By Gary LaMoshi
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On Sunday, Indonesia joined the growing list of countries affected by an epidemic of an avian flu virus that can also infect humans, conceding that the outbreak may date back to September. Thailand and Vietnam have reported human deaths from the flu.
This bird-flu crisis bears chilling similarities to the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) last year. Despite months of evidence that an epidemic was brewing, a history of similar outbreaks, and SARS, officials throughout the region seem unprepared to deal with the bird-flu issue. That scenario drives Andrew Grant crazy.
"Countries and companies don't often think ahead," contends Grant, managing director of organizational development group Tirian. "When a crisis happens, you've got instant issues, you don't have time to think. Making a decision under pressure doesn't give us the luxury of looking at all the possible choices and where those roads lead." Without that pressure, it's much simpler to see the real issues.
Catch me if you dare
In the wake of last year's SARS crisis, Tirian developed "Catch Me if You Dare", a crisis-management simulation for the public and private sectors. "In a simulation, you can see what things work and what things don't," Grant explains. "It's a much more costly exercise to actually go through a crisis."
Or to go through the same ones again and again. When Grant approached companies in Hong Kong about participating in "Catch Me ..." simulations, "They said, 'We don't want to talk about that again, let's put that behind us.' We should be looking at what can we learn from a crisis. These things do come back."
After reading about the simulation of a smallpox outbreak in the United States that exposed rampant lack of preparedness, Grant realized that a similar crisis in Asia would present far greater complexity: "What about when you have that scenario strewn across 12 different cultures?"
For example, different value systems dictate different approaches to danger. There's rational risk management, which is really little more than guessing, versus belief in a higher power, which is refusing to guess. Grant recalls a story he heard from an Australian lifeguard about spotting a shark in water among a thousand bathers. "If he sounded the alarm, the people would panic, which may result in a shark attack. Who is to judge what the best solution is? Therefore it is better to encourage constructive dialogue rather than to make inflammatory accusations."
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