Accounting for multiple crises: how businesses can mitigate the effects of COVID-19 and concurrent natural disasters

Published: Thursday, 07 May 2020 07:17

Although COVID-19 is, understandably, the focus for most businesses, the disruption caused by the virus will not cause the threat from other hazards, such as natural disasters, to disappear. Erika Weisbrod looks at how COVID-19 may impact the response to natural disasters and highlights some areas that organizations need to consider.

Many of the clients with whom we work have a large global footprint and have been challenged in the past to respond to multiple crises taking place at the same time around the world, including natural disasters. Our clients tend to have processes to manage this. However, given the unprecedented scale of the current COVID-19 pandemic, organizations are facing a new set of challenges. There is a risk that if resources within organizations are solely dedicated and focused on managing the response to the pandemic, they may not be able to devote the necessary consideration to what could happen if other crisis scenarios, such as a natural disaster, take place simultaneously.

It is, however, less a matter of if, than of when and where a natural disaster will take place, especially as the pandemic response and recovery will takemonths, possibly years. Recently, we have already seen the impact of natural disasters. Tropical Cyclone Harold hit the Pacific Islands in early April and we have seen a series of devastating tornados in the mid- and southern US. The annual Atlantic hurricane season also starts at the beginning of June, highlighting how pressing this issue is for companies of all sizes operating in affected areas; experts are predicting that this year’s season may be particularly bad, linking to warmer average water temperatures in the region.

While some businesses are already taking this into consideration, it is important that all organizations are prepared and have the resilience to manage natural disasters as part of their COVID-19 response. They need to ensure that they are adapting their crisis management plans and know that the partners that they will call upon have the expertise and flexibility to manage multiple crises at the same time.

What are the main pressure points to consider?

For businesses that have considered the impact of a natural disaster amidst their pandemic response, supply chains are a primary concern. Due to the virus, some organizations have experienced exceptional supply chain disruptions. This situation could dramatically worsen in the event of a natural disaster. Whether it be disruption to cargo flights during a hurricane, overland transit of goods due to flooding or evacuations caused by wildfires, there exist a multitude of situations which could possibly affect supply chains.

As a direct result of COVID-19, there is an additional concern regarding workforce welfare, with employees more dispersed than ever before. People have been forced into working at home locations, which are not factored into crisis management plans. Organizations must properly account for this exceptional situation in their planning, when it comes to knowing who might be impacted, whether and how to relocate them out of harm’s way and to safety.

How can companies alleviate and sufficiently plan for dual crises?

Be ready to adapt crisis management plans

For companies with a global presence, awareness of their current footprint is critical. The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the need for organizations to maintain full visibility of the locations in which they operate and where their mobile workforce is located. As part of their Duty of Care, organizations need to be prepared to provide employees with support tailored to all locations where they have a presence, as laws and regulations alongside healthcare systems may vary drastically from country to country, state to state and even city to city.

Conversely, organizations that already had a robust remote workforce infrastructure may be at an advantage during a natural disaster, when offices may be closed. Adjusting to a primarily remote workforce will be easier for these organizations as they already have the technology, hardware and training in place to execute this business continuity task.

Preventing potential COVID-19 exposure and spread will also require adaptations to crisis management plans. The designation of shelter-in-place locations or evacuation of employees from impacted areas will need to factor in social distancing, along with the capabilities or constraints of local emergency response and medical facilities. The usual places of shelter, such as hotels, stadiums or convention centres, may be unavailable or already in use for COVID-19 response.  Evacuations may also put increased pressure on already strained airline operations.

Assessing the impact on suppliers and partners is also critical. Some may have shut down for the pandemic, others may be entirely out of business due to financial impacts. In short, many standard tasks for businesses will simply take longer, which needs to be accounted for in management plans.

Ensure that essential supplies are maintained

Organizations should run an inventory of what they currently have on hand, determine where they are deficient, and start sourcing materials early. If supplies are not available, it may require new and creative solutions. Perfection is a myth in a crisis and organizations must work with what they can to protect people. The unpredictable nature of crises means that innovative solutions naturally become essential for businesses to cope with the new pressures.

Consider the increased emergency services requirements

COVID-19 has put an immense strain on some emergency services across the globe, and organizations need to account for this in their crisis planning. This includes ensuring that in-office medical kits are available, and identified employees are trained to provide first aid support if needed. We have recently assisted clients during the pandemic to provide necessary supplies for dealing with the pandemic, assisting evacuations and providing remote medical consultations.

Of course, prevention should also be a priority at this time: improvements to existing physical security can decrease incidents of theft or violence that tend to increase during a natural disaster. Organizations need to understand the security vulnerabilities which may arise due to concurrent COVID-19 restrictions and natural disasters.

Learn from the past

The COVID-19 pandemic is a massive challenge for the world, but there are lessons learned from previous crises that we can draw upon. The 2010 eruptions of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland taught us how to deal with significant travel disruption. And there are learnings from responses to outbreaks including, SARS, MERS, H1N1, Avian flu, Ebola and Zika. While there is no perfect roadmap to respond to our current situation, best practices of crisis management are always the first place to start.

Be flexible

Even with the best laid plans there is an element of unpredictability to every crisis and it is important to maintain an element of flexibility in your plans. At International SOS, we are constantly adapting to individual crisis situations. For example, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in September 2017, we used the air ambulances that were flown to Puerto Rico not only to evacuate people off the island, but to shuttle essential supplies to the island, since only humanitarian flights were allowed in.

We are living through unprecedented times, as many businesses could not have imagined having to account for an international lockdown at the start of 2020. Adapting to the fluidity of the current situation is essential. Companies should follow an analytical approach, updating their crisis management plans to account for the new issues caused by COVID-19 and identifying where they need support and whom they will call on. As always, those organizations that invest the time in preparing will be best positioned to manage whatever else 2020 has in store.

The author

Erika Weisbrod is Director, Security Solutions – Americas, International SOS.