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My old colleague from Hoechst (now Sanofi), Sultan Ahmed, who is now living in the US, urged me to write something about Corona Virus. My first response was that, isn’t too much being said already? On Monday, we had a meeting in our office on this subject. We wanted to initiate the process of handling it in our organization. There is some very pertinent literature also coming in from thought leaders such as McKinsey and Harvard, which set me to thinking that it is high time to focus on this subject. Thank you, Sultan for directing.
Governments all over are taking measures according to their wisdom and resources. However, government measures provide an overall cover while every organization must design strategies and measures according to its own specific circumstances.
We must understand two basic facts about COVID19.
One, the pandemic, as declared by WHO, is spreading relentlessly and not-so-predictably among geographies, ethnicities and population groups. There are generalities about it, but still many questions are unanswered. The only thing which is clear is that it is sprouting everywhere. Some patterns have been detected but surprises also keep coming. There is a hope about vaccine to stop spread, but its availability time and scale is yet to be declared. Whatever the scale, there is no hope that the entire population will be vaccinated. There is also an assumption that the virus shall die as the temperatures rise, but this is also to be proven in the real world. When COVID19 will be finally contained is the most burning question with no definite answer. All in all, the entire COVID19 affair is an affair of uncertainty. No matter what we do, we are unable to formulate specific plans against it.
Two, even when the pandemic is controlled in the near future, its implications and aftershocks will be huge, variable, yet undefined, and much less understood. We can foresee certain things but those may not be enough to design a strategy for future. This part is even more scary in complexity, enormity and magnitude.
Four things are immediately visible.
- Low Morale – the whole world is experiencing low morale due to uncertainty. In a country like Pakistan, where we are used to shaking hands and hugging frequently to show affection and respect, people are still confused if they should take the hand offered by the other? Or be rude and refuse? In Arab culture, where touching faces is most common way of greeting, a similar dilemma would be coming. When we are faced with a faceless enemy whom we cannot fight with conventional ways, we oscillate between false courage and total submission to fate. The resulting tactics are painfully funny and morbidly absurd. The effect on the morale of work force is visible. A sneeze here and a cough there, raises alarm beyond reason. Too much time is being wasted on COVID19 discussion based on hearsay and WhatsApp forwards. The productivity has gone down and shall go down further. This is for the present; the effect will keep haunting long into future.
- Financial Hit – Trillions of dollars must have been wiped by now due to closures, travel restrictions, entire industries such as airlines, hotels, restaurants, amusement parks, entertainment, at risk of going out of business, stoppage of productions, restrictions on logistics and so on. While income is going down steeply every minute, the expense to enforce restrictions, taking care of patients and containing the disease spread is going up rapidly. The proverbial candle is fast burning at both ends. In today’s world, where money is only in figures, never in physical terms, this hit is too hard to sustain without convulsing. That convulsion, likened to whiplash injury, shall shake and convulse the whole financial spine of the world economy. Individually, all businesses are already feeling the heat of low revenues, while expenses may be same or more. No one knows when and how this gap will be bridged.
- Opportunity Loss – most, if not all, expansion projects have been put on hold. The holdup of today is indefinite. Read it along with the two factors above and you will realize it will take time and courage to get back on expansion track. Growth plans have been hampered, forecasts will be difficult to meet, if met at all. Pharma industry in Pakistan is unevenly and unfairly distributed; top 50 companies have over 90% business and the other 600 companies are scavenging only 10% market. The industry leaders shall still try to meet their aggressive business targets. They will raise the bar further in seeking customer appeasement, service and delight. As a result, the smaller companies will find it much harder to get business. The rich may not get richer, but the poor shall certainly get poorer. The market shall get even more uneven. The opportunity loss comes in several ways. Expansion projects hold up shall reduce the opportunities for new jobs and people growth. It will also come from loss of expected, projected revenue and the subsequent cut on plans. Opportunity loss will come when entrepreneurs find their current business too risky, abandon it and try to move in a new direction. Opportunity loss shall also come because corporate funding shall not be available after such massive bleeding.
- Social Unrest – the social unrest is bound to come everywhere, rich and poor countries alike. It may demonstrate itself in general public unhappiness, strikes, demonstrations, riots and demands for compensation. Such demands are mostly met by refusal and suppression through brutal use of force, leading to more unrest. Social unrest shall also exhibit itself in increased robberies, break-ins, gun-point holdups, more people indulging in illegal trades, more human displacement both voluntary and involuntary, and an overall law and order situation. The weaker and marginalized segments will be hit harder. Charities may see serious reduction in donations and so on.
We have set up the scenario to have a very basic understanding of things as they are, and also of the things to come. Next we shall discuss what the managers should do for now and future.