The word ‘epidemic’ is getting thrown around a lot these days with the novel coronavirus impacting people in 25 countries as of February 13, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The latest outbreak is far from the first illness that’s spread its microbes around the globe, though certain conditions in today’s modern world make it a particularly acute threat.
“In the world in which we live, widespread commercial air travel and extensive international shipping of food creates transmission opportunities and provides the means for the rapid spread of contamination and infection relative to a flu pandemic,” said Paul White (pictured above), partner at Wilson Elser. “That is why when something like the coronavirus emerges, you see world organizations and governments go into action immediately because of the recognition that the impact could affect the whole world in a matter of days.”
WHO has reported that around 47,000 cases of the novel coronavirus have now been confirmed. By comparison, the SARS epidemic affected 26 countries and resulted in more than 8,000 cases in 2003, though neither of these comes close to the Spanish flu from 1918.
Read more: Could pandemic risk impact your business?
“The Spanish Flu in 1918 killed [around] 40 million people and the global population was at that time 1.75 billion…the Spanish flu exhibited greater lethality for people in the age range of 25 to 45, which is contrary to most flus that leave the very young and the very old vulnerable,” explained White. “The Spanish flu is an example of the world being unprepared for a virus that…was of biblical proportions. This is like the plague coming in and wiping out 40 million people, so from our modern history, the Spanish flu is the bedrock for people looking at [the coronavirus] and saying, ‘you know what, there’s a reason to be scared.’”
When transmission of a virus goes from animal-to-human – already a highly pathological spread that experts get very concerned about – and becomes spreadable via human-to-human contact, it becomes even more problematic. While experts work on, knock on wood, coming up with a vaccination to treat the virus, says White, “it’s concerning [because] the numbers keep changing.” And if SARS taught us anything, it’s that the impact to the global economy from an outbreak of this scale could be significant.
“I think that you’re going to start to see a lot more concern, not only from the Chinese central government, but larger employers here in the US starting to be affected by the outbreak and the situation,” said John Meder (pictured below), EVP and head of risk advisory for USI Insurance Services. “If you go back and you look at SARS, and the impact that it had on the Chinese economy back in 2003, you’ll see that there are going to be similar effects that you can measure to the coronavirus.”
Nonetheless, much of what ends up happening depends on how severe the coronavirus becomes, and how the outbreak moves throughout other parts of China as well as the US.
“Right now, it still remains a fairly low risk to individuals here in the US, but to the businesses, particularly those that are dependent on or have supply chain issues in China, they are going to start to see the biggest impact. We’re starting to spend a lot of time with those employers to properly prepare the business and properly prepare their employees,” explained Meder.
In fact, he’s already spent a lot of time on the phone with employers who are trying to extract employees from China, but cannot get them out. One business is located about 150 miles from the center of the epidemic in Wuhan and cannot get an emergency medical evacuation because, from an insurance standpoint, the individual has to physically have the coronavirus in order to be evacuated.
Looking at risk management during this point in the outbreak more broadly, USI has prepared checklists for its clients to help them think through the process of protecting the business and planning for the impact on employees. These check-list items include identifying at least one individual or a team of individuals within the company that will be responsible for carrying out emergency plans.