If Ebola's a problem here, just imagine it in India

It only takes a few cases of Ebola to turn things upside down, and if an outbreak were to hit India, a lot of U.S. companies would be affected.

As the U.S. has discovered, it only takes a few cases of Ebola to turn things upside down.

Months into the outbreak in West Africa, federal and state officials are still fighting over quarantine policies and travel bans, and reacting in disruptive fashion to the threat. Elementary schools were closed in Texas and Ohio communities after it was learned that students traveled on same plane used by an infected Dallas nurse.

It wasn't even the same flight.

After an infected doctor went bowling in New York City, the bowling alley was shut down and a biohazard team called in to clean it. That could have easily been your office. This is just in the U.S.; but consider the ramifications if that starts to happen in, say, India.

"Ebola cases showing up in urban India area would be a nightmare," said Andrew Schroeder, director of research and analysis for Direct Relief, a nonprofit that provides medical assistance to areas in need of help. Indian cities have the same kind of density that has allowed Ebola to spread rapidly through Monrovia, Liberia, and Freetown, Sierra Leone, along with slums, sanitation problems and poor population-to-physician ratios, he said. It would be difficult to track cases.

India does have a tier of its society that is very well equipped, but there are large portions of the country that are just as poor as West Africa, said Schroeder.

The only reason consideration is being given to travel bans of West African nations, is "because they are not seen as terribly significant to the world economy," said Schroeder. "But you couldn't say the same thing about India or Indonesia."

India-based development teams are now an essential part of U.S. companies and provide all manner of IT services and support. The Everest Group, a research and analysis firm that covers the outsourcing market, is recommending that U.S. firms give some thought to global Ebola planning.

"IT managers should definitely be thinking about their response to an Ebola outbreak in India and similar markets where they have service delivery teams," said Marvin Newell, a partner at Everest Group. Firms need to "broaden their assumptions" around disaster recovery.

With Ebola, a big difference is the high quarantine potential, which would severely limit travel, said Newell. In India, IT organizations often make bus transportation available to team members. It's easy to imagine an Ebola-related scenario in which bus transportation is shut down. That means the office may be open, but team members can't get there, he said.

Working from home may not be an option, since lack of connectivity and security concerns "often make working remotely from homes not possible," said Newell. Many response plans stipulate that a team would fly to another location, but during a pandemic, flights might be restricted or grounded, he said.

Craig Wright, a partner at outsourcing consulting firm Pace Harmon, said that a valid response to any such Ebola outbreak would be similar to a tsunami, "where access to facilities and resources within a region may be denied for an extended period of time."

But unlike a pandemic plan that calls on workers to deliver services from their homes, "this is not an assured model for an Ebola-infected area," said Wright. To remain effective, organizations must consider relocating service delivery centers to unaffected areas, he said.

Scott McPherson, the CIO of the Florida House of Representatives who has also been involved in state pandemic planning, said the real dangers continue to be influenza, the MERS coronavirus, Dengue Fever and a list of other diseases.

Ebola may bring pandemic planning for IT back onto the agenda, said McPherson.

Absenteeism is the big issue, and some of it can be triggered by decisions to close schools. "We have already seen an unwarranted overreaction by some schools due to hysteria about Ebola," said McPherson.

Some things have changed since the earlier flu scares. It is easier today for support staff and developers to work from home, and IT organizations are turning to cloud services "as a force multiplier in an emergency." But there's no certainty those services won't be impacted, he said.

"If enough of those men and women get sick, or worse, the cloud will suffer mightily," said McPherson.

A major part of the impact from Ebola, in human and economic terms, is coming from the ripple effects. Sierra Leone and Liberia may have zero growth next year, and "these countries just can't afford it all," said Schroeder.

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