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Businesses must plan now for coronavirus outbreak

Viruses that originate in an animal and jump to a human can and often do change or mutate, presenting challenges to doctors and researchers. Especially during rapidly developing situations, reporters will likely demand simple and definitive answers, even in situations where simple and definitive answers don’t exist. As well, bloggers with political agendas may accidentally or purposely report fact as fiction and vice versa.

On the internet, anyone can be a “reporter” with the ability to publish immediately and without the safety net of editors, fact-checkers and other traditional media gatekeepers. Consider also the pressure on traditional media of balancing the need to report immediately vs. reporting accurately. Given those factors, the emerging coronavirus provides another fertile field for confusion with consequences.

The Spanish flu killed some 50 million to 100 million people worldwide over about a year in 1918-19 — one of the deadliest pandemics in human history. The 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak turned out to be less than a pandemic, but caused 774 deaths in 17 countries, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The 2009 swine flu (H1N1) outbreak featured high rates of human- to-human transmission, yet was thought to have been less lethal than originally feared, with a minimum of 18,449 confirmed deaths. In fact, though, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has since estimated the global death toll at 284,000 — 15 times those confirmed cases.

All of these examples should serve as cautionary tales for how we approach and talk about this latest potential pandemic.

I reached out to Peter Sandman, perhaps the United States’ pre-eminent risk communication speaker and consultant. Here’s what Sandman told me in his email reply:

The key lesson here: The word “pandemic” means an infectious disease has spread to lots of people in lots of places. To be a pandemic, an outbreak has to be widespread and intense. It doesn’t have to be severe; 1918 was, 2009 wasn’t — at least in comparison.

This coronavirus? The experts are pretty sure it’s going to go pandemic. They don’t know yet how severe it will be, though many are guessing it will be closer to 2009 than to 1918. Even a mild pandemic kills a lot of people, simply because a small percentage of a huge number is a lot of people. And a mild pandemic can certainly be disruptive: hospital overcrowding, absenteeism, supply-chain problems, etc.

If it’s mild and stays mild, it won’t be catastrophic.

Whether it’s mild or severe, though, a pandemic eventually makes containment efforts futile, and therefore a waste of effort. Patient isolation, contact tracing and monitoring, quarantines and travel restrictions are the four main containment tools. The first two are conventional. The last two are controversial, not because they’re less effective than the first two but because they have bigger downsides.

None of the four, separately or together, can stop a pandemic. They can slow it a little, which isn’t nothing: It buys time for preparedness (emotional as well as medical and logistical). But as soon as the virus is spreading widely in a place, that place has no further use for containment.

The risk communication lesson now: Stop telling people that containment will “work.” If the coronavirus goes pandemic, as noted immunologist Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and nearly every other expert expects, eventually (and probably pretty soon) it will be spreading widely in the U.S., too, and containment won’t make sense.

One feature of the 2009 flu outbreak was the changing nature of advice. At first, pregnant women were to receive priority for inoculations. Then, it was anyone with a compromised immune system, followed by those over the age of 60. As I recall, during this era before social media exploded and become a main source for news, reporters, columnists and other pundits were quick to criticize the The CDC, the WHO and other federal, state and local health officials for the lack of definitive advice and prognostication.

As this is being written, there is no way to tell whether the coronavirus is going to be highly infectious but not lethal or highly infectious with a high degree of lethality. It might even burn itself out — or it may seem to go into hiatus but then come roaring back in the fall (as did the Spanish flu).

Government agencies are already placing visitors from China into quarantine. This may suddenly escalate, with the closure of airports and other ports of entry. Stock markets may dramatically tumble — but then recover just days later. Or they may not. And if things really escalate, schools, malls, theaters and other venues may close — and grocery shelves may empty. In the face of this uncertainty and volatility, prudent business owners and managers should be using “peace time” to prepare for the worst.

Now is the time to:

  • Examine your sick-leave policies. Family-leave policies, too, should be looked at because many employees may unilaterally decide to hunker down at home, especially if they have small children or elderly relatives to care for.
  • Encourage and utilize good hygiene practices (e.g., hand-washing, coughing into the crook of the elbow instead of the hand).
  • Consider what a travel ban might do to your business.
  • Remind your employees — and yourself — to depend on only the most reliable sources for information about coronavirus. The WHO, the CDC and state and local health boards are reliable. Facebook isn’t — and the advice given by the pundits on cable television must be taken with more than the proverbial grain of salt.
  • Remember to remind all of your stakeholders that situations like this are fluid and the information given out now may be preliminary and subject to change. Even advice from the CDC and WHO can change, depending on the facts at hand.
  • Employees, customers and other stakeholders will cross-check what you tell them against other sources. If you mislead them, they’ll hold it against you. Be especially careful not to sound over-reassuring or overconfident, which Sandman says are the two most common crisis risk communication mistakes other than outright dishonesty (also common, sadly).

Hennes is CEO of Hennes Communications. a Cleveland-based crisis management and crisis communications firm.

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