Crisis management expert shares business advice during COVID-19
Now is not the time for half measures.
Suzanne Bernier, an internationally recognized crisis expert, is calling for businesses to be more proactive in combating the spread of COVID-19. To “flatten the curve” and prevent health-care systems from being overloaded with new cases, she says, non-essential service providers should take immediate measures to protect their employees.
“It is going to get a lot worse before it gets better,” says Bernier, who has more than 20 years’ experience helping governments, communities and organizations plan and respond to disasters. “Based on historical evidence of previous pandemics, there will always be additional waves. So I’m trying to advise people ahead of time, just to communicate.”
For essential service workers, Bernier says it is critical for employers to encourage employees to take all health and hygiene measures seriously; e.g. wash your hands thoroughly for 20 seconds with soap and water, practice social distancing of at least 6 ft away from each other and, if you are sick, stay home and monitor your symptoms. These measures are simple but it will save lives, she says.
Bernier is president of SB Crisis Consulting. She has been involved in helping communities respond to, rebuild after and recover from major crises, including the 9/11 terror attacks, Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Sandy, the H1N1 pandemic and 1998’s Eastern Canadian Ice Storm.
In 2016, she was named Continuity & Resilience Consultant of the Year at North America’s Business Continuity Institute and was a guest speaker at The White House during FEMA’s Individual and Community Preparedness Awards ceremony.
In between fielding calls from organizations and media outlets, Bernier sat down with me to share her views on what companies need to do to manage risks in spreading the virus.
Jean Ko Din: Have you had an influx of calls lately? What are the questions companies and organizations are asking you right now?
Suzanne Bernier: It’s clear a lot of governments, organizations and businesses were not well-equipped ahead of time to be able to pull out plans when we first saw the novel coronavirus appear in China. We’re going to see those numbers increase a lot. In the meantime, we’re seeing every industry, as you can tell—I mean every hour, there’s a new story or a newscast of different industries—everybody’s going to be impacted.
So that’s what I find myself in the middle of, just fielding calls and trying to answer people’s concerns. I’m not really running a business right now. What I’m doing is trying to be able to share with Canada, North America and the world what we’ve learned from SARS and other pandemics, what to expect, what to plan for and what’s coming next.
JKD: Given your breadth of expertise, do you think the global response to COVID-19 is completely different? What are the lessons we’ve learned from past epidemics that are applicable to our current situation? What is not?
SB: We’re seeing now COVID-19 is a lot more serious than SARS was. Now, SARS was very serious in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), we had 44 deaths in our community alone, but I can tell you from what we’re seeing, the rapid spread of this coronavirus is much more concerning.
Now, a lot of the lessons we learned from SARS, yes, are applicable and are being implemented now; but we also, after SARS, started looking at working on a plan, at least in Ontario, on what would happen if and when we saw a much larger pandemic scenario, which we all knew would happen eventually. We just didn’t know when.
So there are some great guidelines, plans and guidance that have been developed throughout the years and shared with governments and organizations. However, what also happened is, in 2009, we did have a global pandemic with H1N1. However, it was a very mild pandemic. We didn’t see much spread. We didn’t see as much severe illness and as many deaths from it.
Because of that, a lot of governments and organizations kind of thought, “Oh, well, if this is the global pandemic we were planning for, we got through that okay.” And then a lot of companies and businesses kind of shelved their plans after, thinking, “that wasn’t so bad.”
But we’ve been warning people there could very well be, in our lifetime, a major-scale pandemic. That is what we’re in the middle of now. And we are in reactive mode, as opposed to mitigation and proactive mode, because all of us have waited a bit too long to implement some serious measures that should’ve been implemented a couple of weeks ago.
JKD: How important is it for companies to be agile? How should they be fielding questions their employees and customers have?
SB: I’d say that they have now access to pretty much every major authority, from the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) to the Canadian government to provincial health authorities to local health authorities. They have great resources online to access.
First of all, tell your employees, “Here, print out this self-assessment sheet. If you feel any of these symptoms, don’t come to work.” And I’m talking about essential workers, because I believe seriously at this moment in time, we have to be serious about this. We have to shut down any non-critical, essential services before this spreads further.
And I’m going to caution people now because it’s going to happen. I’m not trying to scare people. I’m just trying to be a realist. Based on evidence, SARS or H1N1 wasn’t nearly as rampant or deadly as this virus.
You’re going to see people refuse to come to work because of their safety. If you allow people to come in to work environments, you are definitely going to see cases at work of people having the virus. And so you have to think about how you are going to handle that.
If somebody comes in and five days later they’ve been diagnosed with the coronavirus, what are you going to do? What decisions are you going to make to ensure you demand any employees who have encountered that employee must stay home, isolated, for at least 14 days? That message has to be drilled into people now. The spread is going to continue to rise until it falls.
I do believe we are going to see more orders coming into play over the next several days and weeks, as we see how different communities are impacted. Businesses need to start really thinking about that.
JKD: Do you have any advice for those essential workers who are nervous because they feel more exposed and have to come in to work, like post office workers, police officers, firefighters, emergency responders, etc.?
SB: You’re going to see a reduced staffing level for even those who maintain critical functions, to try to prevent a large number of people working on things at the same time—people staggering hours of operation, coming in at different times, to try to avoid spreading the virus, if somebody does fall ill. Social distancing is huge, remaining six feet away from other people.
It’s really going to come down to what the government says is critical. And of course, those people are needed. And they are needed to stay healthy. So, the best way we can keep them healthy is to encourage any non-essential workers to not be out there, potentially spreading the virus to essential workers.
JKD: For those in non-essential sectors who are hesitant in slowing down production and shutting down their facilities, what do you say?
SB: There are a lot of businesses in this world that are thinking the same thing, don’t want to do that and have very legitimate, valid reasons why they shouldn’t, in any normal situation or in a smaller pandemic situation, but right now, people should be thinking about how to be able to curb the spread within their own organizations.
JKD: Is there anything else businesses need to know?
SB: Be prepared for an order to potentially be like Italy or Spain, for citizens to be sheltered in place.
Hopefully, we don’t get to that, but the only way we’re not is if we do, right now, what we’re being ordered to do and everybody takes it seriously. I don’t normally sound this dire, but it’s just really important to get this message out to people now before it’s too late.
Encourage every single person to wash their hands regularly, especially if they’re out in public and they’ve touched anything whatsoever. Even if they’ve not, as soon as they come back into their home or even if they’re out and they have access to water, they should wash thoroughly with soap for 20 seconds and, of course, all other hygiene things like cover their coughs.
The second message is monitor symptoms. If you’re sick, stay at home. I would say if you’re not essential, stay at home throughout this heightened pandemic period.
And the third message is social distancing, where if you have to absolutely be in public, make sure you stay at least six feet away from everybody else around you.
If we can follow those three things well, then we can maybe help prevent the additional spread we’ve seen in other countries. There’s no guarantee right now, but what we can do is all try and support each other. And it’s not about business and keeping on. It’s about saving lives and making sure employees are safe.