I recently wrote about the early stages of the 2019-novel Wuhan Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) outbreak and what companies should be doing to safeguard employees and ensure business continuity. In the time since, the virus has spread further - both geographically, with more countries beyond China reporting cases, and in the numbers of people infected and who have died. This article provides an update on the outbreak, in order to help HR teams manage the impact of coronavirus on their operations.
What are governments doing?
In many countries, governments are taking steps to limit the potential for the virus to spread. China extended its lunar new year holiday period and has staggered the recommencement of work in order to reduce the risk of virus transmission associated with millions of people simultaneously returning from their hometowns to their places of work. Both in China and elsewhere in Asia, governments have recommended or promoted home working and have closed schools for prolonged periods (for example, at the time of writing, schools in Hong Kong will remain closed until 2nd March). Travel restrictions are also in place, with many countries requiring travellers arriving from mainland China to enter quarantine for 14 days. Several countries now prohibit entry from mainland China and some, such as the Philippines and Taiwan, extend this restriction to residents of Hong Kong and Macau. At the same time many countries have advised their citizens not to travel to China unless absolutely necessary and others have advised their citizens already there to leave if they can.
What are companies doing?
Many of our clients have advised against non-essential business travel to China and require employees returning from China to self-quarantine. Some companies have also facilitated repatriation of expatriates and dependants from locations near the epicentre of the outbreak, such as Wuhan, and repatriation of families where this has been requested by the employee (although as my previous post suggested, there may be consequences associated with doing this).
Other responses include enabling employees in the locations most seriously affected, such as China, Hong Kong and Singapore, to work remotely, and providing advice from medical experts about protecting oneself and others from the virus. For employees who still travel to their place of work daily, companies have adopted enhanced measures to ensure employee well-being, such as regular temperature checks, increasing the frequency with which workspaces and communal areas are cleaned or sanitized, and providing guidance on how to ensure employees remain healthy at home and at work.
What should you be doing?
Firstly, it is important to keep abreast of the daily updates announced by countries with respect to immigration requirements and restrictions. These can change at short notice, potentially leaving business travellers stranded or having to significantly alter schedules, as some ECA staff travelling to Taiwan recently can testify.
Now is also an important time for companies to ensure that any policy they have in place regarding dealing with pandemics remains fit for purpose. When we ran a survey of company responses to the Ebola epidemic in 2014, only 51% of companies had a formal policy for dealing with major disease episodes. While the proportion of companies with such a policy has risen since then, a sizeable minority still lack them. Given the greater frequency with which epidemics now occur (SARS in 2003, followed by H1N1 in 2009, MERS and Avian Influenza in 2013 and Ebola in both 2014 and 2018), having a formal response mechanism, which is reviewed regularly and stress-tested after a crisis, seems increasingly necessary.
Because the coronavirus is more easily transmissible than other recent viral outbreaks, such as SARS and MERS, there is a higher chance that companies will experience their employees becoming infected, especially if they operate in high-incidence locations (in China this includes the provinces of Hubei, Guangdong and Zhejiang). Therefore, it is also important for employers to review corporate insurance policies, in case of a threat to business operations, and medical insurance for employees to ensure they would be covered in case of infection. It is also recommended that companies review policy-dictated responses and actions regularly. Although opinions are divided as to when the virus may peak, it is generally accepted that incidences will likely occur throughout March and April at least, so a heightened state of alert is likely necessary for a while to come.
Many companies have repatriated expatriate staff from locations most affected by the coronavirus, such as Wuhan. In cases where companies have not repatriated such assignees, we are commonly asked whether location or ‘hardship’ allowances should be increased to compensate for the risks of remaining. It is notable that companies typically do not increase location allowances during similar crises, with only 4% doing so according to survey responses. Indeed, this is a stance we also endorse. The underlying issues associated with the origin and spread of 2019-nCoV in China, such as risks of disease outbreaks occurring and the capability of the medical infrastructure to deal with them, are reflected in our location allowance recommendations for cities in China. In spite of significant improvements in living conditions in China in the past two decades, we still recommend the payment of location allowances because of fundamental issues which continue to impact expatriate lives in the country. Therefore, rather than paying employees who remain in situ more money, the emphasis should be on ensuring their well-being. Indeed, over half of companies polled in our survey stated that they were likely to enhance medical protection for expatriates who remain in affected areas - a significantly more common response than simply raising assignment salaries by increasing location allowances.
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We will continue to monitor this situation and provide updates on the coronavirus and its impact on employee mobility. If you have any specific questions, please do not hesitate to contact us.