Getting Ready for MERS: How CFOs and Senior Managers Can Mitigate Risk

In the Philippines on June 29, three Korean nationals were quarantined in an isolation tent at a Manila hospital, suspected of having been infected by MERS-CoV (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome-Coronavirus). The man and two women had fever and were vomiting after arriving in the country a week earlier.

“As a CFO, I have to look at risk mitigation from the board’s perspective. That means I have to show how something can mitigate risks and enhance efficiency at the same time”

On the same day, Thailand declared that its first MERS case was free of the deadly coronavirus. The 75-year-old man from Oman had traveled to Bangkok, a medical tourism hub, for treatment of a heart condition.  Three days earlier, a 44-year-old MERS-infected Korean man who entered China via Hong Kong was discharged from a hospital in Guangdong province after finally testing negative for the coronavirus.

The hardest hit Asian nation is South Korea, where the MERS virus has been detected in 182 people and claimed the lives of 32 others as of June 29 – a mortality rate of 17.5%. Foreseeing an economic slowdown brought by the deadly virus, the government announced on June 24 an economic stimulus package worth more than US$13 billion to cushion the impact.

Risk mitigation

In truth, there isn’t a single confirmed MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) case in most parts of Asia Pacific, although the virus shows no sign of being successfully contained in South Korea at this point.

There is fear, however, in economies and companies about a re-run of SARS, another coronavirus that killed 299 people in Hong Kong 12 years ago. Across Asia, it caused an estimated US$11 billion in economic losses as schools and some workplaces were closed, tourist arrivals fell and consumer confidence evaporated. SARS wreaked fear because the fatality rate was a high 9.6%.

With the MERS death rate nearly double that of SARS, it is no wonder that businesses in Asia are beginning to concentrate their mind around the policies and measures they need to put in place to mitigate the fallout should MERS become a pandemic – echoing fears last year about the Ebola virus.

For MERS, the measures should include a business continuity plan, updated travel policy and restrictions, and the appointment of a pandemic manager.

Vincent Liew was head of business management – finance at Mercedes-Benz China in 2003, when SARS was at its height, and was relatively insulated from the scare. But now in 2015, he is CFO of global architecture firm Aedas International, which has 20 offices in 14 countries – including the Middle Eastern cities of Abu Dhabi, Doha and Dubai.

“As a CFO, I have to look at risk mitigation from the board’s perspective,” Liew says. “That means I have to show how something can mitigate risks and enhance efficiency at the same time.” Thus, the company’s business continuation plan (BCP) is built in part on a collaborative architectural drawing system that uses huge TV screens.

The system allows employees in Hong Kong, Chengdu, Shanghai, Beijing, and Abu Dhabi to discuss and edit projects together, boosting easy collaboration across geographies and enhancing efficiency during both pandemics and times without any, says Liew. Aedas is implementing the system in its Singapore office and testing it in London.

Business continuity

Experts applaud such constant updating and development of business continuity plans. “Business leaders are responsible for both the financial success of their organizations and the health and well-being of their employees,” says Michael Griffiths, Regional Director – Healthcare, Financial Services and Professions Group, Asia at AON Risk Solution. “With the MERS threat growing by the day, organizations must review their business continuity plans.”

A firm should not insist on a travel plan if an employee is still worried about his or her safety after receiving all the necessary information

Organizations have to structure their business continuity plans around various assumptions concerning the severity and timeline of MERS, he suggests. In addition, they need to make sure all employees are aware of their roles and responsibilities during a crisis.

When devising a business continuity plan and related policies, organizations must be inclusive. “It’s important to involve people from different units to ensure coverage of each area,” says Lee Quane, Regional Director Asia-Pacific at ECA International, a consulting firm that assists companies with the management of international assignees. This includes those from international HR so that expatriates’ needs are taken into account, he adds.

To travel or not to travel

While technologies like those in Aedas help reduce travel, it’s not entirely avoidable.

