Imagine a severe flu epidemic has struck your city and has now gone global, which means it has become a pandemic. Concerned about having the resources you need to cope, you go to get cash from your local ATM, but it’s empty. You visit another ATM and it too is shut down. You then head to the bank and are told that it may take hours to get cash. Before you get to the head of the line, customers are informed the bank is closing due to staff absenteeism. You give up and go shopping for food and supplies and find a similar situation, long lines and no promise that there will be enough food or staff to serve customers. All around you, agitated shoppers are talking about the illness that has struck family members and co-workers, and even caused deaths. Worried and upset, you try calling home, but there is no cell service. You race home in a panic to check on your family. Is this scenario possible? Yes, say pandemic preparedness experts.
“The likelihood that a severe pandemic could strike, causing social chaos and unrest, is high enough and the impact serious enough, that preparing for the threat of such a disaster has made it to some countries’ priority lists,” said Dr. Ingo Neu, Chief of Party, International Medical Corps PREPARE (Pandemic Preparedness) Project.
Given the ever-increasing levels of global migration, transportation and communication, a pandemic virus could spread rapidly, leaving little time to prepare. In the absence of early and effective planning, countries are likely to face wider social and economic disruption, significant threats to the continuity of essential services, lower production levels, distribution difficulties, and shortages of supplies.
To prepare vulnerable communities for disasters, International Medical Corps and the Kenya National Disaster Operations Center organized the “Multi-Sectoral Pandemic Preparedness and Response Simulation” Exercise in Mombasa, Kenya, in early October. The event, funded by the US Agency for International Development, focused on managing the impact of pandemics on societies, governments, organizations and the region as a whole.
Dr. Neu cautioned exercise participants from Kenya that because the last influenza pandemic was not as bad as earlier flus, people may think a pandemic does not require preparation. “If a serious flu outbreak occurs, and we are not prepared, we will come to regret it dearly, not just in terms of lives lost, but also the social and economic impacts as well.”
More than one hundred participants from Kenya and the other East African Community (EAC) member states of Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda participated in the exercise. They represented the areas of health, disaster preparedness and response, essential services, and foreign affairs. In addition, officials of the EAC secretariat, the ASEAN Secretariat, the Philippines, international organizations and relevant NGOs also took part in the event.
For the exercise, members broke into groups by sector including: security, water, food, operations, transportation, health, energy, banking and finance, telecommunications and communications. People followed the unfolding scenario via computer projection, while in another room, a remote “cell group” – trainers directing developments – “injected” complications into the scenario.
The simulation was designed to help participants identify shortfalls and gaps in the various service sector preparedness plans and to provide recommendations for building regional, national, and country capacity. In addition, cross-border and regional impacts of a pandemic were explored. The three-day scenario was created to simulate a realistic sequence of events that could occur during a severe global pandemic caused by a highly virulent novel pandemic influenza virus. Trainers generated an atmosphere of urgency that required immediate action by participants, thus mimicking the sense of stress inherent in an actual emergent situation.
Participant feedback indicated that the exercise scenario led to bi-regional information sharing, highlighted gaps in planning and led to clarification and solidification of pandemic preparedness plans.