S'pore companies deemed ready to tackle Ebola

Half of MNCs worldwide ill-equipped to deal with pandemic: survey

[SINGAPORE] Corporate Singapore should be better prepared for an Ebola outbreak, given the country's previous experience in tackling pandemics - but smaller firms may still struggle, say observers.

In fact, business continuity specialists The Business Times spoke to say Singapore companies are likely to be "among the best prepared in the world".

This comes even as a survey found that half the companies across the world are not ready to deal with a pandemic.

In response to the ongoing Ebola scare, ECA International - a human resources consulting firm - conducted a poll of 189 multinational companies worldwide between July 30 and Aug 6, to find out what policies they have to handle a pandemic.

Said ECA International's managing director Andrew Shaw: "That half of the companies we surveyed have no policy in place is rather surprising. With cross-border travel increasing the potential for transmission around the world, multinational organisations have a responsibility to be prepared for such events, and every good business continuity plan should have measures in place to deal with this kind of risk."

Of the companies that did have measures in place, the two most common were the provision of a safe working environment (83 per cent) and a business continuity plan, which would kick in when people are no longer able to travel to work (78 per cent).

While ECA International said that Singapore companies made up 12 per cent of all the firms polled, it declined to say how these companies fared.

But business continuity experts told BT it's unlikely that Singapore companies would have fallen in the "unprepared" group, given the country's past experiences with Sars and H1N1.

Said Nathaniel Forbes, founder of Forbes Calamity Prevention: "Singapore has had three pandemics in the last decade - Sars, bird flu, swine flu - and I don't know many countries that have had deep personal experiences with even one pandemic in that time. So I think the government and the private sector here are actually better prepared than the rest of the world."

Touw June Wah, Surbana International Consultants' vice-president for risk management, agreed: "A lot of the standard operating procedures have been formalised since Sars hit us, so I don't think it's true that Singapore companies are not prepared. And you can be sure that firms with operations in Africa continually review and assess their risk exposure."

Still, Business Continuity Management (BCM) Institute president Goh Moh Heng thinks much of this applies only to large multinationals with a dedicated risk assessment division - a luxury many small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) cannot afford.

"I'm not saying that we're not prepared, but I think there is a need to qualify here. It's definitely true that the big boys can hold up, but SMEs - which form at least 90 per cent of companies in Singapore - probably still have a lot of work to do when it comes to business continuity plans."

As to whether the Ebola outbreak could deal a severe blow to the Singapore economy, DBS economist Irvin Seah said any impact is likely to be "muted and transient" in nature, since Singapore has shown that it can respond to crises "very rapidly and effectively".

Singapore had its first brush with a potential Ebola case yesterday, when a Nigerian woman was identified as a possible carrier of the virus - although this was later ruled out.

Later in the day, the Ministry of Health, the Communicable Diseases Centre (CDC), and Changi Airport Group held an emergency preparedness drill at Changi Airport to simulate the handling of an Ebola case. Observers say it is preparedness initiatives like these that bolster confidence in Singapore.

"Put it this way," said Mr Forbes. "I'm an American, but I would rather be in Singapore in the middle of a pandemic, than in the US. Yes, it's a small place and it's densely populated, but I have confidence that the Ministry of Health is paying attention and that the country is prepared."

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