Risk in Context

New COVID-19 Outbreak: Immediate Steps for Multinationals

Posted by Renata Elias January 23, 2020

Several hundred cases and multiple deaths have been reported in the emerging COVID-19 outbreak originating in the Chinese city of Wuhan. While most reported cases so far have been in China, others have been reported in Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and the US.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has not declared a global public health emergency but considers the outbreak “a high risk, regionally and globally.” Multinational organizations should take action now to protect their people and operations.

Far-Reaching Risks

COVID-19 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.

Wuhan’s prominence as a tourist destination, a port city and transportation hub, and a regional center for education and manufacturing has raised concerns that the outbreak could continue to spread, especially during the Lunar New Year holiday period. Chinese authorities have restricted travel in Wuhan and elsewhere and cancelled some large holiday gatherings. Airports in several major cities in the US and elsewhere have begun entry screening of travelers from Wuhan and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now recommends avoiding nonessential travel to the region; the State Department, meanwhile, recommends that travelers in China “exercise increased caution.”

Organizations 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

Multinational organizations should review, test, and potentially update critical plans related to business continuity, crisis management, and crisis communications. While examining existing plans, consider the potential effects a worsening outbreak could have on employees, revenue, suppliers, reputations, and more and work with other stakeholders to prepare accordingly.

Pay particular attention to:

  • Travel policies. If travel to Wuhan is necessary, the CDC recommends avoiding contact with sick people; avoiding animals, animal markets, and meat and other animal products; and frequently washing hands. Returning travelers exhibiting symptoms should immediately seek care and avoid contact with others.
  • Employee wellbeing. Monitor updates from public health officials and governments and keep employees informed and educated about the outbreak and any steps being taken to safeguard their health. Encourage employees to remain home when sick and telecommute if the outbreak worsens.
  • Supply chains. Identify operational and revenue impacts from potential disruptions to key suppliers and vendors. Also consider the feasibility of sourcing goods, ingredients, and component parts from alternative suppliers.
  • Insurance coverage. Review applicable insurance policies, prepare for potential claims, and consult your broker if you have questions.

The impacts from a potentially worsening Wuhan COVID-19 outbreak to your business could be severe, but taking these steps now can help you better prepare, plan, and protect people and operations.

Renata Elias

Senior Consultant, Marsh Risk Consulting Strategic Risk Practice