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Business Unusual

What your business can do to deal with a potentially unusual 2020 flu season

4 March 2020 7:15 PM

It is an issue every year, but with Covid-19 still spreading, this flu season will be an unusual one.

The information provided below applies to every flu season. However, the expectation that the 2020 flu season in South Africa could be drastically worse as a consequence of the Covid-19 outbreak makes it even more relevant this year.

South Africa has and continues to deal with significant challenges to public health. HIV infections and management, as well as high incidences of TB - compounded by many reliant on stretched public health facilities - is both a cause for concern and an indicator of the resilience of the SA health care industry.

While the new form of coronavirus will surely test South Africa’s ability to manage the outbreak, it will not be because of complacency. Follow the updates from the South African National Insitute for Communicable diseases

However, there are steps that employers and employees can take to mitigate the risk and the burden on health services for this winter.

Some common but important questions to know about Covid-19 from WHO

For Employers

This is not a comprehensive list of risk factors for Covid-19 but rather some best practice considerations for how to manage the traditional flu season with some specific extra steps to counter a potential outbreak.

  1. Encourage and ideally pay for staff to get the flu vaccination

  2. Discuss and implement a policy to have staff stay home if potentially infected

  3. Arrange for a panel of doctors to test and book staff off rather than relying on a two-day absence before requiring a medical certificate

  4. Explore options for temporary staff to cover critical areas or nominate staff than can shift roles should a critical staff member be off

  5. Ensure adequate access to hand washing options and surface disinfection to areas where staff congregate.

  6. Consider the risk of staff travelling long distances using public transport. Minibus taxis are especially at a greater risk given the extended time passengers will share a confined space

  7. Where possible, look to have staff work remotely even if for part of the week

  8. If staff need to travel; consider the implication for where they will be travelling to and the potential risk on their return

  9. If handling products that ship from countries or regions that have been negatively affected consider additional safety procedures

  10. Prioritise the protection of those at higher risk

Some common but important questions to know about Covid-19 from WHO

For the employee

1. Don’t be a hero by coming to work when you are ill

  1. Discuss the options for getting the flu vaccine this year

  2. Be mindful of how to respond to staff that report to you and their health status

  3. Enquire about your employer’s plans for dealing with the flu season and if any additional measures are considered for this season

  4. Consider what you'll do if your children’s school closes

  5. Consider what you'll do should a family member become ill and need constant support

  6. Consider holiday travel plans for potential disruption

  7. Ensure you and your family are aware of best practice to reduce viral spread

  8. Consider the impact of income loss that may result from a disruption to your shifts or ability to work

  9. Don’t abuse the situation for a short-term benefit

Some common but important questions to know about Covid-19 from WHO

The usual impact of absenteeism

According to Andrew Levy, Senior Partner of Andrew Levy Employment, South Africa has higher levels of absenteeism than can be attributed to illness.

Levy says that more days are lost to claimed illness than strikes and that it is particularly bad in the public sector while still being of concern in the private sector. The issue is not to deny staff a reasonable and legally determined amount of time to recover from illness but rather to change the view that it is part of your leave and that not using the minimum allowed 30 days in three years would be like not using all your annual leave.

While there are measures to reduce its abuse; the starting point should be staff and employers having a clear understanding of what constitutes an illness that warrants taking sick leave. In some cases employers compel workers to work who should be given time off while in other cases, staff abuse the system.

It may be that 2020 will be a particularly challenging flu season, having unreasonable employers or staff looking to abuse the system speaks to a larger issue than the public health question this poses.

The opportunity from crisis

While this is a human tragedy playing out globally with a fair measure of fear and anxiety there may be some shifts in behaviour that result as a consequence that could benefit some companies and industries more than others.

This is a good illustration of how globalised the world has become. Manufacturers may start reconsidering the wisdom of highly concentrated production centres.

During the last major outbreak with Sars in 2003 e-commerce companies especially in China reported a boost as citizens opted to avoid visiting brick and mortar stores in favour of online purchases.

The same shift is likely at play again, but now rather than relying on humans for the deliveries, the shift is to autonomous deliveries from drones to self-driving vehicles and self-operated collection points. The technology was progressing any way but this may accelerate both its adoption by users and readiness to provide permission for more extensive testing by authorities.

Another slow change that may accelerate as a consequence of the outbreak is the move to cashless and contactless payments. The fear has been that currency may provide a transmission method for viruses and bacteria. Pathogens can be carried on notes and coins but, generally, the ones that result in harmful infections don't remain active for very long. Still, even within only a day or just hours, a note may change hands many times. Chinese and British authorities have encouraged organisations that deal with large volumes of cash to disinfect it before redistributing it back into the public.

There is also a very distinct opportunity to improve global co-operation and to field test best practices, noting the adjustments that are needed from region to region. The spend on lab testing is likely to provide a boost to further research to improve the testing speed and efficacy. CT scans appear to be a fast and reliable way to determine if someone is infected, but the machines are very expensive. Additional demand might see the costs come down even though there may still be a shortage of trained staff to operate it. This may be an area where machine learning could offer a solution and benefit from the much bigger set of training data to refine the ability to identify the infection allowing for more junior operators to work as effectively as more experienced ones.

Health departments, the private sector and the public, in general, may see a long-term benefit if the mortality rates can be kept as low as possible. A better understanding of public hygiene and managing infections in growing urban environments will allow outbreaks to have less of a severe impact. The BBC considered the lessons learnt for the Spanish flu a century ago.

We have better access to updated and reliable information despite the potential for misinformation. The World Health Organisation is posting updates daily and data scientists are able to present huge datasets in a way that is easier to read and understand.

Finally, this may get those who hold negative views about the value and need for vaccinations to understand what the impact is when we don't take the precautions available. It is not about the rights of the individual being infringed; it is the rights of the groups and especially those that are most vulnerable being put at unnecessary risk by a misinformed view of when and how vaccines should be used.

4 March 2020 7:15 PM


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