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  • Writer's pictureAlistair Nicholas

Of zombie apocalypses and coronaviruses: crisis management 101 for a new age

I lived in China with my young family when the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (or SARS) hit in late 2002 and early 2003. There I was with my wife and daughters aged 12, 7 and 5. When other laowai (foreigners) started bailing out and heading home to the US, Europe and Australia, we were among the few who elected to stay on. At the time I ran the Beijing office of American PR firm Edelman and I decided it would not be right to “desert the troops” to save my own skin. I had to stay with our 50 or so local team – I was in it with them, no matter what.

My wife said that if I was staying the family was staying with me. We discussed the risks and decided with the city pretty much in lock down we could stay safe if we took reasonable precautions. Schools had been cancelled. Restaurants closed their doors, though you could get takeout. Most workplaces had told staff to not use public transport and to get taxis to and from work, paid for by their companies.

As it transpired, Beijing was more liveable in the circumstances than at other times. We would take the kids to the parks as normally crowded venues had emptied. I even arranged the first and only touch rugby game played in Tiananmen Square; masked security guards watched on in bemusement. Unfortunately, we didn’t have camera phones back then to capture those moments.

But I digress. Lessons that were learned during the SARS crisis can be applied again during the outbreak of novel coronavirus as it has been called.

Working remotely

There were simple steps that were being taken then that should be applied in this crisis. Wear face masks when out in public and wash your hands regularly, and avoid crowded areas and public transport. Eventually, as things became worse in Beijing, I allowed staff to work from home if they could. And, as business had slowed, I was also able to tell other staff not to come into the office until the crisis had passed. Some of the foreign staff who had left were able to continue working remotely from New York or Melbourne or wherever they were in the world. I started working from home and became a convert to the idea of working remotely – something I have found corporate Australia is still struggling to get on board with nearly 20 years later. Maybe one of the positive things that could come out of the coronavirus will be a better attitude towards allowing people to work from home.

My recommendation would be to not wait until we are at crisis point. Australian companies should start allowing people to work from home sooner rather than later to avoid a crisis. If the coronavirus hits Australia it is going to be spread in schools, offices and on public transport. If businesses can start allowing people to work from home now it will reduce the risk of a major outbreak. If we wait for a major outbreak in Australia before encouraging people to work from home and thereby avoid public transport it will already be too late.

Secondly, if anyone has been travelling, particularly to China, they should be asked to quarantine themselves and work from home for two weeks upon return. I’ve just got back from travelling around Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand and I am keeping a self-imposed quarantine for the next 14 days, just to be sure and so my family, friends and clients will be safe.


Businesses need also to communicate early and communicate often to advise employees on the measures they should take to avoid risks. They will also need to communicate early and often if any employees are suspected of having acquired the virus or have been confirmed to have contracted it. Failing to communicate or communicating slowly in these circumstances will prove very damaging to the reputation of a company. Just consider the damage that has been done to China’s reputation both internally and internationally because of the attempts by the Wuhan Government to cover up the crisis when it first emerged in that city in November and December of 2019. Indeed, Wuhan is now dealing with social media rumours that the disease started as early as April 2018 and had been covered up from then and even worse conspiracy theories.

A final word on China’s handling of the crisis

How badly China handled the crisis until just a few weeks ago has been astonishing given the lessons from the SARS crisis. In fact, in 2003 I was among a handful of “foreign experts” who were called in to advise the Chinese Government (via the Asian Development Bank) on how to handle the crisis. My key recommendations were to be transparent and to communicate early and often. The cover up of the current coronavirus outbreak by the Wuhan Government – which increasingly looks as though it may have been directed by the Central Government in Beijing – suggests the lessons were not taken on board. And although Beijing has now put in place stringent measures to contain the disease, locking down close to 60 million people, it seems to have been badly implemented. Telling people the lock down of Wuhan would occur in three days only encouraged people to flee which possibly spread the disease more widely and quickly.

Worse still, Beijing needs to be criticised for not fully cooperating with other countries and especially not sharing all information with leading international epidemiologists. Although Beijing claimed to have copied the virus first it did not send samples of the copy to international research institutes working to find a vaccine – that was left to Australian scientists at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, which immediately shared its samples with labs around the world.

Interestingly, China’s Deputy Head of Mission to Australia, Wang Xining, has criticised Australia for its restrictions on Chinese tourists and students coming to Australia, including calling for compensation. That seems rich given that China has locked down nearly 60 million people and frustrated negotiations by foreign countries trying to get their nationals out of China. Rather than viewing this global pandemic as an “us vs them” situation, Beijing needs to look at ways to cooperate with the rest of the world to solve it and solve it quickly.

China should not be playing geopolitics with this crisis. Beijing needs to understand we are all in this together. This crisis can only be solved by all nations working together.

Make no bones about it, lives are at stake from a pandemic of China’s making. China needs to stop playing games and work with the world to solve it.

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