SINGAPORE: Governments around Asia are racing to implement measures to stem the spread of the deadly Wuhan virus.
Many have rolled out border health screenings, including Singapore and Malaysia, travel bans or require civil servants to work from home, like Hong Kong.
In the corporate space, many companies and facilities management in Asia have already implemented hygiene measures such as entrance temperature checks, restaurant or co-working space location closures, increased availability of hand sanitisers, and, at the behest of governments, reviewed their business continuity plan.
These high-stakes efforts cannot be understated, and require a wide range of actions, from assurances that frontline staff are safe to ensuring manufacturing operations can continue apace.
Aeon, Japan’s largest supermarket operator, expects sales to plummet by half, spokesperson Makoto Sueyoshi said on Monday (Jan 27).
Apple has already provided a wider-than-usual forecast for this quarter’s earnings given the uncertainty, as most iPhones are assembled in facilities in China.
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Managing a virus outbreak requires collaboration and coordination, as Senior Minister of State Dr Lam Pin Min said last December at an Infectious Disease conference.
However, in our experience, levels of preparedness in the corporate world across Asia still vary widely from the best practices (which we grade with green), to the minimally prepared (an amber ranking), to the unprepared (or a red ranking).
These provide a gauge for firms to benchmark how ready they are should the Wuhan virus situation escalate further.
GREEN: BEST PRACTICES REQUIRE ALL-OF-COMPANY APPROACH
Best practices require the activation of business continuity committees or other mechanisms that include representatives across work streams.
The most immediate best practice is to audit recent employee travel to identify employees who visited Wuhan or other parts of China, and require home isolation for the duration of the coronavirus’s fourteen day incubation period.
Many firms in Singapore are following this practice set by the Singapore Government. In Hong Kong, banks including Credit Suisse Group to Morgan Stanley have asked staff returning from China to work from home.
Prudent employers will implement home isolation requirements region-wide, rather than only in locations with confirmed coronavirus cases.
Employers, including UBS Group and Goldman Sachs, have also begun to ban all employee travel to China, though a concurrent measure should be to also ban visits by all China-based staff to locations outside China, especially with coronavirus deaths reported in Beijing, far from the epicentre in Wuhan.
For both the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome in 2003, and the influenza A (H1N1) pandemic in 2009, air travel was the cause of the introduction of this new virus into countries not primarily affected.
Thus, careful employers are also gathering data for all recent employee data should an outbreak be traced to transportation hubs such as airports, or specific flights and trains.
When it comes to insurance, well-prepared companies will review their business interruption coverage, supply chain, civil authority coverage (in the event of government ordered business closures), commercial general liability, environmental and employee travel insurance policies.
Standard policies vary and may be subject to certain exclusions, while non-standard insurance policies are expensive.
However, post-SARS and following other outbreaks in recent years, the corporate world was put on notice and companies with a culture of risk mitigation would have purchased insurance cover.
Employers ahead of the curve are also liaising with healthcare providers, especially those connected to a company medical plan, to ensure that measures are in place to screen and deal appropriately with suspected Wuhan virus cases both at the company office and at the healthcare provider.
Some general practitioners, like Banyan Clinic in Singapore, have isolation rooms stocked with necessary equipment to isolate ill employees until transport to a hospital can be arranged.
Firms with regional offices should expect to see a wide range of illness patterns across locations, with strategies and responses to be adapted for each.
Communications in local language discouraging employees from sharing rumours or other unverified information are thus also a critical best practice.
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Singapore authorities’ move to stem misinformation through general correction orders may also be instructive for company leadership concerned about business continuity, reputation and accuracy of news.
AMBER: MINIMUM PREPARATION – MASKS, SANITISERS, CONTACT TRACING
In China, firms from Foxconn to Didi Chuxing have issued masks, hand sanitisers or rolled out measures to disinfect corporate premises using internal staff or external service provides. US delivery giant FedEx is also distributing alcohol wipes to teams and teams.
But these measures, while helpful, are half-measures if implemented with insufficient management oversight.
Companies that have issued masks to employees in recent days should provide training on proper use so that employees do not have a false sense of security just because they put on a mask, and also ascertain that the masks are in working order.
Similarly, hand sanitisers provided at the office are only effective if the product is property certified and staff are trained in proper use.
For cleaning and disinfecting offices, Singapore’s Ministry of Health and National Environment Agency have published up to date standards and best practices, including how much bleach or alcohol to use, and what precautions to take after the clean-up. If a service provider cannot meet these standards, companies should consider a change.
When it comes to employee travel history, some companies are good at compiling data. However, without a tested contact tracing capability that can trace the precise movements of people, the data is of limited utility.
The challenges in contact tracing guests who stayed at Hong Kong’s Metropole Hotel at the onset of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in February 2003, at which an infected medical doctor from Guangdong became the superspreader for the international spread of this dreaded virus, is a reminder how important contact tracing will be in the coming weeks.
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RED: ILL-PREPARED ORGANISATIONS
Organisations remiss in preparations, or, out of fear of offending foreign governments or customers from a country or territory with an outbreak, put employees and other stakeholders such as customers and vendors, at risk.
For these reasons, even well-resourced organisations can be slow to respond to a crisis.
Around the region, companies that regularly interact with large numbers of customers such as inter- or intra-city bus services, mass transit, hotels, cinemas, malls and the like can do better to train staff on proper hygiene measures or regularly disinfect the premises.
Similar failures are an ongoing risk at companies with large numbers on-site employees such as at call centers or other campus-type settings.
This increases the public relations and legal liability risks, especially when companies in the same industries have already set the standard for best practices.
Small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) might lack the resources to implement risk mitigation measures such as temperature checks or to provide masks and hand sanitisers on-site.
But flexible work and telecommuting arrangements, which government agencies are encouraging companies to implement, as well as employee travel bans, are within the means of SMEs. Guidelines from Singapore’s Manpower Ministry updated this past week provide some instructive pointers on more precautionary measures.
Regardless of company size, office cultures in Asia that encourage long working hours are common, but employers who do not monitor employees on-site presence and discourage excessive working hours increase the likelihood that run-down employees will be susceptible to illness.
Similarly, if the office culture discourages sick workers from staying home, or there is a fear of reprisal for doing so, employee health can be jeopardised.
Ross Darrell Feingold is director, business development at SafePro Group, a consultancy that advises corporate clients about travel safety and risk mitigation around the world.