The steps you should take to prepare for a coronavirus outbreak, according to a risk expert

There are steps you can take to prepare for a possible coronavirus outbreak.(Photo by Andrea Diodato/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
  • With more coronavirus cases now emerging outside of China than within it, we asked Alex Stitt, who served as chief actuary for both ANZ and the Commonwealth Bank, to explain what you can do to prepare for a potential outbreak.
  • Stitt said the first thing you should do is not panic.
  • He also suggested four major factors to keep in mind when preparing: know what to do, have supplies, implement good hygiene practices and be ready to do things differently if an outbreak emerges near you.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

There have so far been 23 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Australia, with 15 full recoveries and no deaths.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the coronavirus, COVID-19, is not a pandemic yet but it has the potential to become one. A pandemic is defined by the WHO as the “worldwide spread of a new disease”.

With more new cases emerging outside of China than from within it, what should you do to be prepared for a possible outbreak?

Retired actuary Alex Stitt has evaluated and managed risk for some of Australia’s largest companies, including ANZ, AMP and the Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA), where he served as chief actuary during the avian flu outbreak.

“I had to help the CBA put in place their plan for dealing with a potential pandemic,” he told Business Insider Australia.

In other words, he knows what he’s talking about when it comes to being prepared. The first step Stitt advises is not to panic – not now, or during an outbreak.

“Some sensible, easy preparation before a possible outbreak should help avoid any sense of panic,” he said.

Dr Abrar Ahmad Chughtai, a lecturer in International Health at the University of New South Wales, agrees. He told Business Insider Australia by email that while the risk of a coronavirus outbreak in Australia is low, preparation is still essential.

“At this stage risk is low but we should be highly prepared,” he said.

There are four key fronts on which individuals can prepare

According to Stitt, the four things you need to have are knowledge, supplies, hygiene and responsiveness.

“Knowledge is all about [knowing] what is happening,” he explained. This includes knowing how the virus spreads, its symptoms, how to avoid getting infected and how to care for those who are sick. Knowledge also ties into the three other factors. For instance, you need to know what supplies you need and how to exercise proper hygiene.

In terms of supplies, Stitt said the items that matter will become limited or unavailable once people start to think a pandemic might happen or is happening. So it’s good to have hygiene products like soap, hand sanitiser, disposable gloves and disinfectant with you beforehand.

It’s also important to be well-supplied in case you have to be isolated or you choose to isolate yourself.

“A lot of what the world’s doing at the moment… is they’re isolating people so that it can’t spread,” Stitt said. “What you want to do as an individual is keep yourself from getting infected by [practising] good hygiene and, if things get really bad in your locality, by isolating yourself.”

Stitt says it’s good practice to have things on hands like prescription medicines, toilet paper and easy-to-cook, long-life foods such as pasta and canned food.

“If you’re isolated, you don’t want to get to the point where you run out of food and you have to rush out in the middle of a raging pandemic going on,” he said. “You want to have some basic supplies that cover your hygiene and your basic needs like toilet paper and simple foods that you can you can cook for maybe as long as two weeks, where you don’t want to go out unless you absolutely have to.”

The next factor is hygiene. Stitt explained that for those infected, everything they touch and the space they occupy are infectious. So to be prepared, he advises washing your hands, covering your mouth and nose when sneezing or coughing and avoiding touching your eyes, nose or mouth with your hands, given it’s one of the easiest ways you can catch a virus.

For responsiveness, it’s about being ready to do things differently if an outbreak were to happen near you.

Stitt advised avoiding other people and crowded places, and sanitising your hands after touching surfaces like door handles, money and public toilet surfaces. He also suggested working from home if you can. If someone in your family gets sick with the disease, you may need to go into personal lockdown. That could mean isolating them from the rest of the family.

“Never leave them alone for long – the disease can turn nasty quickly,” Stitt said. “Record their symptoms, even if it seems trivial.”

If they get worse, seek medical attention.

What businesses should look out for

Stitt also said businesses need to be prepared for significant absenteeism, with staff likely to take more time off if they’re sick or nursing someone who else.

He also suggested businesses should be prepared to maintain staff and customer welfare, and plan whether or not to suspend their services. They should also take financial stress into account, as some businesses may not turn over as much during an outbreak.

Other possible issues include planning for post-pandemic trauma and a possible second wave of the virus.

“Many pandemics have a second – usually milder, but not always so – and even a third outbreak wave a month or more after the previous outbreak. Plan for this possibility.”

Research from Roy Morgan found around 1 in 6 Aussie businesses have already been impacted by the coronavirus. The issues it has caused include workers or students being quarantined, impact on supplies to and from China, and cancellations from customers in Asia.

Roy Morgan identified the industries that have been hit hard by the coronavirus outbreak including manufacturing, education and training and wholesale. Other industries that have been also been impacted include accommodation and food services – which includes travel and tourism – community services, administrative and support services and property.

Coles told Business Insider Australia by email its logistics has been affected by the coronavirus.

“Logistics remain challenging, especially through some major ports and, like most retailers, we have been impacted by the extension of Chinese New Year, which saw factories closed for longer than planned and delays in production due to staff requiring government permits to return to work,” a Coles spokesperson said.

The retailer also revealed it is running low on hand sanitiser and forecasts shortages in clothing, stationery and electrical goods.

Advice from the Australian Government Department of Health

The Department of Health advises that you should isolate yourself if you’re at risk of getting the coronavirus, with those most at risk being people who have left China in the last 14 days or been in close contact with a “proven case” of the coronavirus. According to the department, those at risk should isolate themselves for 14 days.

The Department added that Australia “is well prepared” when it comes to the coronavirus, adapting plans as the country learns more about the virus and how it spreads.

The government’s actions include tracing coronavirus cases, screening travellers who arrive in the country and enforcing travel restrictions to reduce the number of people travelling from mainland China.


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