When Corona isn’t just a beer

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We’ve seen this movie before.

In 2009, business managers had to deal with the H1N1 virus. Then, as now, the two great unknowns in the early stages were contagion and virulence — how easily the virus passed from a sick person to healthy ones and how sick it made people when it did.

Then as now, business management had to prepare for the threat in spite of these unknowns.

Fortunately for all of us, adults — principally the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) — were in charge of the response, and the actual rates of contagion and mortality were quite a lot lower than we all originally feared.

The KJR Risk-Response Dictum states that successful prevention is indistinguishable from absence of risk. And so, predictably, instead of giving those coordinating the risk response credit for a job well done, much of the commentary blamed them for inflating the size of the problem.

Early indicators suggest COVID-19’s virulence, as assessed by its mortality rate, is significantly higher than the flu — 2.3 percent vs 0.1 percent, although on the opposite end of the virulence scale it appears 80 percent of cases will be mild or entirely asymptomatic.

Its relative level of contagion hasn’t yet been determined, although one epidemiologist predicts shockingly high numbers: a 40 to 70 percent infection rate by the time the current wave has run its course.

The risk of willful ignorance is not, on the other hand, in doubt, and will inevitably result in the two worst threat responses: hysteria and minimization.

And so, before I continue, here are links to four must-read articles to help you prepare for the current threat.

I’ll immodestly recommend two H1N1-oriented articles from Keep the Joint Running:Threat management — the political plan” (10/12/2009) and “Issue Management: What the methodologies leave out” (10/19/2009).

I’d also advise you to review an excellent business preparedness guide developed and maintained by the CDC: “Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers to Plan and Respond to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), February 2020.

And, share this useful article from the WHO with those you work with: “Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) advice for the public: Myth busters.”

What else should you do to, if you’ll forgive the self-reference, keep the joint running in the face of the COVID-19 threat?

First and foremost, list what, from a purely business perspective, COVID-19 threatens. Recognizing that I’m not an authority on threat assessment and response (if you are, please add your knowledge in the Comments), here are three of the most serious consequences:

Productivity loss: More employees will be out sick than your current plans factor in, and for more days. Adjust your business plans accordingly.

Knowledge loss: You should already have made sure that between documentation and cross-training, your organization can continue to function should anyone “call in rich” or fall prey to the proverbial bus.

With apologies for sounding morbid, COVID-19 could prove lethal to a team member who contracts it. The need to prevent knowledge loss isn’t new to the COVID-19 threat, but the virus does accentuate it.

Fight or flight response: “The only thing we have to fear,” FDR famously said, “is fear itself.” With all due deference to FDR, fear itself isn’t the only legitimate COVID-19 fear. Contagion and virulence surely belong on the list, too.

Take out “only” and FDR was on target. Inevitably, some employees will display the usual fear-itself threat response: Anger. Anger makes people stupid. And, inevitably, angry people need someone to attach their anger to. They’ll have a strong need to find someone to blame. And if blaming that someone for the direct threat is completely implausible they’ll find something related to blame them for.

The most likely “thems” are, sad to say, racial and ethnic, but they’re hardly the only ones. Very high on the list of Those-Whose-Fault-It-Must-Be will be everyone who subscribes to a competing political affinity.

Then there’s the ever-popular hobby of finding fault with company management and its response to the situation.

What makes the fight-or-flight response most dangerous is that, even by COVID-19 standards, it’s highly contagious.

But, unlike COVID-19, you can do something to reduce this contagion. First, be armed with facts and when you hear misinformation, correct it.

And second, when you overhear fight-or-flight conversations about COVID-19, stop them.

You can do this and you should do this. It’s easy. Just ask, “Don’t you have work to do?

Comments (4)

  • Thanks Bob, I’ve passed this around rather liberally.

  • Was SARS overhyped? I read a few articles that China “should have learned” from the SARS virus which killed <800 and infected < 8000. I appreciate the fact that disaster averted is ignored by most folks (Y2K comes to mind) but still, what exactly should China have learned from SARS–that there will be a big pandemic coming in the future (like folks have been warning since 1918)?

    If we were serious about preventive stuff, we wouldn't be feeding antibiotics to cattle just to have them put on weight. That _is_ the reason the livestock industry uses antibiotics. (And I know antibiotics have nothing to do with viruses but the practice shows an alarming lack of scientific understanding from society as a whole).

  • I think there are 3 other big areas that business need to consider, and those are travel plans, conferences, and supply chain disruptions.

    Several big events have been cancelled – lots of planning, including IT, goes into those, not to mention the travel to the conference – do you want to be proactive and pull the plug, or at least have a plan for ‘if this conference is cancelled’. If you are provisioning, vs just attending, I can imagine a host of contracted services needing to be cancelled, some with refunds, some not? For staff who were counting on the travel as their allocation of ‘training’ for the year, maybe start looking at alternatives now vs later?

    Then there is the international travel associated with interacting with remote offices or suppliers. If you do send people or receive visitors from ‘hot zones’, plan on quarantines? Time to dust off work at home and teleconferencing policies and practices?

    And productivity isn’t limited to your own staff – one of the major downsides to JIT provisioning, is the impact a disruption can have. Companies ought to have contingencies plans – do you know where yours are?

  • I very much appreciate you sharing both your thinking and various resources for managers.

    However, I think we should take few actions until we have a clearer idea of how this is spread. The pattern of how this spreads is very concerning, in that it seems to be spreading somewhat differently than with the flu, with a troubling element of unpredictability.

    I’m concerned that no one seems to know how robust COVID-19 outside the body. Apart from CDC recommendations, I’m inclined to think it best to pump the brakes a bit, not because COVID-19 is not a real threat, but because we don’t yet know fully what is preventative and what could be counter-productive.

    To be clear, I see this as a really tough situation for all management.

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