The disruption and distress resulting from the outbreak of novel coronavirus in China is unprecedented. Governments, health agencies and businesses across the world have decisions to make now about how best to plan for a potential outbreak in an unpredictable situation.
There are three possible scenarios for Ireland.
In the best-case scenario, Ireland might expect about 50-200 suspected cases of the Wuhan coronavirus. These cases would all be promptly detected and isolated with airborne precautions. If they are all ruled out, they – and we – can go on with our usual lives. Should one or two patients test positive, Ireland is well prepared to care for these people under isolation and in quarantine until they return to full health. In this scenario, where suspected case numbers are small, and the virus is detected and diagnosed quickly, there would be no definite or real risk to the Irish population.
In an alternative scenario, Ireland could experience another flu season, much like the one we recently experienced in December 2019. A comprehensive plan is being put in place by the HSE to cope with the extra strain that would be caused by this eventuality, but there is no doubt that it would put untold pressure on our already overcrowded hospital emergency rooms.
The worst possible outcome would occur if the spread of the virus in Ireland mimics that of China, infecting up to 20% of the country’s population. In most cases, patients would experience mild symptoms like that of the flu – a fever, cough, runny nose and a headache. A small number may experience more significant symptoms and require specialist medical care, like oxygen therapy. This scenario would be the most disruptive of all, and likely to cause a temporary halt to typical daily life for Irish people as we attempt to corral the spread of the virus.
So, what we can do to prepare?
The advantage that we have here in Ireland is that we can see in advance that coronavirus might arrive and we can prepare accordingly.
At an individual business level, it is important to have a detailed contingency plan in place in case your staff contract the virus. A robust, rapid-response management plan will ensure that infected employees do not spread the virus throughout your workplace and potentially to your customers.
It is also essential to think about your overall business continuity plan. Do you have the support required to continue day-to day-operations in the event your staff members become unwell? Have you provided your team with the training necessary to temporarily cover an alternate role in your business, should that be required?
In some cases, it might be possible for your staff to work from home. Teleconferencing, instant messaging and cloud storage systems mean that teams can work remotely, accessing what they need to conduct their daily tasks and meetings uninterrupted, from anywhere in the world. For businesses with this facility, encouraging staff to work remotely from home, as you would if they contracted any winter cold, is a sensible approach to managing the spread of the virus.
Business owners should also consider the other relevant stakeholders in their business. If your day-to-day operations are dependent on a delivery from a supplier, for example, you should find out whether they have a plan in place to ensure business continuity in the event of an outbreak. If you haven’t already investigated this, it may be necessary to seek out alternative suppliers as a potential back up, should any supply-chain issues arise.
A worst case scenario could see Ireland’s essential services temporarily affected, like our road, air and sea transport networks, our electricity, water supply or internet connectivity. Do you have a plan in place to deal with that level of disruption? While this is highly unlikely to happen, planning now would prevent panic later.
Unexpected twists and turns are almost certain as the world continues to manage the spread of the Wuhan coronavirus. To best deal with this, businesses will need reserves of money, deployable staff, accurate and nimble information gathering, and fast, responsive decision-making from leaders who can make robust contingency plans to protect their business and their staff, even when a lot of the facts are unknown.
In planning for anything, we should hope for the best, plan for the worst, and expect something in the middle.
This article was originally published in the Business Post on 9 February 2020.
Prof. Samuel McConkey is Head of the Department of International Health and Tropical Medicine at RCSI and President of the Infectious Disease Society of Ireland.