In January 2020, the Chinese government acknowledged that a new virus, first reported in the city of Wuhan, was spreading from human to human. Since that time, coronavirus – officially called COVID-19 (formerly 2019-nCoV acute respiratory disease or 2019-nCoV) – has spread to two dozen countries, and tens of thousands of people, mostly in China, have contracted it. This event has disrupted business and travel and challenged governments and public health experts seeking to contain a potential pandemic.
By the beginning of February, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), the number of confirmed and suspected COVID-19 cases in China was approaching 20,000. Approximately 2 percent of patients with confirmed cases of COVID-19 have died, making the number of deaths attributable to this new disease more than those from the severe acute respiratory (SARS) outbreak of 2002–03.
On January 30, WHO declared the disease, which causes mild to severe respiratory symptoms, a global health emergency.
For both businesses and governments, combating a pandemic threat such as COVID-19 requires acting quickly and cooperatively.
“Too many organizations adopt a wait-and-see response to outbreaks of infectious diseases until it’s too late,” says Dr. Amitabh Deka, head of Wellbeing Solutions, South Asia & Aon Care, at Aon. “Early efforts at cooperation, collaboration and investment can help you ensure a safe work environment for employees, customers and clients.”
WHY IT MATTERS
According to WHO, COVID-19 comes from the same family of diseases as SARS and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). While many details about the disease currently remain unknown, victims show symptoms such as shortness of breath and fever. Although COVID-19 can affect people of all ages, older people and those with pre-existing medical conditions (such as asthma, diabetes and heart disease) appear to be more vulnerable to becoming severely ill with the virus.
As COVID-19 spreads, fears about the disease have disrupted travel and commerce, threatened economic growth and affected global stock markets. The virus may also affect emotional wellbeing due to isolation, panic and – sometimes – social ostracization.
Governments worldwide have taken steps, including travel restrictions, in hopes of containing the spread of the virus and avoiding a global pandemic. Still, should the epidemic continue to grow at its current pace, it is likely to affect places of work. In Hong Kong, for example, authorities have stepped up measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Major tourist attractions and public facilities, including museums and libraries, have been closed until further notice, and most of Hong Kong’s civil servants and office workers being asked to work from home.
Among other consequences, such an infectious disease outbreak can have a significant impact on productivity, increase stress among the workforce, affect business continuity and even increase business liability – especially among organizations without adequate communicable-illness policies and response plans.
The Impact On Business – And The Response
Infectious disease outbreaks like COVID-19 have two primary impacts on organizations:
Operations: Outbreaks can affect business continuity management, cause supply chain and business interruptions, demand effective crisis communications, test risk transfer strategies, cause losses and have a negative impact on business due to associated economic slowdowns. For example, businesses reliant on parts and materials from China are already confronting the threat of supply chain disruptions.
People: Organizations can experience the impacts of a disease outbreak in areas such as absenteeism, return-to-work issues, succession planning, employee communications and employee benefits.
In the face of such a health emergency, governments can respond by suddenly imposing strict quarantine measures, such as the cordon around Wuhan. These responses can cause business interruptions and force organizations to slow operations or even cease them altogether.
The impacts of a global disease outbreak can be particularly severe for organizations lacking an adequate communicable-illness policies and response plans. The COVID-19 crisis highlights how organizations must update and expand their crisis management and business continuity plans with an emphasis on employees, customers, supply chain contacts, stakeholders and business assets.
Outbreaks Occur, Preparations Are Essential
Nancy Green, an executive vice president in Aon’s Commercial Risk Solutions business and coleader of Aon’s COVID-19 task force, reminds us that outbreaks do occur, and “while we can’t predict when one happens or the scale it achieves – we can prepare for the impact.” In a connected world where global business and travel is the norm, worldwide disease outbreaks are inevitable. Businesses must anticipate the threat and assess the economic and financial impact a pandemic or infectious disease might have on their organizations.
Key steps include updating crisis management and business continuity plans as necessary as well as implementing employee contingency and communications plans for addressing an outbreak’s impact. Understanding the potential impacts on supply chains and mitigating them as necessary is also essential. In addition, organizations should consider how risk transfer methods such as insurance might respond to pandemic-related costs.
Finally, it is important to remember that during times of crisis, not everything goes according to plan. “When plans are tested by black swan events, such as a pandemic,” Green explains, “it can be a forcing mechanism that brings teams together to further develop capabilities, maintain a good decision-making environment during an evolving situation and ultimately prepare for the impact by building a path to resilience together.”
See more information in Aon’s COVID-19 response site at www.aon.com/coronavirus.
Disclaimer: This has been provided as an informational resource for Aon clients and business partners. It is intended to provide general guidance on potential exposures and is not intended to provide medical advice or address medical concerns or specific risk circumstances. Due to the dynamic nature of infectious diseases, Aon cannot be held liable for the guidance provided. We strongly encourage visitors to seek additional safety, medical and epidemiological information from credible sources such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. Regarding insurance coverage questions, whether coverage applies or a policy will respond to any risk or circumstance is subject to the specific terms and conditions of the policies and contracts at issue and underwriter determinations.