Whitehawk Associates


Novel Coronavirus – A Different Perspective

As a result of haphazard career planning, I have a unique mix of professional experience covering public health, public relations, government relations and store operations – so I may have a unique perspective on the 2019 Novel coronavirus outbreak that could help to make sense of the avalanche of information we’re all being subjected to.

Here’s an overview based on my personal experience:

1.Public Health:

10 years in public health including being on one of the first UK teams involved with HIV prevention in the community, working as a Chief Environmental Health Officer, plus a stint in Hong Kong and Taiwan during the SARS outbreak.

This is going to be a global pandemic, but global pandemics happen all the time, so ‘keep calm and carry on’. Humans have been catching diseases from animals ever since early man hunted the Mammoth, and due to limited natural resistance these new diseases would spread throughout the population until there were enough people with immunity to stop the epidemic. Of course pre-historic epidemics were more localized then, as we didn’t have budget airlines. The common cold is one example of a coronavirus epidemic that we get each winter, and influenza is another virus that causes annual pandemics resulting in millions of cases and around 500,000 deaths per year.

The 2019 Coronavirus looks to be significantly less severe that SARS, MERS and even the more severe forms of seasonal flu – which explains why it spreads so effectively. Really deadly viruses are not good at spreading because the sufferers are incapacitated, isolated or dead. Ebola is an example of a deadly virus that can be quickly brought under control. But viruses such as the common cold, that generally cause mild symptoms, will spread like K-Pop. Innocuous Asian girl bands with vanilla music get everywhere because nobody is motivated to control the spread, but Punk Rock by contrast was seen as anti-social and was wiped out in a year.

The current estimates of a 2% fatality rate for 2019 nCoV will reduce as the boffins at WHO learn more about the disease. There must be significant under-reporting of the mild cases worldwide, but any death will be investigated fully – so we know the deaths due to the new virus, but we don’t know the number of cases. Just look at the latest Situation Report on the very useful WHO site WHO. Highest number of cases outside China are in Japan, but zero cases in the whole of Africa. Really?

China has extensive business interests throughout Africa, but flights will not be direct, making screening a challenge, plus few laboratories will have the capability for the PCR tests to identify the virus, hence no reported cases, whereas Japan has effective monitoring systems. Another anomaly may be Thailand, which was the leading destination for travelers from Wuhan over the New Year holidays, and with Government hospitals having limited funds, the full number of cases may not be known.

A report in the Lancet at the weekend supports my view about the likely global sprea; “Independent self-sustaining outbreaks in major cities globally could become inevitable because of substantial exportation of presymptomatic cases and in the absence of large-scale public health interventions”.

So it will be everywhere by the end of the year, then eventually the numbers of people with immunity will be enough to minimize the spread. The death rate will fall as more data becomes available and we’ll see that the fatalities are partly due to pre-existing conditions. There’s also the possibility of the virus mutating again, and contrary to the views of the doomsday brigade, this will most likely result in a less serious illness, because if it went the other way it would be self limiting. However, the valiant efforts in China to control the spread, and the good works by governments in other countries are not in vain – as the real objective is to slow the spread to avoid over-loading the medical resources, as it’s now too late to stop the spread.

2.Public Relations:

I’m not a PR expert, but I learnt a lot when I managed a retailer’s excellent PR team for a couple of years.

The news industry is a business like any other – so they are focussed on revenue, and for them growing reader numbers means growing advertising revenue. Writing about the annual flu epidemic would not help them to grow readership, but a disease that is new will generate interest. Another factor is the competition between the old print media and the emerging on-line news businesses – so there’s intense competition to write the most sensational reports.

If we then add the social media effect, where posters are less interested in the facts than how many ‘Likes’ they can get – and we have a recipe for misinformation that spreads even faster than the virus. So we need to focus on the sources before it gets distorted by the sensationalists. The Lancet has some excellent reports written by experts and subject to peer review – and they’ve set up a useful resource centre for easy reference. Lancet


I was head of the International Corporate Affairs teams for a global retailer, which isn’t really a proper job, but it was huge fun and I saw first-hand how governments work.

Does an outbreak of a what looks to be a serious cold warrant the closing of major cities, building two hospital in a week and the isolation of the world’s second largest economy. Of course not. But we have two factors at play here. Firstly the Chinese Government was criticized for being slow to respond to SARS, so now they are showing the world how they can react quickly. Secondly, all unelected Governments need to justify their existence by demonstrating they can protect their people. Add in some opportunistic Trade War mongering and we have an impressive over-reaction that has frankly surprised the health professionals who never aksed for any of this.

4. Operations:

Being Head of Ops for a retailer in India showed me just how tough this role can be. Much easier being the techncial expert telling others how to do their job!

The global business impacts will be huge. Businesses still add footnotes to their accounts to highlight the SARS outbreak of 2003 to explain the 30% drop in revenues. Customer change their habits to avoid exposure to perceived risks, and the impacts can be long term.

All of the major retail and restaurant businesses I’ve been speaking to have implemented sensible precautions, with handwashing and personal hygiene being the key controls. But when we consider the impact on the customer’s perception of risk from the sensational news coverage plus the opportunistic politics – then just telling our staff to wash their hands more often does not cut it. Imagine a Zombie Apocalypse movie where the hero defeats the zombie hoards by washing his hands – don’t think it would win many Oscars.

So we need to wear our Public Health hat when implementing the necessary control measures in the stores, then wear our PRs and Government relations hats to review if these measures are enough. In practice this means handwashing and hygiene education for the public health control, plus masks, regular santizing patrols, posters and hand sanitizer dispensers to help maintain customer confidence.