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Managing an Organization’s Response in Times of a Pandemic

Employees are the backbone of any organization. So, instituting remote work procedures is the safest bid in today’s time.

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The world is in a state of global lockdown. While the world is on pause, organizations globally are working through how to respond to the threat posed by the recent coronavirus outbreak. One of the most difficult decisions for organizations is whether to continue their regular operations — putting employees at risk of infection in the workplace, and potentially spreading the disease in local communities — or whether to participate in the lockdown, moving whatever is possible to the virtual world but forgoing significant business opportunities and incurring potentially drastic losses.

Employees are the backbone of any organization. So, instituting remote work procedures is the safest bid in today’s time. In-person meetings and events are a critical part of an organization’s activities and an important part of the value it offers. In times of social distancing and self-isolation to curb the spread, organizations have actively allowed work-from-home in response to maintain the safety of their employees without hampering the output. However, one of the greatest challenges is to balance an organization’s economic apprehensions with the question of what is ethically the best course of action.

Some may argue that it depends on person-to-person how much risk they are willing to take. But being infected affects not only oneself but also compromises others, as an infected person can spread the disease and expose his or her community to the extensive risks involved, which may include premature death. There is, therefore, a critical ethical element to the public health safeguards that individuals and organizations take. To put it in the economists’ words, this public health facet of contagious diseases is an externality — an effect on everybody that an individual or organization that only cares about their own welfare is likely to ignore. When a person spreads the disease it does not levy any cost on them but costs the freshly infected extremely. Actually, the externalities of infectious diseases are of two types: healthy people not taking adequate preventive measures to avoid becoming infected and exposed people not taking ample precaution to circumvent spreading the disease. 

Others are of the view that the disease seems unstoppable as it has spread around the world like wildfire in a matter of weeks and therefore there is no point in trying to prevent the unpreventable and go to such extreme lengths and incur enormous economic brunt. Nevertheless, that squabble neglects all the lives at risk and the magnitude to which an unrestrained outbreak risks overwhelming medical resources and aggravating the eventual death toll.

What pumps up the challenge as to how to respond is the vastly disproportionate impact of the disease on different individuals. The geriatric population and those with pre-existing conditions are at much bigger risk of death from COVID-19 than others. For instance, considering all the risk factors, a male in his 70s with a heart condition who contracts the virus has a possibility of death that is considerably higher — perhaps in excess of 25 percent. 

The regions that have dealt with massive outbreaks of COVID-19 in recent weeks, especially Wuhan, offer two learnings. First, fatalism has no place in epidemiology. The segment of the population that is eventually infected by an epidemic is in fact quite reactive to mitigation efforts. Wuhan has been able to mitigate the virus by imposing strict quarantine actions on its citizens. Second, due to the exponential nature of the spread, a frenzied epidemic risks crushing a country’s health care infrastructure. Approximately 15–20 percent of the identified cases need hospital care. Even in the U.S., an uncontrolled outbreak has fatigued the capacity of existing ICUs. This has led to a significant rise in the fatality rate of the virus because sick patients can no longer be adequately treated. It is crucial to try to decelerate the spread to keep the number of patients at any given time more controllable. And, social distancing is the only way to go.

Organizations need to determine the restrictions they need to impose on the organization’s travel policies and prioritize the switch to video conferencing. With the current pandemic situation, all the in-person meetings and events at the organization need to be stopped immediately, and the stakeholders should be prepared for these potential changes. Members of the organization should be made aware of the externalities that they impose on others, both if they are still healthy and in case they have become exposed to the disease. 

The epidemiological actualities of the disease have severe insinuations for organizations. Current swift and smart decisions will define the way that stakeholders will work and interact with each other in the coming days, and these actions willdetermine the economic damages companies will bear. Also, as much as the virus will shake organizations, those organizations’ response to it will have a decisive effect on how quickly and how widely COVID-19 will spread in their communities, and how many lives will be lost to the disease. This poses a critical moral factor to the trade-off. Matching the economic altercation with this ethical aspect may be the most noteworthy leadership challenge of all time.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


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Professor Anton Korinek

Professor, Darden School of Business, University of Virginia

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