Wednesday, April 1, 2020


This is the most significant crisis that this consultancy has seen in our last three decades. The surge in illness, the outbreaks legal and business ramifications are critical and undeterminable. Government and industries are desperately trying to understand the challenge, support victims and their families, and find a solution.

The problem is, the more the world enters lock-down and isolation, the harder it is to effectively confirm risk and the human and technical resources available. Most of the renowned immunologists are cautiously optimistic. Putting a time on this, however, is virtually impossible. Most businesses are investing in virtual technology, improved infrastructure and future stability of the workforce. Our virtual crisis scenario testing and training is working well as we continue face-to-face contact with crisis and incident response teams.

Prepared executive management is communicating constantly through video-conferences and regular bulletins. In fact, some businesses have set up broadcast studios in home and office to ensure that all employees are communicated with to understand the new and changing operating models. 

Harvard epidemiologist, Professor Mark Lipsitch, made the concerning point on the outbreak as it continues to spread, when he said, “I think the likely outcome is that it will ultimately not be containable”.  We are in the middle of the containment process and there are good and bad examples of this around the world. 

I see Singapore as a shining example of proactive and immediate response. Like many Australian businesses, Singapore had a plan before the virus came.  Most of Asia had plans because of their past experience with SARS and other epidemics.  In Singapore, the ABC reported that testing regimes were up and running by the time the first case was confirmed on January 23rd. “Labs were in place for our first case”, said Dale Fisher, an Australian infectious disease expert working with the Singapore Government on its strategy.  “And soon after our first case, every lab in every public hospital, was capable of doing tests,” Professor Fisher said.  “So, we ramped up very quickly.”  Within days of the first case, temperature checks were happening at Changi Airport for incoming passengers.  This is in contrast to Australia where passengers arriving recently at Sydney Airport were complaining there were still no mandatory temperature checks for incoming passengers.

A key lesson can be learnt from this crisis so far - the internationalisation of the corona-virus. What was completely unusual about this event was the fact that even though the disease had been discovered, the escalation was confusingly slow at first. Media and public opinion did not focus on the possibility of the battle to control COVID-19.  At the beginning of its spread, some containment measures were discussed in the background but the thought of widely banning travel, closing down cities and hoarding resources, was not even a consideration.

The global authorities, the World Health Organisation and the United States Centres for Disease Control, were somewhat confusing through the escalation phases. Their process lacked the recognition of the rising international threat. There was also confusion over the causes of the crisis in China. 

Another lesson was the question of leadership communication in every country.  National leaders had different approaches to the problem. Their press conferences lacked continuity of universal information. Public confidence was severely undermined. This has been particularly relevant in the US.  To quote President Trump in late March: “We’re opening up this incredible country. Because we have to do that. I would love to have it open by Easter.  I would love to have that. It’s such an important day for other reasons, but I’d love to make it an important day for this. I would love to have the country opened up, and rarin’ to go by Easter. Very little consideration of the worst-case scenario. The response from Dr. Tina Tan of the Infectious Diseases Society of America was - "This is the making of a major public health disaster. I am not sure where he is getting his information from but it is extremely flawed."

Leadership hubris has a problem of underestimation – the tendency to plan for the easiest public option – the most logical way out. A common statement of underestimation during the Second World War was “we’ll all be home for Christmas”. 

The central crisis management responses needed in this continually unfolding crisis are:

  • Determining your organisation’s preparedness.
  • Constantly work-shopping a broader set of disruptive scenarios.
  • Reviewing the human and technical resources needed to respond.
  • Become the central point of leadership communication.
  • Assessing the needs of your stakeholders: people, customers, suppliers and others.
  • Ensuring the continuity of critical processes.
  • Continually assess investment strategies.
  • Date & privacy considerations 
  • Reviewing control of supply chains.
  • Preparing ahead for recovery and growth.

In terms of crisis management for small or large businesses, it will be a case of riding out the months, and maybe years, of managing the huge number of new risks. As Dr. Edward de Bono, international author international lateral thinker, said “the key responsibility as a Risk Manager and Team Leader is the ability to generate viable risk-adverse alternatives and ways of doing business that minimise your company’s operational risk.” 

Crisis management during the COVID-19 outbreak needs a refreshed playbook because this virus is a historic challenge to contain and recover. 

Do you think you could have been more prepared?