The Coronavirus has gripped countries across the globe and employers are now changing their plans and policies as they prioritize employees’ safety first.
Singapore raised the Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) from Yellow to Orange after three new cases were confirmed on Friday with no links to previous cases or recent travel history. The immediate focus area for the Singapore authorities is “aggressively trying to stop or limit further spread”, according to the Ministry of Health. Code Orange is one level below code red which is assigned for an out-of-control epidemic.
“I understand that Singaporeans are anxious, concerned, and there is much about the virus that we do not yet know. New information is emerging daily. And, we understand that this is likely to take time to resolve, maybe months. However, life cannot come to a standstill. We should take all the necessary steps and precautions and carry on with life. We will do our best to contain the situation and keep Singaporeans safe,” said Gan Kim Yong, Health Minister, Singapore, during a public address.
As of Feb. 8, the Singaporean Ministry of Health confirmed seven additional cases of Coronavirus infection in Singapore. Five out of these seven are linked to previously announced cases. The Ministry has issued advice to all Singaporeans to postpone all travel to Hubei Province and all non-essential travel to Mainland China.
With the implementation of code orange in Singapore, additional precautionary measures will be put in place that would ideally reduce the risk of transmission of the Coronavirus to the community.
Since December 2019, the Coronavirus has spread in Wuhan and killed more than 300 people as of early last week. Cases of the virus outside of China have also increased with the following countries reporting Coronavirus cases: US, Vietnam, UK, UAE, Thailand, Taiwan, Sweden, Sri Lanka, Spain, South Korea, Singapore, Russia, Philippines, Nepal, Malaysia, Macao, Japan, Italy, India, Hong Kong, Germany, France, Finland, Canada, Cambodia, Australia.
As of January 30, the World Health Organization has declared that the Coronavirus should be considered as a global public health emergency.
What are employers doing?
As the world gears up to prevent the spread of Coronavirus, employers must first ensure that there is enough awareness and spread of accurate knowledge not only among the employees but also the senior leadership. Companies in the region including China, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, have started taking measures to curtail Coronavirus’ spread.
Providing compulsory leaves, encouraging employees to work remotely, splitting up teams into different locations and implementing the safety measures as suggested by governments and health organizations, are some of the ways in which organizations are gearing up to limit the impact of Coronavirus.
Some organizations have decided to provide a mandatory 14-day Leave of Absence for any employee who has returned from China or if anyone at home has been under a quarantine.
Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), employers are mandated to provide a safe working environment for their employees. An employer must conduct a “hazard assessment of the workplace, ensure that gear is provided for personal protection such as gloves and masks, develop a way in which exposed employees can be monitored and kept safe, and moreover, ensure that records of all illness-related issues are kept.
Employers are thus offering leaves to people might be at risk, especially those who have just returned from traveling to the affected areas of China. Employees who are not feeling well have been requested to not come into the office. A structured response plan can allow organizations who are showing symptoms of the virus to go home as long as it does not fall under any form of discrimination.
Changes in the day-to-day way of work
Banks in the region have put in place their BCP strategies that is the Business Continuity Planning process which is undertaken by organizations in order to establish a recovery and prevention system so that the business is prepared for threats from natural disasters, cyber attacks, etc.
Critical teams have been split across various areas and employees are urged to work from home whenever and wherever possible. Organizations are focusing on reducing the risk of Coronavirus by avoiding putting full teams in one place. Better office cleaning measures and hand sanitisers on all floors have been provided as an additional measure of prevention.
Moreover, in-person client meetings have been transferred to virtual discussions. Employees have been asked to use video conferencing wherever possible to continue with the meetings planned, no large group gatherings or workshops or meetings.
Workplace safety measures
Workplaces are borrowing a page from the airports’ playbook and installing temperature checks at every entry and exit of the office building.
Employees in Singapore are advised to carry out temperature checks twice daily. Some buildings in South Korea have installed thermal-imaging cameras in their lobbies which can detect the body temperatures of the employees entering and exiting the building.
Bank tellers have been directed to wear facemasks at all times as their job entails interacting with people. Also, domestic cabin crew members have been mandated to wear masks across all routes.
Employers’ role in raising awareness is going to be crucial in the wake of the Coronavirus spread. Simple measures such as providing support for receiving vaccinations, wearing a mask when stepping out, washing hands frequently, posting reminders around the workplace to cover one’s nose and mouth when coughing/sneezing, avoiding sharing cups, utensils, water bottles, and other personal items, following basic hygiene in public washrooms, disposing of tissues appropriately, etc.
International conglomerates such as JPMorgan Chase, Apple, Kraft Heinz, HSBC Holdings, PricewaterhouseCoopers have all either suspended or canceled employee and partner travels to mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Ford Motors and Hershey Co. have also barred their employees from traveling to and fro China.
The Center for Disease Control has issued a 14-day quarantine for about 195 Americans who had been recently evacuated from China.
Those employees who have returned from China within the last 14 days are urged to work remotely, preferably from home for three weeks as a precaution measure.
Large conglomerates, including LG Electronics, have halted business trips not only to Wuhan but the entire country of China. The families of those South Korean Hyundai workers who are living in China have asked the automaker to bring them back and incur the employees’ travel and safety expenses, according to media reports from the region.
The spread of Coronavirus has prompted companies across the globe to issue travel bans. The American Airlines’ pilots have even filed a lawsuit demanding that flights to China be stopped in order to prevent the crew members from the spread of the virus.
Organizations across the region, especially in South Korea, are discouraging inbound travel of internal staff, to avoid them from getting quarantined when returning back to their original offices.
The way forward
The World Health Organization has urged employers and governments to pay attention to the spread of Coronavirus and report accurate numbers so as to ensure that the right level of response is provided by the health sector. As the authorities world over gear up to face the onset of Coronavirus, it is essential that employers pick up the mantle and ensure that they do their bit in proactively understanding the situation and then striking a balance between cautious care about employees and business needs.
“There is a window of opportunity because of the high measures, the strong measures China is taking at the epicentre, at the source,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General, WHO. “Let’s use this opportunity to prevent further spread and control it.”