Business leaders should be concerned about Wuhan coronavirus, more technically called 2019-nCoV.
Yes, those who say this coronavirus pales in comparison to the annual flu season and other common illnesses are correct. As of the week ending Jan. 25, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates there have been at least 19 million flu illnesses, 180,000 hospitalizations and 10,000 deaths from the flu this season just in the United States.
The CDC also reports that each year, more than 250,000 people are hospitalized and about 50,000 people die in the U.S. due to pneumonia. Globally, pneumonia claims the lives of nearly 1 million children younger than 5 years old annually.
So yes, the argument is factual, but it misses a very important point.
Neither the flu nor pneumonia has forced the systematic isolation of the second largest economy on the globe. At the time this blog was written, Russia had closed its border with China, and the U.S., Australia, Japan, Pakistan and Italy had all begun refusing to allow foreign visitors admittance if they had been to China. Hospital workers in Hong Kong were voting to strike unless Hong Kong closed its border. Ultimately, Hong Kong closed most, but not all of its border crossings.
Quickest estimates place a vaccine at one to three months and others estimate up to a year. It took 20 months for a vaccine to be ready for people testing during the SARS outbreak.
So, while this coronavirus has not reached the scale of more common illnesses (and hopefully it won’t), it has created a reaction the others have not.
There is growing hope that 2019-nCoV mortality rates will be low. But, regardless of how this may play out, we should still be playing out the scenarios and learning lessons. For example, what will the impact be if:
- It stays mainly contained to existing quarantined Chinese cities?
- It spreads widely within other China cities, forcing more quarantines?
- It spreads beyond isolated cases to other global cities and a case shows up in a city, plant or office that we do business?
In addressing any pandemic outbreak, Gartner’s risk management practice offers two guiding principles:
1. Put people first.
First and foremost, there is a human face to all this. When SARS (also a coronavirus) spread to four continents in 2003, executives at seven companies told Gartner that managing employees’ concerns and questions was one of the most time-consuming associated activities. But it is time well spent. If employees think they could be exposed at work, morale will suffer. Plus, employees will remember if they felt cared for during this time or if they are simply part of a contingency plan.
2. Improve the company’s overall capabilities.
Waiting for 2019-nCoV, or any other major disruption, to arrive before planning and communicating is never a successful strategy. Even if the new coronavirus is contained and suppressed in the coming weeks, it still provides an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to see where the company is exposed, which business activities may be disrupted and which triggers to track to decide when plans need to be put into action. This is true not just in China, but other regions that could require a similar response, forcing an extended disruption.
I have confidence in the global medical community’s ability to solve this challenge as it has solved others. As business leaders, I believe we have an opportunity to strengthen our organizations through this challenge, better preparing us for future and potentially worse challenges.
Chief of Research,
Gartner Supply Chain