COVID Exposures Expand as Businesses Move Closer to ‘Normal’
COVID Exposures Expand as Businesses Move Closer to ‘Normal’

Many people will jump at governments’ relaxation of social distancing measures over the next several months, eager to put the pandemic behind them. But simply reverting back to pre–Covid-19 business practices would be a mistake.

Although many experts are predicting a second wave of the disease in the fall, few companies have performed adequate scenario planning or completed risk assessments that specifically target preparations for such a resurgence. Moreover, few planning models account for the fact that the second wave will likely hit during flu season. Covid-19 and the flu are different viruses, but an individual who contracts both diseases at the same time might be more likely to experience a severe case of Covid-19. The flu compromises the immune system, and a compromised immune system is the underlying condition that can make Covid-19 deadly, even for otherwise healthy 20- to 40-year-olds. For the next few months, corporate risk managers have a window of opportunity to evaluate the impact of the first wave of the pandemic before possibly confronting a second, more disruptive wave in the fall.

Another consideration as local economies reopen is that companies may face legal liability if they do not commit to assessing the effectiveness and safety of their return-to-work policies. For example:

  • Institutions of higher education are particularly likely to experience Covid-19 outbreaks because they are hotspots for physical contact among unrelated individuals. Students travel to and from campus, then share dormitory facilities. Libraries have students, faculty, and visitors continuously picking up and putting down items. And avoiding close physical proximity is virtually impossible in spaces such as cafeterias and classrooms. Colleges and universities may be liable if their policies for reopening campuses put students, teaching faculty, and administrators at risk of Covid-19.

Businesses and brands that don’t learn from the current situation may suffer backlash and brand damage that, when compounded with an already challenging business environment, could threaten their very survival.

Reduce the Risk

How can your business protect employees and operations, mitigate risks, and learn lessons from the pandemic’s first wave that help it better endure the second wave? What are some questions managers and staff should be asking themselves now to identify vulnerabilities and better manage any impending surprises?

Risk management is key.

Risk assessment. Each company needs to consider its unique circumstances through a risk assessment, to determine possible impacts of a second wave of the virus. Identifying and assessing risks to the organization from different root-cause perspectives is the first step toward building a risk mitigation plan.

Executives should mobilize a cross-functional team of experts, with the mission of identifying all vulnerabilities. Pose these questions (along with many others):

  • What happens if a large proportion (say, 40 percent) of the company’s staff are out sick at the same time?
  • Where are all our suppliers located? Where are their suppliers located? And which ones are critical to our business continuity?
  • What new distancing strategies does the company need to implement to ensure on-site protection?
  • What procedures are necessary to minimize litigation risk should an employee or customer fall ill?

The risk assessment should also identify all control measures that the organization has put in place to manage and mitigate the risk of the virus. It must include information about who will monitor these control activities, and how, to ensure that stakeholders are following specified policies at all locations.

After developing their Covid-19 risk assessments, companies need to publish the details, to demonstrate that they take the health of their workers, customers, and broader community seriously.

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