Respiratory diseases are not new, but the current COVID-19 outbreak is creating unprecedented concern amongst modern travellers, given the speed with which it is spreading across the world, a factor of the range and ease of modern global travel. The recent see-sawing of stock markets suggests that the virus’ long-term impact on international trade may prove to be more significant than the illness itself. All governments have imposed travel restrictions, particularly for journeys to or from China, South Korea, Iran and Italy.
At the same time, there is a growing contingent amongst business travellers arguing that the risk of infection or death is no more than ordinary flu, and that we should all continue to travel as normal. Certainly, recent MERS-COV, Influenza-A-H1N1 and SARS-COV outbreaks were all similar, but in truth the global medical community still does not have enough information to give clear direction. Frantic medical research is still ongoing, and travellers are right to be concerned.
Where does this leave decision-makers? No company wants to shut down operations if not strictly necessary, but businesses and travellers still have a duty of care to themselves, their colleagues, their employees, to help prevent sickness and the spread of the outbreak. This puts pressure on travel managers and operational risk managers to balance the commercial demands of their company with the alarming statistics that appear to be changing on an hourly basis. So, a proportionate and well-balanced response to the situation is needed. Ultimately, some travel is essential, and worth the risk, whereas some is not: the planned journeys that sit in the middle ground need judgements based on a robust decision-making process.
Risk is ultimately the product of three factors – vulnerability, threat and impact. A comprehensive processing and combination of all three factors can give a meaningful assessment of travel risk for responsible decision-makers. In the current environment this should be an invaluable product for employers that will allow them to make informed decisions about travel, insurance, medical security and evacuation planning. NGS recommends a balanced decision-making model that reinterprets these factors for the traveller in a concise, user-friendly manner. Decisions need to be balanced and based on the risks associated with each different traveller, for each specific itinerary, and considering the risk appetite for each user.
When considering COVID-19, vulnerability can be assessed by the physical profile of each individual traveller. The first consideration is the traveller’s age: although people of all ages can be infected, the WHO states that older people are more likely to become “severely ill” with the virus, an implication that younger generations have more robust immune systems. At the same time, the coronavirus is a respiratory virus, and a wider range of health issues need to be considered. A recently-published China CDC study into the epidemiological characteristics of the outbreak highlighted cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, diabetes, cancer and recent respiratory illness as factors that increase the risk of mortality amongst those who have become infected; it also highlighted that smokers are at greater risk of mortality. Travellers recording results for any of these issues will automatically be at higher risk.
Threat is dictated by each traveller’s destination. Nearly 80 countries have recorded cases of COVID-19, but these must be considered in context. Three confirmed cases in Russia represents a very different threat from 28 confirmed cases in India, where the urban population is very dense, standards of hygiene are likely to be low, and where the likelihood that the disease will spread is considerably higher. The differences between regions can vary considerably (perfectly demonstrated by China, where nearly 70,000 cases have been confirmed in Hubei province, but only 75 confirmed in Ningxia), so decision-making needs to be based on a regional (or even metropolitan) rather than a nationwide perspective. Temperature at the destination may turn out to have an effect on the spread – current thinking is that warmer temperatures will reduce the spread of the virus, but this has still not been proven. At the same time, the nature of a traveller’s visit will also have an impact on the threat level – a journalist planning to film residents across a variety of Brazilian suburbs will be at greater risk of infection than a mine site manager whose itinerary will be restricted to one location, regardless of the country.
Impact is a matter of business continuity. Ultimately, the risk to a company is not simply about whether or not an employee becomes infected, but is also about what the infection will subsequently mean for the organisation. An employee’s death from the virus that results in reputational damage may turn out to have a longer-term impact than loss of revenue caused by the cancellation of a single meeting. Therefore, the commercial importance of one particular journey, and the loss of revenue that will be incurred as a result of the failure to hold a meeting, conduct a visit or attend a conference must be the first consideration. At the same time, a company must consider the grade of the traveller, and should take into account that lower-status employees will in theory be easier to replace than higher management personnel, in terms of experience and business acumen. Once decision-makers consider business continuity, then the corporate demands for a blanket ban on international travel, or for the evacuation of entire office blocks, can be given a realistic, commercial perspective (whilst not disregarding WHO or governmental advice).
Companies need to have a clear, established decision-making process in which they can be confident, so that journeys can be managed on a case-by-case basis. Such a process is essential in the mid- to long-term, as COVID-19 will endure in some form for several months (maybe even years), and further global pandemics are likely, given the nature of modern travel. Management must take a proactive approach, and should make use of all assets available to maximise the quality of the assessment – medical team, security and risk management department, or assistance company. This approach helps managers make realistic decisions on travel that will consider the health of the employee, the continuity of the business, and ultimately ensure that responses are balanced and proportionate.
Author: James Thomson, Senior Risk Analyst
NGS is an emergency evacuation company that runs tracking, remote medical and security operations for global clients.