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Coronavirus: When a health alert goes viral

The rapid spread of Coronavirus around the world is already the biggest story of 2020.

COVID-19, as it is also known, is making its way steadily towards us, amid mounting concern – often panic – and those concerned with crisis handling are already reporting a dramatic increase in cries for help from organisations and businesses struggling to keep up with developments.

While their root cause may be moving at alarming speed, responses to health crises tend to be sluggish: the first reports of the severity of Coronavirus emerged from Wuhan City in China in December 2019, but it is only in the last few weeks that the scale of the challenge has begun to be properly appreciated by the public.

One of the biggest gear-changes came at the end of February, when Italy quarantined 11 towns in an attempt to contain the spread of the virus.

This not only brought home the seriousness of the situation, but posed immediate challenges in some sectors.

Take schools, for instance. Ski-trips are a firm fixture in the calendar, and by the time half-term arrived, the crisis was beginning to bite. As pupils and staff returned, there was a sudden realisation that any flu-like symptoms had to be viewed seriously.

But this is traditionally cough and cold season. How best, then, to handle a situation without causing unnecessary alarm?

Businesses with staff routinely plying between the UK, Europe and the far East on a regular basis also suddenly faced an operational dilemma – to go, or not to go. And what of those individuals who had just returned from virus hot spots? What was the procedure? What were the precautions?

Quite apart from the practicalities of the COVID-19 itself, the handling of secondary effects can pose a significant reputational threat.

The way in which supermarkets have responded to the wave of panic-buying is a case in point – some were caught entirely by surprise, and there were countless images of bare shelves, and even chaotic scenes as customers fought in the aisles over dwindling stocks of lavatory paper, hand-sanitisers and tinned goods.

We are still in a rapidly evolving situation, but here is a check list of key considerations to help keep you on track:

  • Keep up with developments. That means closely and regularly monitoring the Public Health England advice and reviewing it against your current procedures. Know what to do if you have to handle a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19.
  • Stick to the official advice. Do not allow any speculation to creep into your operational arrangements; these could become hostages to fortune and may even make matters worse. Avoid anything that causes unnecessary alarm when reviewing your organisation’s activities and procedures, but do not stray beyond what you know.
  • Retain a sense of perspective and proportion. Over-reaction is counter-productive.
  • Above all, communicate calmly, frequently and practically with your staff and stakeholders. Share links to current official advice and facilitate agile working, office hygiene measures, and pastoral support.

Crises will always remain unpredictable, but it is already best practice to have some kind of strategy in place to meet the range of challenges that follow in their wake. This helps you to keep control in even the fastest-moving of situations.

Coronavirus has, however, thrown up a series of specific questions about how an epidemic should be handled. There is clearly some catching up to be done as the situation continues to evolve.

Organisations are having to learn fast, and from now on we can expect to see increasing reference to the consequences and handling of pandemics being built into the most savvy of crisis prevention plans.

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