs and a vaccine. Everything short of that served only to contain and delay the outbreak. Once credible drugs were identified, it was key to procure anti-viral stocks immediately for every single employee and their households should they contract the virus. Government ensured efficient distribution of the vaccine as it became available later in the year and everyone was administered it at work.
The feeling of powerlessness was overwhelming. The pandemic forced us into a compliance mindset and to resist our instinct to take control. Our job became to reinforce government messaging and decisions while navigating the business through the crisis.
There are no free passes for business leaders, but at least their performance is judged by people who know what it’s like to be in their position. Politicians do not have the luxury of empathetic appraisal. I feel for them.
The Mexican economy suffered for years after H1N1, because of the lockdown and loss of trust in Mexican produce and tourism. But what Mexico put itself through to prevent a global crisis was quickly forgotten, to the detriment of embedding learnings globally.
The economic pain of the Coronavirus is many times greater than that of H1N1, and few nations have escaped it. Countries are discovering the strengths and weaknesses of their economic capabilities, and the need to rebalance those will incentivise the recovery when a vaccine is finally found.
Image by PIRO4D from Pixabay.