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Applying Learning from the SARS Epidemic to COVID-19
by Collective 54

“This too shall pass.”

This general sentiment is often expressed in literature throughout history and across cultures, although the specific phrase seems to have originated in the writings of medieval Persia.

Perhaps now is the time reflect on history with a hint of optimism as humanity has faced far worse social and economic hardships than COVID-19 – survived and ultimately prospered.

Many social, economic, and medical comparisons have been drawn between COVID-19 and SARS. Yet how many of these questions can you correctly answer?

  • What was SARS?
  • What year did the SARS breakout globally?
  • What was the social distance for SARS?
  • How many people worldwide became sick and died from SARS?

We share three encouraging articles to help us get through this global crisis with a more positive mindset.

Harvard Magazine – April 2007

In a matter of months in early 2003, severe acute respiratory syndrome spread to 29 countries, killing nearly 10 percent of the people it infected.

No drug could stop SARS, and the disease propagated wildly through the ranks of healthcare workers. One patient, a “super-spreader,” infected 143 people, including every one of the 50 doctors and nurses who treated him. Eerie scenes of Chinese cities being disinfected by spray trucks and Canadian doctors in full biological containment gear flashed on television screens around the world.

At the height of the epidemic, one Canadian infectious-disease expert who had come down with SARS herself predicted that the virus would spread around the globe: “If we don’t have a vaccine—yes, we are all going to get it,” she told Canadian television. Her opinion was shared by many that spring. With symptoms resembling those of a common cold or garden-variety flu, SARS frequently escaped diagnosis, aiding its spread. And once the symptoms did become known to the public, every cough in a subway or a plane was suspect. Then SARS became a super-spreader of another sort, a scourge of national economies: it became a carrier of fear itself, with costs measured in billions of dollars.

Ironically, in this age of high-tech medicine, the virus was eventually brought under control by public-health measures typically associated with the nineteenth century—isolation of SARS patients themselves and quarantine of all their known and suspected contacts—rather than a vaccine. But it was tools of the modern era, including high-speed communications and sophisticated computer modeling, that allowed epidemiologists at Harvard and in the United Kingdom to initially determine that such an approach could work at all.

Science Direct - October 2008

As several years have now passed, it is possible to interrogate national statistics that have become available since the outbreak to provide a more accurate estimate of the actual macro-economic impact of SARS. National statistics were examined for anomalies that corresponded to the timing of the SARS outbreak and, where possible, the size of any gain or loss found estimated.

Estimates and models produced at the time of the outbreak suggested that SARS could have a catastrophic effect on the global economy. Our analysis suggests that the scale of the SARS impact on affected economies was far smaller than suggested by contemporary media reports and model estimates.

This exercise holds important lessons for estimating the economic impact of future outbreaks – such as pandemic influenza – and measures to control or prevent them. We suggest that further work is needed to develop a more comprehensive macro-economic model able to more accurately estimate the relative cost and effect of a global response to outbreaks of international concern.

Forbes – February 2020

We are watching a health crisis unfold in China, with implications for the rest of the world as well. Though we need to respond to this challenge first in human terms, to help those afflicted and to save as many lives as possible, we should also evaluate the economic and commercial dimension of the crisis.

In some ways this crisis is similar to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic of 2003, which also saw a disruption to travel, work and the economy. As with SARS, the coronavirus epidemic can take several months to crest. Initially, the Chinese institutions were playing catch-up, but over time they came to terms with the challenge. The Chinese government has an unparalleled ability to marshal resources, and Chinese culture prizes stoicism and the ability to work through hardships.

Location-dependent businesses are most at risk. Disneyland has shut its Shanghai and Hong Kong parks. McDonald’s and Starbucks have closed doors across China. People still need to eat and learn, so neighborhoods have organized food shopping self-help groups and Alibaba has made its communication app DingTalk available for online courses.

In the same vein, travel and tourism have taken a big hit. Airline stocks are down and hotels are suffering.

But overall, the Chinese economy has shown resilience. Oxford Economics is predicting a 0.6-percentage-point drop in China’s GDP this year to 5.4%. As China began the year looking at 6% growth, the drop would be painful but manageable.

Do’s and don’ts for companies:

  • Do make sure your team is safe. Remember the human factor. Be flexible on working from home. Avoid unnecessary travel.
  • Do increase your internal communications. Managers should check in with every employee and make sure their family situation is okay. Do they need food or other supplies? Do they have to take care of a relative? A little support goes a long way in a difficult moment.
  • Don’t take any steps that might contribute to a sense of panic, even inadvertently. You might need to postpone some plans, but be thoughtful about how you announce it.
  • Don’t push coronavirus messaging in your marketing. You want to avoid being seen as trying to take advantage of a bad situation. Focus on philanthropic initiatives.
  • Regarding business decision-making, remember the fundamental truths: The economy is still the economy. Consumers are still purchasing, though we can expect they might defer discretionary purchases.
In this sense, the business impact of the coronavirus might be a bit like the bush fires in Australia: painful, and even deadly, if you are caught in the middle of it; harmful to the economy and disruptive to travel and everyday life. But after several months of hard work, the crisis slowly comes under control

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