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06 Feb. 2020 | Comments (0)

As the World Health Organization declared the Coronavirus outbreak a global health crisis, and cases are arising around the world beyond the borders of China, companies are considering how to respond.  A company’s first priority should be for the health and safety of its employees, customers, suppliers, and communities. Business planning and continuity is essential as discussed in The Conference Board’s podcast, Viral Contagion? Implications of China’s Coronavirus Outbreak for Global Business. As companies are grappling with the multifaceted implications of this epidemic, corporate citizenship professionals specifically are at work looking at how to deploy company resources to help with the situation externally.  

As the Coronavirus runs its course, here are some steps to consider:

  • Let employees, customers and other stakeholders know that you are monitoring the situation as it is quickly evolving and will respond appropriately.
  • Create a cross-function task force of HR, operations, finance, communications, and risk management along with corporate citizenship to ensure coordination of initiatives to both mitigate negative impact to the company and to maximize support to communities in need. 
  • Map where your employees, operations, suppliers and customers are in relationship to the current and projected affected locations.
  • Working with your employees on the ground, governments, NGOs and civic leaders, determine the greatest needs. What are the existing local/regional resources available to meet those needs, where are the gaps, and what is the timing of when those needs need to be met?
  • Once you have the intersection of people, locations and needs, then determine what the company can do to be the most impactful.  Do you have product that is needed?   Trucks and planes to get it there?  Staff with expertise to help with logistics, planning, communications, clinics, etc.  Are employee volunteers appropriate at this stage?  And cash! (often the fastest way to get help to where it is needed.)
  • When appropriate, find creative ways to source and fulfill requests for non-company products. Leverage supply chain and procurement channel relationships to source needed products. The global demand for products, such as masks, is quickly straining supplies.

If you have not already done so, this may spark an opportunity to reconsider your internal governance regarding your firm’s responses to natural disasters:

  • When do you respond?  What are the criteria?
  • What is your tool kit of actions?
  • Who decides your firm’s response?
  • How do you engage internal and external stakeholders?

Internal governance is covered in the When and How Companies Get Involved in Specific Disasters section in The Conference Board’s 2019 Edition of Disaster Philanthropy Practices.  An epidemic, and especially one of global proportions, takes on various components of a company’s disaster planning all at the same time.  Preparedness, Prevention, Response, Recovery and Rebuilding can be occurring concurrently. 

Preparedness and Prevention.  What distinguishes a health crisis from many other natural disasters is the ongoing and acute nature of preparedness/prevention aspect as governments, NGOs and companies are watching how the disease is spreading and mitigating for when it hits in other regions to minimize its impact.  This requires targeted actions aimed at trying to be a step ahead.  Closing or restricting access to certain operations to minimize contact with those possibly infected and enhancing capacity of medical institutions to handle a potential large number of patients are just two proactive examples. 

Response.  We have already seen companies making donations through intermediaries such as Give2Asia and Global Impact plus sending supplies into the area around Wuhan.  This is part of a normal response that we would see in the hours and days immediately after a hurricane, earthquake, flood or terrorist attack.  Make sure you know whom you are giving to, to ensure that resources are deployed effectively and where they are needed most. Nonprofits in China range widely in terms of their organizational capacity and capabilities to execute in times of crisis. 

Recovery and Rebuilding.  Situations such as SARS, Bird Flu and Ebola -- just like Katrina, Indian Ocean Earthquake/Tsunami and Fukushima -- require thoughtful plans for the recovery.  Whether its rebuilding physical buildings, restoring normalcy to daily lives, this aspect of a disaster is often underfunded and under supported.  It is critical to get the economy moving forward quickly.  Too often after disasters we see communities languishing, unable to regain their pre-disaster status. 

The spread of the Coronavirus is serious.  We just don’t know yet how serious.  Over-reacting in some cases can be detrimental, especially when it means goods aren’t moving, services aren’t rendered, and people aren’t paid. The global economy can’t just shut down, yet we also need to be mindful of safety first.  It is a delicate balancing act, especially when there are so many unknowns.  Beware of sensationalistic headlines and the emotional reaction of “what are we/you doing?” Remember, while this is a critical situation, the flu is vastly more widespread this year and to date has killed more people.

Businesses and our employees are and will be an important part of the solution.  Sometimes we are at ground zero and are victims ourselves, all while trying to act.  If you are, remember to take care of yourself first, as if something happens to you, you will be of no use to the greater effort.  

We will beat this disease.  Facts, communication, collaboration and cooperation are key.

  • About the Author:Jeff Hoffman

    Jeff Hoffman

    Jeff Hoffman is an accomplished corporate executive who has served on the global stage. Through board and commission leadership roles, he has a distinguished history working with business, non-profit,…

    Full Bio | More from Jeff Hoffman


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