During a pandemic outbreak, companies should ensure their travel policies are in sync with the disease’s key development by regularly monitoring health advisories and regulations issued by the World Health Organization and other health authorities, says Lim Sek Seong, Risk and Resilience Leader at Marsh Risk Consulting.

But before imposing travel restrictions, firms need to evaluate their business impact such as those related to finance and reputation, Lim says.

While most firms still allow staff to travel to South Korea and other MERS-affected locations today, Quane says they must encourage employees to be mindful of the virus and fully brief them on the following:

  • Measures to reduce the likelihood of contracting the virus
  • Steps to take when they are back in home base
  • Actions to take if they feel they might have been in contact with somebody affected by the virus

A firm should not insist on a travel plan if an employee is still worried about his or her safety after receiving all the necessary information, Quane counsels.

For companies that have assigned expats in affected countries, they might need to delay these employees’ return to those locations after their summer vacation until the situation improves or more information on the outbreak is available, advises Dr Yong Chern Chet, Deloitte Southeast Asia’s Healthcare Sector Leader.

When there is a suspected or a confirmed case in office, a firm must do an impact analysis that covers employee morale, disruption to business activities, reputation and goodwill, as well as the confidence of shareholders, lenders, and business partners, says Lim.

“The outcome of the impact analysis will determine the company’s business continuity strategy and influence the implementation of travel restrictions.”

Appointing a pandemic manager

With a business continuity plan and travel policies in place, an organization needs to effectively communicate all these to employees by appointing a pandemic manager.

According to a business continuity guide published last year by SPRING Singapore, an agency under the Ministry of Trade and Industry, a pandemic manager has the following responsibilities:

  • actively monitor alert levels and work with management on message to employees when activating response measures
  • educate employees on the disease and how it gets transmitted
  • collate contact information of all employees and make sure employees have contact details of pandemic manager and his or her assistant
  • ensure that the company has appointed at least one employee for the liaison with the ministry of health during activation of contact tracing processes at the workplace
  • check the ministry of health website daily for updated advisories
  • ensure that employees who traveled to affected areas are quarantined for a sufficient number of days advised by the ministry of health. Check on employees’ health by phone or email during his/her absence from work.
  • appoint staff to keep quarantined employees informed of events in office
  • ensure that the workplace has adequate supplies of tissue paper/hand towels, disinfectants, and masks
  • brief employees on personal hygiene measures
  • put up notices in washrooms on proper hand washing techniques
  • ensure common areas – pantries, washrooms, meeting rooms – are disinfected daily
  • identify a room/area in office as the isolation area for employees with fever with nearby toilet facilities designated for his/her use
  • identify the isolation route  –  not commonly used by employees/visitors  –  that leads to an area where they employees with fever can be brought to hospital
  • identify hospitals/clinics that employees with fever can be brought to
  • carry out symptom or temperature monitoring of employees when advised by the ministry of health. Ensure employees measure body temperature twice daily. Follow relevant procedures that deal with unwell staff once an employee is identified to have fever (38 degree Celsius and above)

People first

While CFOs are concerned with cash reserves given payment collection will be slower during pandemics, Liew points out that finance heads also need to remember employees’ needs at difficult times.

“Rather than moving local employees out of an affected location and away from their families, we’re further exploring how we can let them work from home and at the same time ensure efficiency,” he says.

In addition, firms need to increase transparency, communicating with employees how their policies and measures help take care of them in different situations, Liew adds.

Last but not least, Aon’s Griffiths advises firms to subject their pandemic plans to implementation tests. “A case in point is remote working,” he says. “It’s often a key strategy in a business continuity plan, but relatively few firms in Asia are experienced in managing and supporting remote workers.”

In theory, Hong Kong companies that had gone through the SARS experience in 2003 would know about remote working. But it would not hurt to refresh memories and update protocols should MERS become a more fatal version of SARS in the coming days.

About the Author

Teresa Leung is Online Editor at CFO Innovation.

Photo credit: yochika photographer/Shutterstock

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