As I write, the global struggle with the coronavirus epidemic (COVID-19) is growing, and further measures are being envisaged to prevent spikes of infection, from new and stricter limits on the movement of people and goods to the stoppage of production activities. To date, more than 114,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been documented worldwide, with the majority in China, South Korea and Italy, the country I’m writing from.

There is still considerable epidemiological uncertainty about the possible geographical spread of the outbreak, as well as economic uncertainty about how it will affect business activities. The outbreak is still shrouded in a shadow of misinformation, which can lead us to two opposite extremes: panic and defeatism on the one hand, or superficiality in risk assessment on the other.

Given the amount of unknown variables that still surround COVID-19 today, it is essential to evaluate your company’s preparedness and update your business continuity plans, embracing proactive strategies and revising business processes and operations every week, if not every few days, to coordinate your actions with the crisis’s development. You should prepare for the potential impact the virus could have on your operations, supply chain and the well-being of employees, and to protect your most important assets: human health, productivity and reputation.

Preparedness measures to focus on now

As the pet food industry becomes more attentive to the signs of economic, social and health impact of the COVID-19 outbreak, companies should strive to predict and mitigate any impact on their businesses – not to mention prepare for concerns about the future of family pets, in case the fear of possible contagion to pets spreads.

During the last few years, efforts to develop preparedness plans for pandemics such as H1N1, SARS and avian bird flu have been a great challenge for crisis managers. Today, after multiple weeks of outbreaks of COVID-19 in Italy, and its spreading all over Europe and the world, it might be useful for the global pet food industry to focus on some helpful points:

Start beforehand. Speed ​​and timeliness are fundamental elements in the management of any crisis scenario, which, by definition, is changeable. The collection and updating of data, transmission of information flow and resulting policies and corrective actions must be fast, but not hasty. Readiness and timeliness are not synonymous with botched decisions.

It is necessary to avoid decisions based on incomplete or incorrect information, on which long-term effects may depend. Monitor reports and updates from the World Health Organization (WHO), your country’s health authorities and local authorities to respond promptly to events such as the expansion of red zones, isolation and quarantine.

Analyze the possible impact. An essential element of business continuity planning is the business impact analysis. Make an objective list of the types of problems that could affect your business and the interruptions you might encounter or implement. Is your company heavily reliant on suppliers in infected areas, or do you import from countries at risk? Calculate carefully the days of supply of your products and raw materials, and consider that following any panic triggered by the epidemic, some category sell-outs might greatly accelerate but others may slow dramatically.

Consider that your current supply chain and outsourcing arrangements may not operate at contracted service levels; “just in time” value chains will be most at risk. Identify the critical points deriving from supply shortages, considering the possibility of guaranteeing the supply of goods, raw materials, packaging and components and verifying the existence of alternatives. Forecast your possible employee absenteeism rate. Even if not affected, your staff may need to stay away from work to care for family members due to quarantine or closure of school.

Reassess company policies. Weekly reassess policies for travel, meetings, production shifts, loading and unloading of goods. Avoid danger zones: Get your employees out of at-risk countries or areas. Consider limiting employees’ travel; public transport and airports might be possible incubators. Also consider that the first control measure in case of outbreak is the quarantine of entire areas, including the closure of entire city areas, so some of your production plants or sites may suffer denial of access by local authorities, or staff members might be quarantined.

If your business operations are able to support virtual work, consider implementing it for any tasks or work that could be done from employees’ homes. Check that you have a virtual networking license (such as VPN) to enable people to be productive, and ensure your employees have the proper setup for working at home, which should include an internet connection, laptop and access to multimedia tools. If necessary, expand IT and telecom capacities, and test equipment and procedures of remote facilities. Consider that it may take several days to set up technology and telecom to arrange for working at home.

For all activities that cannot be postponed or outsourced, make every effort to keep your human resources safe, informed and prepared. Promote personal and environmental hygiene, reduce human-to-human contact, educate staff about washing hands often, proper coughing behavior, greeting and touching, and give appropriate attention to garbage management. Discourage unnecessary meetings or gatherings of large numbers of people within your business, and improve conference calling with suppliers, clients and colleagues.

Communicate. Without adequate guidance and communication, the workplace can be perceived as a place at risk. It is essential that each employee know what to do, both for his or her own personal well-being and for those around them. Provide your staff cultural and material tools of protection, transmit policies to them and keep the lines of communication open so those who feel at risk are not led to hide relevant information about their health status, fearing the consequences.

It is essential to update your staff daily, after verifying the reliability of information and condensing its essence into usable and focused guidelines to be translated into concrete action. Lack of information can lead to panic as people fear the worst, but too frequent updates might be distracting and confusing, especially if there is an overload of information coming in from many sides and too many sources. Communicate with staff transparently and influentially, strengthen morale and do all you can to prevent panic, hysteria and loss of control.

The real challenge: preparing for an outbreak

We are all passionate about pets, pet food and the pet food industrial sector, and one of the reasons is that it has already overcome many challenges. Although no business continuity plan or guidelines can guarantee full and immediate resumption given the unknown impact of COVID-19, we must do our best to help our firms avoid a possible significant disruption. The real challenge in preparing for a pandemic outbreak requires the pet food industry getting ready to respond quickly and effectively to minimize the unavoidable impact of the outbreak.

Be pragmatic, be consistent, be lucid, be positive. Today we all part of the same effort.