The current coronavirus epidemic is likely to be causing worry to many employees who work in or travel to China, as well as to the HR professionals who manage them. Among the many questions organisations are likely to be asking, the most important one is ‘what can we do to safeguard the well-being of our employees and ensure business continuity at the same time?’
What is the coronavirus?
The coronavirus, or the 2019-novel Wuhan Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) to give it its full name, is a contagious virus that causes respiratory infection and is thought to have originated in the Hubei province in China. The exact cause of the virus and its origin is unknown, and the first human case of the illness is also unclear at this point. However, the most-commonly cited cause of the spread of the contagion was when 41 people who had visited the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan were hospitalised with symptoms of coronavirus on 31 December 2019. The virus shares some similarities with other recent respiratory viruses such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) but has a much higher transmission rate, with it being widely considered that a person who has been infected with the virus will likely transmit the virus to two to three additional people. However, the one piece of positive news that has emerged is that it presently has a much lower mortality rate than SARS.
At present there is no vaccine or remedy but the World Health Organisation advises that the following measures should be taken to prevent or reduce the risk of infection:
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol if soap and water are not available.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands.
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
- Stay at home and do not go outside if you feel unwell.
- Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue away immediately.
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.
Which groups of employees will be most affected by the epidemic?
Two groups of mobile employees are likely to be most affected by the coronavirus epidemic, but there are potential solutions to help manage the risk the virus poses to them:
Most international organisations have already prohibited all but essential business travel to Hubei province in China, with many recently going even further and prohibiting travel to all parts of China now that cases have been confirmed in every province of China. Therefore, it would be prudent for any organisation that has not already imposed this travel ban to do so. Even without companies making this decision, it is becoming increasingly difficult for overseas business travellers to visit China as many airlines have restricted or cancelled flights to China while the government of the Hong Kong SAR, which remains a key transit hub into the mainland in spite of the impact of recent protests, has also closed several of its land borders with China, suspended rail links and requested airlines based in the city to halve the number of flights to the mainland.
Given the high transmission rate and the fact that the virus can be present in a person for up to 14 days without showing any symptoms, it is therefore advisable for organisations to cease all business travel to mainland China. If travel is considered to be essential, an approval process should be put in place where ultimate approval rests on a panel which consists of a combination of those responsible for the commercial operations of your organisation (to decide if the trip is commercially critical), HR operatives, and in-house medical personnel in organisations where they exist.
For companies with staff who have recently returned from mainland China, either from a business trip or from personal travel, it is advisable to ask employees to self-quarantine for a period of up to 14 days upon return. Where possible, employees should be encouraged to work from home.
Assignees based in affected areas
At the epicentre of the virus outbreak, Wuhan, people are largely confined to their homes. Many foreign governments have already started the process of expatriating their citizens who are based in Wuhan, with the USA and Japan being among the first to do so. This situation underlines the importance of advising assignees to register with their consulate or embassy in the country they are assigned to.
For organisations with employees located elsewhere in China, particularly other areas where there have been a large number of cases reported, such as Chongqing, Beijing and Shanghai, it seems that at present the decision regarding whether to stay or leave should be the personal decision of the employee. HR should assist to provide the employee with guidance and impartial information in order for the employee to make an objective decision on whether or not to remain in situ.
Given the fact that many schools in mainland China will remain closed for a prolonged period of time, assignees may request assistance in repatriating their families to their home locations. But owing to the potentially long incubation period and the high transmission rate, facilitating the repatriation of assignees and their families who may have been exposed to the virus may run the risk of assisting the spread of the virus further. As such, it is important that if an organisation facilitates this process, anyone that is repatriated should declare to health authorities upon arrival in their home locations where they have arrived from, as well as self-quarantining for a period of up to 14 days. However, even when the decision is made to repatriate, the restrictions on travel to and from China mean that it may be difficult for people to leave even if they wish to do so - and patience may be required by both the assignee and their organisation.
When an expatriate employee chooses to remain in China, it is important to ensure that both they and their local colleagues receive support during this time. Establishing a regular channel of communication to both give and receive advice and feedback will be important in ensuring that all staff in China are aware of your concern for their well-being. Companies should also ensure that staff work in a clean and healthy environment by ensuring that offices are cleaned and sanitised regularly, and that employees have access to sanitizer and masks during the working day. Some companies have gone further in assisting employees by obtaining face masks, which are becoming increasingly scarce in many locations including Hong Kong, for the employee’s personal use outside the office. Facilitating home working or flexible working arrangements is also highly recommended. As many companies in Hong Kong implemented these during recent protests, many already have a policy in place that they can refer to and extend to their operations in China where applicable.
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If you have any questions about the management or safeguarding of assignees in areas affected by the coronavirus, please get in touch.