Risk in Context

New Coronavirus Outbreak: Immediate Steps for Multinationals

February 03, 2020

With its rapid spread in a short period of time, the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has been declared by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a public health emergency of international concern. It considers the outbreak "a high risk, regionally and globally." Multinational organisations should take actions now to protect their people and operations.

Far-Reaching Risks

Coronaviruses can cause a variety of illnesses, from the common cold to highly severe diseases, such as Middle-East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). Commonly exhibited symptoms in the current outbreak include fever, cough, and difficulty breathing, according to the WHO; mild cases have resembled the flu. More than 14,000 cases across over 20 countries have been reported as of 2 February, including two in the UK, as have more than 300 deaths.

Wuhan's prominence as a tourist destination, a port city and transportation hub, and a regional centre for education and manufacturing has raised concerns about the outbreak's spread. Chinese authorities have restricted travel in Wuhan and surrounding cities. UK airports have begun entry screening of travellers from China and The Foreign Commonwealth Office (FCO) now advises against all travel to Hubei province and all but essential travel to the rest of mainland China.

Organisations with significant employee populations in China are at particular risk, while travel restrictions, supply chain disruptions, and employee absenteeism within vendors, suppliers, and other partners in-country could reduce productivity and efficiency for businesses headquartered elsewhere. Fears about the virus could also depress travel and tourism and adversely affect the global economy.

Take Action Now

Organisations should review, test, and update critical business continuity, crisis management, and crisis communications plans. Consider the potential effects a worsening outbreak could have on your employees, revenue, suppliers, reputation, and more. Immediate actions to take include:

Protect your people first

  • Stay up to date on the latest travel advice as it could change quickly.
  • Ensure your staff know to stay away from work if unwell and seek medical help.
  • Be conscious that your staff may have caring responsibilities for ill family. 
  • Listen to and respond to staff concerns – anxiety can be more disruptive than the virus itself.
  • Institute work from home policies if warranted.

Look after your business interests 

  • Know which business processes and activities are critical and require protection.
  • Pay special attention to major customer and other business deadlines.
  • Plan for how to continue operations if you experience significant staff absences.
  • Prepare for potential reductions or increases in demand (i.e., cleaning services, e-commerce).
  • Review your relevant insurance policies, coverage, and claims processes.

Secure your supply chain

  • Identify your critical suppliers and their locations, especially if in heavily impacted areas or with less support resources available. 
  • Confirm the status and location of expected deliveries/shipments.
  • Understand what your suppliers' plans are and work together to protect both of your interests, particularly if a smaller business.

The impacts from a potentially worsening novel coronavirus outbreak could be severe, but taking these steps now can help you better prepare, plan, and protect your people and operations.

James Crask

Consulting Director and Resilience Advisory Lead, Marsh Risk Consulting