What the deadly MERS virus means for HR

by Hannah Norton06 Jul 2015
The second case of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) has been discovered in the Philippines, the Department of Health (DOH) announced this morning – bringing the disease close to Singapore once again.

Thailand’s only case of MERS was declared free of the illness on Friday.

In South Korea, where the outbreak continues, the number of people who have contracted MERS) in South Korea rose to 185 Sunday, with the death toll at 33 – meaning no one has died from the disease in the past five days.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recently said Singaporeans must assume that MERS can and will enter the country, given its inter-connectivity and how neighbours such as Malaysia and the Philippines have had MERS cases.

"For us it's a matter of time, and for us, I wanted to be quite sure that our medical facilities our medical staff, the hospitals, the whole team are ready and they know how to deal with it. They don't fumble and we can contain it, and then put a stop to the disease in Singapore as quickly as we can,” he said speaking to media during a visit to Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH).

And while MERS isn’t yet a threat as formidable as its sister disease SARS was for Singapore in 2003, HR leaders need to be prepared.

So what is MERS?

According to the World Health Organisation, MERS is a viral respiratory disease caused by a coronavirus - a large family of viruses that can cause diseases ranging from the common cold to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).
Symptoms include: 
  • fever
  • cough
  • shortness of breath
Some people also had gastrointestinal symptoms including diarrhoea and nausea/vomiting. For many people with MERS, more severe complications followed, such as pneumonia and kidney failure.

About 3-4 out of every 10 people reported with MERS have died.

There is no vaccine currently available and no specific treatment for this virus.

What can HR do?

Considering your options now, before a crisis hits, is vital to dealing with it quickly and effectively if an outbreak does happen.

Main issues:

Attendance

Employees will be absent for many reasons, from being sick themselves to caring for family members, and some may be afraid to work for fear of getting infected.

Contagious workplace
Employees working while sick, or working before symptoms present, could spread the illness to others.

Alternate work options
If working from home isn’t an option for your organisation, consider cross-training a range of people to complete critical tasks.

Employees refusing to complete regular duties
If workers fear infection they may refuse to travel, attend large meetings or perform basic customer service tasks that would put them in contact with people who could be sick.

Employees refusing to seek care
Many people avoid seeking healthcare for financial reasons, or because they feel a doctor’s office is a high risk area for infection.

Assistance for those who are ill or acting as carers
In quarantine situations staff may need help getting basics such as food and water.

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