• The Coronavirus outbreak has caused schools to close in countries including Japan and Italy.
  • Covid-19 has spread around the globe, disrupting businesses.
  • Employers can test remote working, communicate clearly and fund the search for drugs.

Last week, my whole team had a work-from-home day. With potential disruption from the Covid-19 epidemic a real prospect, our business continuity planners had strongly encouraged every department to test its capacity to work remotely.

Just after getting home the evening before our test, I received a text message from my child’s school. “Immediate school closure: please check your email for details.” Pupils had returned to school after half term holidays in Italy, and then become unwell. It was closing as a precaution.

For me, this was going to be more than a drill.

It’s an experience that brought home very personally how far-reaching the social impact of epidemics can be. Without any coronavirus infection confirmed, several hundred families had to make sudden arrangements to look after their kids. That will have meant cancelled meetings and business trips, projects delayed, lost earnings. And our school closed for just two days in the end. Extend that across a country for weeks on end – Japan is closing its schools until April – and the societal effects become systemic.

The Coronavirus has gone global
The Coronavirus has gone global

The role of employers

The role that employers play in the response to Covid-19 is therefore critical. In my own case, I’ve been fortunate that Wellcome, the charitable foundation I work for, was already thinking about how to support employees through school closures, self-isolation or quarantine.

Covid-19 is probably going to reach every country sooner or later, and some measure of disruption is inevitable when it does. There are three important ways in which businesses and other employers can prepare and react to ensure that they mitigate the adverse impacts on their own operations and on wider society, instead of feeding them.

First, there are decisions about your own staff. If schools are closed or trains cancelled, people will have to stay at home. It pays to test home-working technology now, before it’s needed. Our trial picked up laptops without the right videoconferencing software and dodgy microphones that we can fix this week but couldn’t if everyone was stuck at home.

There are many more questions worth answering before you have to. If a school’s closed or a family is self-isolating, will you waive rules that stop parents from home-working while also looking after a child? Will you pay employees who are asked to self-isolate? They don’t technically qualify for sick pay, and it obviously affects the bottom line. But the cost to your business (never mind society) of an infectious person showing up at work could easily prove to be much, much higher. Under what circumstances might you ask parents to self-isolate if their children’s schools close? What are you going to do about roles that can’t be performed from home? Employees need to know where they stand before the virus is at the doorstep.

Secondly, the communications that employers deliver to their staff will be among the most important information they get about this epidemic. The Edelman Trust Barometer has repeatedly found that a person’s own employer is the most trusted of all social messengers – beating business in general, government, media and NGOs by 20-point margins. When the boss speaks, people listen – and the tone, accuracy and relevance of employers’ advice can make all the difference between calm and panic.

Employers should be thinking now about how they’re going to pass on vetted messages from the World Health Organization, the US Centers for Disease Control, or Public Health England – and shouldn’t try to second-guess or exceed them. To make this easier, Wellcome, Edelman, the World Economic Forum, and others, in partnership with WHO are building a platform that would feed accurate, timely Covid-19 information to employers that they can then disseminate on their intranets. If your company is interested in joining us, we would be delighted to hear from you.

Finally, the biggest employers have a further part to play. Global epidemic preparedness and response is underfunded. While the rich world can afford Covid-19 interventions, the global spread of the virus in less than three months has demonstrated how international health is as strong as the weakest and poorest health system. There are no drugs or vaccines against Covid-19, and research to deliver them requires funding too. Sizeable financial contributions are needed from high-income governments, from philanthropy and from global financial institutions like the World Bank, but also from business.

Far-sighted companies should see this as a shrewd investment. The tens of billions of dollars the world needs to respond to Covid-19 are nothing compared to the trillions wiped from stock exchanges last week. Customers and employees increasingly expect businesses to play a fuller part in supporting global public goods, and to look beyond the interests of shareholders alone, but there’s no need to invoke concepts of social purpose or stakeholder capitalism here. This crisis is a threat to shareholders, no less than it is to wider society.