MERS & the 2013 Hajj

The 2013 annual Hajj ended last Wednesday and Saudi Arabia reported that 1.38 million pilgrims came to the Kingdom from 188 different countries. This number declined 21% from last year due to both health concerns and a reduced number of visas issued as the Grand Mosque remains under expansion.

Hajj, Mecca, Umrah

Hajj Housing in Mecca

No outbreak of MERS CoV occurred during the Hajj although, as Time magazine reports: “The journey is a notorious hotbed of infectious disease, as pilgrims from every corner of the planet often trek around barefoot in demonic heat and share tight sleeping quarters.”

Still, it’s too early to relax. In “As the Hajj Unfolds in Saudi Arabia, A Deep Look Inside the Battle Against MERS,” by Andrew Katz of Time says:

“The average MERS incubation period of five days to two weeks leaves plenty of time for pilgrims to return home infected but not yet obviously ill, potentially seeding the virus internationally. The WHO’s emergency committee expressed concern that nations in sub-Saharan Africa lack the proper lab facilities and ability to track cases and infection patterns if the virus appears there.”

Waiting for the Other Shoe

MERS Corona Virus, MERS CoV


So the other shoe has not dropped yet.

We’ll know more—for better or worse—by the end of the month. Time also notes that sequestration has reduced the budget for the National Institutes of Health by 5.5 percent. At least the Centers for Disease Control are functioning again after the U.S. Government shutdown—although they had to furlough 9,000 of its 15,000 workers. The CDC reports “$13 million in cuts to our efforts to prevent and respond to outbreaks of other emerging infectious diseases, such as the MERS -Coronavirus emerging globally now.

The prospect of a highly communicable disease with a high mortality rate traveling around the world at a time when the CDC was shut down and could not work to stop its progress would have been a real disaster trifecta. I’m not sure that having it open but with skeleton staffing is that much better. Stephen King, are you listening?

Across-the-Board Reductions

Wang Laboratories, Wang, An Wang, Lowell MA

The Wang Towers in Lowell

The effects of a blanket reduction like sequestration are well known to those of us who have suffered from an across-the-board reduction in force in the business world. I worked as Director of Marketing Communications for U.S. Operations at Wang Laboratories in what were arguably the worst two years of its history. We went from over 33,000 employees to 6, 500 in less than a year.

The first layoff targeted the “marginal employees” and “poor performers.” This approach at least had some HR logic behind it and the directors and managers got to choose who would stay and who would go.

The second round cut deeper but we were still included in the process. We winced and made selections we did not really want to make, knowing that any fat was long gone and we were cutting into the muscle that ran the company.

In the third round, we were simply handed a large stack of manila folders and told to lay them all off. I looked at the names on the folders and protested because critical functions were being gutted. I was told to shut up and lay them off. So I did. Those of us who executed that plan never forgot the pain. Even John Chambers, who went on to fame and fortune as CEO of Cisco, commented that he never wanted to go through anything like that again. He has said that those layoff just about killed him. I took my staff of 25 people down to five or six.

The Turn-Around Guy

Then I wrote CEO Richard Miller—a turn-around guy brought in to fix Wang—a memo detailing the impact of this action on the company. He never responded and I was laid off only a few weeks later. Friends who remained told me that he used parts of my memo in some of his speeches and memos to the company so I know he read it. (Fortune Magazine later gave him an “F” grade on his results at Wang Labs.)

What happened? Well, the catalog division continued working on their next issue. Those folks kept their jobs because the Wang catalog made a lot of money and was important to the company. When it was being printed, they turned to my department to have someone run an updated mailing list. Only there was no one left who knew how to do that—and the list had not been updated for many months. They eventually got the catalog out but lost a lot of time in the process and it wasn’t as profitable as it could have been

The Meat Cleaver Approach

The impact of MERS Coronavirus getting a foothold in the U.S. is much more important than a corporate downsizing, of course, as is the ability of the CDC to contain and control it. But the zeal of some factions to cut government has affected the CDC’s ability to do just that.

One of the first and most important functions of government is to keep its people safe. The enemy might not be as obvious as a soldier or as large as a tank. It might just be a bacterium or a virus that sneaks in when our guard is down.

Actions sometimes have unintended consequences and meat cleavers are not subtle instruments. You can employ one to pare down to the bone but are more likely to cut off the whole limb instead.  Then, when the other shoe drops, you get more than you bargained for.

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5 thoughts on “MERS & the 2013 Hajj

  1. I love the new look of your blog Aline. It is much easier to read.
    I too was at Wang during those cutbacks but I was in Field Sales out in LA and made my numbers 🙂 so I was immune. But, the next year they really made it difficult for sales people with much higher quotas, smaller territories and a product portfolio that could not compete with PC’s and networked PC’s. The pressure became exhausting and I quit to maintain my sanity — as did a lot of people, and those numbers do not show up in any of the layoff stats. It was a real difficult time as I had been with Wang for almost 10 years them – you can kind of say that I grew up professionally at Wang and it was incredibly sad to see it all fall apart, but, that is another topic for another day.

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