Covid-19: Spike or second wave, can history help model a response?

By Jim Preen, Director of Crisis Management at YUDU Sentinel

Header image by iMattSmart (@imattsmart) | Unsplash Photo Community

NikeTown and Primark stores were mobbed yesterday as non-essential shops began opening their doors to customers. With lockdown restrictions easing in the UK, there’s inevitably talk about a spike in cases or perhaps a second wave of the virus. Recent figures indicate UK GDP has plunged by almost a quarter, so can history help businesses model a response?

Spanish flu arrived in early Spring of 1918 and was initially seen as just a particularly virulent strain of seasonal flu. It was the calm before the storm. The virus spread quickly throughout Europe during the summer and by the time Autumn arrived it had mutated into something far more serious. During the first wave it was the old who suffered most, but the new strain attacked and killed healthy young people.

At this point the war was drawing to a close and troops were sent back to their home countries often on cramped troop ships. In many cases the servicemen took the disease with them and unwittingly helped spread the pandemic which killed somewhere between 30 and 50 million people.

There were similar fears over SARS and H1N1 and while the latter had a significant second wave it didn’t prove the global disaster that might have been expected particularly as it, like Spanish flu, was a major threat to young people. The SARS outbreak in Asia between 2002 and 2003, though caused by a coronavirus, never proved contagious enough to become a pandemic.

Cross Protection

Many fear that Covid-19 could stage a recurrence this Autumn and combined with the effects of seasonal flu and common colds could, once again, put the NHS under enormous strain. Maybe not. Some medics suggest what they call ‘cross-protection’ could kick the pandemic into touch. The theory, in very simple terms, is that if you catch a cold, a mild form of coronavirus, this could provide some form of immunity to the cold’s ugly elder brother C-19.

The southern hemisphere is just entering the winter months so we should get some indications soon as to whether ‘cross protection’ is anything more than just wishful thinking.

Public enquiry

Social distancing and self-isolation have unquestionably played a substantial role in reducing the number of infections and bringing the virus under control. Public enquires should determine which countries followed the best courses of action when tackling the virus and will be of huge importance should we be faced with a similar pandemic in years to come.

A hundred years ago Spanish flu stalked the earth and is perhaps the most comparable health emergency to Covid-19. But medical science is far more advanced and unlike a hundred years ago we already understand the nature of the pathogen, but of course the pathogen could mutate as it did in 1918 with devastating consequences.

Business recovery

As restrictions on the business community start to ease questions are being asked as to what form the economic recovery will take. Will there be a quick V-shaped recovery or are we looking at something much more long term? There are indications that many of the furloughed jobs which the UK government is currently funding are in reality ghost jobs and no longer exist. We could be seeing significant unemployment by Christmas.

The world’s health and the globe’s economic well-being are walking hand in hand. It’s not just public health that’s at risk, the world economy is currently on a ventilator. Right now, both are struggling but if scientists can produce a treatment or better still a vaccine for Covid-19 then both could rebound with surprising speed. Failing that, the key to stop the infection spreading without introducing another lockdown will be effective testing and contact tracing. Health authorities will need to identify infected people and make sure they and their recent contacts are isolated.

This may be primarily a job for governments, but from a business perspective, HR departments have their role to play. HR will need to monitor the well-being of staff as never before. If an employee tests positive for the virus while working at an office, other staff members may be forced to go into isolation and the office might have to close once again. How staff behave could have a significant effect on whether a workplace remains open.

Modelling for what comes next will be a huge challenge for businesses. Small spikes of infections should be manageable; a full-blown second wave would be a different story.

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