In all likelihood, we are going to experience a major epidemic episode. If it is confirmed that contagion exists before the beginning of the symptoms, then the preventive measures will only be partially effective and we will have a major epidemic.
The situation is therefore different from that which we experienced in 2003 with SARS (I was in the French general directorate of health at the time). At that time, rigorously applied preventive measures had put an end to the epidemic within a few months. In this case, there are a lot of medical and epidemiological uncertainties still exist, especially on the mortality from this infection and the contamination perimeter (for SARS, it was short, about a meter). Companies should monitor the situation at least twice a day on the websites of national public health authorities and the WHO. Therefore, the aim here is not about providing the medical and technical information that is easily accessible elsewhere. Beyond this aspect, the situation poses organizational and management problems for companies, in particular for those which have a part of their activities in different countries.
Several problems can arise daily:
- Should the trips to China be cancelled? This attitude is reasonable until we have a clear picture of the epidemic. The isolation of the main outbreaks was decided very late in China. The preparation for the Chinese New Year has led to a significant population mix. No region of China will likely be spared; therefore, it is sensible to postpone. You should also know that masks are useful in avoiding infection spreading to others if infected individuals wear them. However, healthy people wearing a surgical mask does not protect them.
- What to do if an employee had Chinese visitors (or from an affected country) recently? This situation should not happen again. If contacts are necessary, it is better to use digital tools. If physical presence is essential, visitors should ideally be present in your country and without symptoms for at least ten days. In this case, the risk is almost nonexistent. If they came into contact before having any knowledge of the risk, there are two scenarios. Either the employees who received Chinese visitors have no symptoms, and then the risk can be considered very low. If the employee has signs of infection, WHO and government departments recommend immediate action, and you have to follow them.
Communication is key, especially for organizations with international activities. If the leadership remain silent, rumors and fake news will spread like an epidemic.
- If you talk about it, will it create worry or even panic? In my experience, the opposite happens all the time. Employees are reassured to know that their organization is concerned about the issue and that they are not alone in handling the problem.
- What messages? A balance needs to be struck between alarmism and risk minimization. It is not easy. The priority is to let people know that the company is monitoring the situation closely with a designated manager. Secondly, open a mechanism in which employees can ask their questions (ensuring that they get a quick response). And the third priority is to react immediately in the event of a rumor. If employees are showing any symptoms, this must not be concealed and the subsequent actions that are to be taken must be in close contact with the health authorities.
- Do you need a crisis procedure? Not all risks are crises, and conversely, there are crises without risk. Risk and crisis should not be confused. As I said, you have to monitor the epidemic carefully. Monitoring is not the job of a crisis unit; each company must make an effort to identify the events likely to destabilize it and foresee the mechanisms that will enable it to manage situations that do not affect the business operations. The crisis diagnosis should not be made too early or too late; it should be carried out with consideration to the internal skills and/or consultants with whom the company works.
We will have to remain in this situation for months (or even years). The course of action is to build trust within the organisation. Large epidemics have always been a factor in social disintegration and disruption. If businesses do not build trust and transparency, they could be in big trouble. A rational attitude based on facts, transparent communication, and a clear and responsible organisation is the only way to prevent emotions from getting the upper hand, which would no longer be manageable or at huge costs.
You can exchange and ask your questions to William Dab and the Red-on-line teams in comments or on the social networks LinkedIn and Twitter: @HSE_Rol and @DabWilliam.
Professor of Hygiene and Safety at Cnam where he trains specialists in occupational health risks and the environment, notably through a course of risk management engineering, William Dab is a doctor and doctor of epidemiology. His career has been devoted entirely to health security, from assessment, monitoring and risk management tools. A former Director-General of Health, he was a member of the WHO Executive Committee and Chair of the European Environment and Health Committee for WHO’s Europe Region. In particular, he published “Health and the Environment” in the collection What do I know? (PUF) and “Health and Work” at Arnaud Franel.