Dr Adrian Hyzler
Chief Medical Officer
It’s been two years since COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and in that time, almost 465 million cases have been recorded and more than 6 million people have died, according to official totals on 17th March. It is a certainty that the true numbers are several times higher.
The development and deployment of the first mRNA COVID-19 vaccines, which were authorised for use in December 2020, were a game-changer in the fight against the virus. Beyond everyone’s wildest hopes and expectations, this remarkable scientific advance was made less than a year after the discovery of the novel pathogen.
In Europe and North America we have entered a lull period where the headlines are now dominated by war in Ukraine and COVID stories have been pushed off the front page. However, we must remain vigilant.
Most business leaders will look back in retrospect at the tremendous upheaval that has taken place over the last two years and reflect that they were vastly underprepared for the challenges of the pandemic. In fairness, so were almost all governments and organisations. Very few could pull a ‘pandemic preparedness plan’ from their emergency locker and navigate an effective path out of the disaster.
There has not been a pandemic from which to learn valuable lessons since the 1918 influenza pandemic, also called the “Spanish Flu Pandemic”, which eventually claimed between 50 and 100 million lives, representing as many as 5% of the world’s population. However, there will be no excuse in the future for businesses to be ill-prepared for a new wave of COVID-19, or indeed the next pandemic – one that will surely present sooner than we think.
So what lessons can be learnt from the pandemic that will help shape your organisation moving forward?
- Prepare policies for workplace health and safety; provide adequate facilities for hand hygiene; plan effective workplace cleaning; re-structure the workplace environment to reduce transmission areas; ventilation, air circulation and filtration are key.
- Maintain strong communication lines with the workforce in order to coordinate business plans. Facilitate confidential employee feedback regarding health and safety concerns or unsafe health practices, and consider ‘whistle-blower’ protection policies.
- Communicate with customers so they have a clear idea of the company’s direction and leadership.
- Flexibility is key. Leaders could embrace virtual offerings, new product lines and in some cases, entirely new businesses.
- Continue to evolve the virtual workspace through embracing technology and ensure that there are provisions in place in case the workplace is inaccessible, for whatever reason – we have seen that hybrid working solutions are possible in many industries and we now appreciate the challenges facing transportation and border closures.
- Encourage and facilitate the opportunity for routine annual vaccinations, for example influenza; provide clear communication regarding health and wellbeing; open communication lines to discuss individual, confidential employee concerns.
- Understand employees’ specific health and wellbeing needs. Establish policies for sick leave absences.
- Review or establish insurance coverage.
- Plan and be prepared for a future pandemic. Use business networks or other business organisations to share best practice, to learn from each other, and to engage in joint exercises. You should revisit, and retest, the plan periodically, perhaps annually, to ensure that it remains current. You should check that preparations that could go out of date, such as phone lists or arrangements for alternative chains of command are up to date.
While case numbers are down almost all over the world there are still around 50,000 reported COVID deaths every week, and there are worrying upticks being seen in scattered countries. The WHO is still struggling to get vaccines to regions that lack the infrastructure to distribute them equitably and all the while the virus continues to evolve. Another variant of concern is likely to be just around the corner and no-one can predict its properties, whether it will be more transmissible, more virulent or have the ability to evade immunity, or a combination of all three. The combination of contracting (‘waning’) immunity and an almost total relaxation of non-pharmaceutical interventions provides the perfect breeding ground for the emergence of another concerning variant before the summer months in the northern hemisphere – where it will come from no-one knows. Vigilance is key in identifying and reacting quickly and decisively to future variants.
Whether you already have a written pandemic preparedness plan or haven’t developed one yet, companies need to take action now to ensure their operations hold up against this and the next pandemic.