· 2 min read · Features

What European businesses can learn from Asia’s response to the SARS & MERS pandemics


As lockdown eases in the UK and the government attempts to restart the economy, preparations are underway to get millions back to work.

Adjusting an entire workforce to the “new normal” is imperative, and as a result HR professionals will be looking for guidance on how to remobilise in the right way

In preparation for such a feat, there are management lessons to be learnt from Asia, where it has learnt the hard way from past pandemic experiences and therefore responded far quicker and more effectively to COVID-19 as a result.

Learn from the past

Although the UK does not have the recent experience of a pandemic to learn from directly, it is possible to replicate successful practices that have been used elsewhere in the world.

Hong Kong and South Korea, for example, responded well to the COVID-19 outbreak in terms of reducing its potential spread, having learnt from experiences with SARS in 2003 and MERS in 2015.

During the SARS outbreak, ECA undertook a survey of the practices clients in Hong Kong were initiating, which revealed the most commonly implemented responses were the provision of face masks to staff, adopted by 72% of companies.

Cancelling business travel to affected areas and enforcing social distancing measures in the workspace were both adopted by 25% companies. Once an outbreak of COVID-19 began, these two nations quickly adopted these practises again.

Communicate your strategy

Asia has lessons to offer with regard to communication strategies, most notably with Singapore’s clear and early messaging from its prime minister Lee Hsien about the government’s response to the pandemic. His addresses were credited with helping the country avoid panic-buying.

Communicating your strategy for dealing with the pandemic should be entrusted with a person with gravitas, such as a company CEO, to instil trust and compliance.

Be quick to act

Pandemics often present senior personnel with challenges that require quick decision-making, so it’s essential that all senior stakeholders are present where timely decisions are imperative.

Taiwan, for example, made a series of quick, impactful decisions which helped the country remain relatively unaffected by COVID-19 as they quickly severed transport connections with China, despite inevitably leading to a significant impact on Taiwan’s economy. China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner, accounting for approximately 30% of its exports and 20% of its imports.

Choose the correct response for your situation

Although we can learn from our peers, it is important to consider the unique circumstances that come with the challenge faced. Different companies will face individual challenges when it comes to safeguarding staff, and responses should be tailored to those needs.

For example, in early March, South Korea looked set to follow the same trajectory as China in terms of virus transmissions, with Daegu emerging as the epicentre of the initial outbreak.

Rather than initiating large-scale lockdowns, the government introduced widespread testing which enabled the country to target its quarantine efforts. This meant that while some establishments were closed and some restrictions still remain in place, the country has avoided the scale of lockdowns seen in China and elsewhere.

Organisations that learn from experience, either their own or others’, and those that act quickly and communicate well during this crisis will likely be more successful in dealing with the many unique issues caused by the ongoing pandemic.

Strong leadership is critical, and may even include disregarding earlier actions if their effectiveness is limited.

Emanuela Boccagni is commercial director EMEA at ECA International

Further reading:

How can businesses stay safe during a virus outbreak?

COVID-19, HR and the workplace: three lasting changes

The key lessons HR leaders should learn from COVID-19

COVID-19: The critical questions that all HR departments must ask