• With postal services now 'critical infrastructure', most countries are now trying to ensure continued deliveries.

• Most postal services are introducing special sanitary measures; France and Spain are among the countries scaling back services.

• The increase in online shopping is putting extra strain on networks.

With COVID-19 shutting down workplaces and putting entire business sectors into stand-by, governments across the world are straining to keep trade flowing and economies on their feet. The transition to remote working has been rapid, but digital communications can only go so far. The exchange of physical goods is still needed – which is why national postal services suddenly find themselves on the list of “critical infrastructure”.

Here are five key questions about the practicalities and risks of using the mail with the coronavirus still circulating.

Is it still possible to send and receive post?

Most countries are prioritizing keeping postal services up and running during the crisis – though not all at full capacity. The UK, Germany, Australia and the US have for the moment committed to maintaining normal operations, but other countries are scaling back in order to protect postal workers and the populace at large.

In France, only around 1 in 10 branches of La Poste are still functioning, and deliveries have been reduced to three days a week; Spain has scaled back over-the-counter services to mornings only Monday to Friday, with minimal staffing; Italy, which is currently business as usual, is under pressure from the postal unions to cut back. Uruguay’s Correo Uruguayo has also shut branches with high customer footfall.

Can I catch COVID-19 from my mail?

Official guidelines state the risk is low. "In general, because of poor survivability of these coronaviruses on surfaces, there is likely very low risk of spread from products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient temperatures," the Centres for Disease Control have said.

The World Health Organization comes to the same conclusion: "The likelihood of an infected person contaminating commercial goods is low and the risk of catching the virus that causes COVID-19 from a package that has been moved, travelled and exposed to different conditions and temperature is also low.”

A New England Journal of Medicine paper estimates that the survival time on cardboard for SARS-CoV-2, the virus pathogen, may be up to 24 hours – so you might consider handling letters and envelopes with gloves. Routine hand-washing with soap after handling seems like the best option. Certain postal organizations and delivery companies are taking precautions to reduce the risk of transmission during handover. The German, Dutch and Australian postal services, as well as UPS, are waiving the requirement for signatures on receipt of parcels and registered mail.

How are postal services protecting workers?

News that 40 US Postal Service (USPS) employees have already tested positive for COVID-19 highlighted concerns for workers either obliged to be in daily contact with customers, or potentially handling hundreds of items a day. The USPS has negotiated special terms with labour unions, which include special leave for those vulnerable to the virus, or caring for those with it.

The Universal Postal Union has said that member organizations worldwide have been putting in place standard hygiene procedures to reduce workplace exposure: “[Postal organizations] have informed the Universal Postal Union of a number of changes to their operations that follow the guidelines of the World Health Organization and the medical advice of individual countries. All Posts emphasize fundamental hygiene procedures to be followed including handwashing, sneezing and coughing into the elbow and social distancing.”

China Post went as far disinfecting entire post offices, processing centres and vehicles; the Italy unions have called for similar measures across the country’s networks. Amid criticism that the USPS has been slow to give access workers to supplies like hand sanitizer, it has promised to make surgical masks and gloves available on demand.

How are strained postal services coping with the increase in online shopping?

Online shopping is reportedly reaching “Christmas-time volume” in some locations – leading to an increase in delivery times. Amazon Prime has been forced to reduce its two-day dispatch pledge to one-month for non-essential items. Such delays will obviously be exacerbated in countries with reduced postal services. Elsewhere, UK postal workers, according to the Guardian, have called on both e-commerce companies and the Royal Mail to limit non-essential items they are asked to deliver; Amazon has claimed that it is already prioritizing the dispatch of items such as food and healthcare. For those with the financial means, private parcel companies like Fedex and UPS are still functioning worldwide and could help ease the load on national post networks.

The USPS is hiring up to 1,000 entry-level workers in the Bay Area to respond to the increased demand for package delivery. But paradoxically, Politico reports an overall falloff in mail volume that could threaten the USPS’s financial survival beyond the summer – something that would have serious repercussions for postal voting in the November presidential election.

Have international deliveries been affected?

With a lengthening list of border closures and the disruption to air routes worldwide, mail delivery between countries is inevitably suffering. Most postal services are warning of greater delays where routes are still operational; in many instances, where no airplanes are available, delivery is no longer possible for the time being. The widespread closure of parcel collect points in commercial premises in countries like France and Germany has furthered reduced sending options, though home-address delivery may still be possible in those circumstances.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

A new strain of Coronavirus, COVID 19, is spreading around the world, causing deaths and major disruption to the global economy.

Responding to this crisis requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

The Forum has created the COVID Action Platform, a global platform to convene the business community for collective action, protect people’s livelihoods and facilitate business continuity, and mobilize support for the COVID-19 response. The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

Individual countries are placing their own strictures on inbound mail, such as Thailand, which is disinfecting every parcel arriving from overseas. With such a complex patchwork of measures, it is advised to check with your respective postal organization before sending a letter or parcel.