Tomorrow’s Health & Safety
Evacuations in a global crisis: lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic
Bangkok, August 17, 2021 – The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on employer’s Duty of Care on a global scale like never before. It has revealed a new breadth of responsibility that organisations have for employees, at home and away. From well-being and mental health, to the need for extreme measures such as evacuations, employers have been faced with newly consistent risks – often interacting with complex underlying risks – that need urgent attention. International SOS’ Dr Jamon Ngoencharee, Chief Medical Officer, highlights some key lessons learned during the pandemic.
Prior to the pandemic, many companies saw evacuation as an unlikely event. However, when the pandemic took hold, organisations suddenly faced a huge movement issue with their employees – one that many had not planned or prepared for. Many of their employees around the world were left stranded, unable to use commercial flights or even land routes to return home. Both medical and non-medical evacuations are complex at the best of times, and this is exacerbated with border closures and quarantines. Not to mention that these can be very costly and with significant business continuity implications.
The demand for evacuations, including for those with acute medical needs and often involving complex security considerations, accelerated greatly. Logistically difficult, requiring a high level of expertise and an extensive network, many organisations that didn’t have quality expert support in place have found themselves and their employees exposed.
Some instances were extremely time sensitive with evacuees needing to be flown to a medical facility to receive care. One case involved an international assignee in Yangon, who was diagnosed with myoma uteri which causes massive blood loss and painful cramps. Specialist treatment required was not available in Yangon and commercial flights were unavailable due to border closures from the COVID-19 pandemic. International SOS assisted in obtaining the various documents and approval required for the evacuation from Yangon to Bangkok. Furthermore, arrangements were made for a COVID-19 test and the results were obtained in time for the transfer to ensure the patient received care in Bangkok. The patient was able to be evacuated within 3 days and had the procedure safely in Bangkok. International SOS provided support until the patient was able to return back to her country of assignment.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, International SOS has arranged evacuations for over 2,000 passengers. And their pets in some cases, including 12 cats and five dogs. Our 35-year history in evacuations and logistical expertise has been critical supporting governments and commercial entities to repatriate their people.
Evacuation needs in 2021
The need looks set to continue. In our recent Business Resilience Trends Watch study, nearly a third of risk professionals surveyed (28%) cited the ability to evacuate employees when necessary as a challenge in ensuring their health & security. 73% of risk professionals surveyed predicted that Covid-19 medical reasons will be the most likely cause of evacuation in 2021. 1 in 3 (31%) of those surveyed cite border closure. While a fifth (21%) of all respondents think that natural disasters are the most likely cause. Security threats continue to be important in Africa & the Middle East, where 37% of respondents think these would cause evacuation next year, notably higher than other regions (25% overall). Globally, as explored in our Risk Outlook, the pandemic will continue to exacerbate security issues driven by economic turbulence, fueling protests, crime, and geopolitical tensions, amongst others. Systemic issues, around the proliferation of mis and disinformation – again heightened during and as a result of the pandemic – will also fuel societal tensions, and a variety of negative security trends. In some locations, as these trends interact with the underlying security dynamics, they may give rise to situations that require enhanced evacuation, or relocation, preparedness.
Through our work and insights, we have identified some key lessons to guide how organisations should operate during moments of crisis. These include:
Contingency planning is essential
Maintaining up-to-date contingency plans is a key part of preparing for any crisis, highlighting mitigating actions an organisation needs to undertake with particular urgency. When it comes to evacuations specifically, centralised information is particularly critical. Organisations need to be able to quickly understand where their assets and people actually are.
Even if a company spends the correct amount of time updating and evaluating contingency plans, crises are naturally unpredictable. They often cause situations that could only have been partly accounted for at the planning stage, which generates the need for businesses to be prepared to be flexible in their response. We understand this principle at International SOS, as we constantly adapt to the new challenges posed by major catastrophes such as COVID-19.
This was particularly the case for one of the recent evacuations we organised, which saw 81 people repatriated to the United States from Peru. We identified charter options, but the landing permits required Peruvian government approval, which had recently issued a rapid lockdown with restrictions on outbound commercial air traffic. We therefore liaised with US Embassy contacts to send a diplomatic note to the Peruvian government in an effort to gain approval. Although one permit was approved for the city of Cusco, it arrived too late for the operator to fly. At this point, we were able to use our embassy contacts to secure spots on US government flights from Lima and Cusco.
This situation demonstrates how flexibility is a crucial trait during a crisis. To respond successfully, organisations need to be goal orientated, understanding that there may be multiple routes to achieve objectives.
Clear communication, both internal and external, is key
During a crisis, it is never more important that employees understand what is going on and what exactly is expected of them – good communication is at the heart of this. Internal and external messages need to be clear, concise and consistent, cutting through the noise and misinformation which is often associated with large catastrophic events.
External communication is particularly important for our evacuations support, as often the process required communication with different international governments and regulatory bodies. For instance, we carried out the first repatriation of a Chinese national with confirmed COVID-19 back to mainland China. The evacuation itself required authorisation from both the Chinese government and Nigerian authorities. Continuous communication with both governments was needed and resulted in a successful evacuation.
Duty of Care for All
The pandemic has resulted in changes in Duty of Care that are here to stay. Organisations must have visibility of their responsibilities and strategies in place to protect all their people, and their business. This is critically important as a lack of Duty of Care can result in employee harm, business reputation risk and even legal implications. The ability to evacuate and repatriate has taken a greater importance as the need has increased during the pandemic and is potentially going to impact a greater number of employees, whether it is needed for health, security or for those needing to return home.
No crisis is the same and there is never going to be a perfect playbook telling you what to do at every stage. Organisations should, however, understand that there are clear principles which inform good practice. Appreciating this is key during a crisis, as companies need to take steps to ensure that they are doing what’s best for their employees. Evacuations may happen at the last-minute but successful evacuation strategies are months or years in the planning.
About the International SOS Group of Companies
The International SOS Group of Companies is in the business of saving lives, protecting your global workforce from health and security threats. Wherever you are, we deliver customised health, security risk management and wellbeing solutions to fuel your growth and productivity. In the event of extreme weather, an epidemic or a security incident, we provide an immediate response providing peace of mind. Our innovative technology and medical and security expertise focus on prevention, offering real-time, actionable insights and on-the-ground quality delivery. We help protect your people, your organisation’s reputation, as well as support your compliance reporting needs. By partnering with us, organisations can fulfil their Duty of Care responsibilities, while empowering business resilience, continuity and sustainability.
Founded in 1985, the International SOS Group, headquartered in London & Singapore, is trusted by 12,000 organisations, including the majority of the Fortune 500, as well as mid-size enterprises, governments, educational institutions and NGOs. 12,000 multicultural medical, security and logistics experts stand with you to provide support & assistance from over 1,000 locations in 90 countries, 24/7, 365 days a year.
To protect your workforce, we are at your fingertips: www.internationalsos.com
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