COVID-19 – What Companies and Employers Need to Know
Staying Safe and Preventing Infection Amid Fears of the Spreading Virus
With the rise in COVID-19 cases, it is important that employers and employees take the necessary precautions to keep the workplace safe during this time.
Understanding What a Virus Is
A virus is a microscopic particle that can infect the cells of a biological organism.. So tiny that it is impossible to see with the naked eye. It consists of genetic material contained within a protective protein coat.
A virus needs another living organism to survive. Viruses cannot reproduce on their own and need to infect a host cell to survive. Therefore, they need humans, animals and even other bacteria to live.
A virus only starts becoming active when they encounter other living cells. Once they do, they hijack these cells and attempt to create even more viruses. The coronavirus, in this case, are a group of virus that only infect and attack mammals, including humans. The name coronavirus is given because of the crown-like spikey appearance these viruses have on the surface.
As of now, scientists have identified at least seven classifications of coronaviruses that infect humans. Out of the seven, four of these viruses generally cause mild to moderate symptoms that affect the upper respiratory tract. Usually, the infection manifests as a common cold. The remaining three viruses, however, have more severe consequences.
The first virus, classified as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) killed nearly 800 people across 32 countries. This happened about 17 years ago. The second virus was reported in 2012 in Saudi Arabia. It was known as the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (Mers-CoV). The virus later spread further than the Middle East. In 2019, the COVID-19 (nCoV) started in the city of Wuhan, China. Hence the name, COVID-19.
Scientists are speculating that the current strain of COVID-19 evolved from the coronavirus strains that only affected animals prior to this, much like the Sars and Mers viruses did. Coronaviruses typically contain a single strand of RNA, which is a genetic material that is easily mutated and copied compared to a human’s double-stranded DNA. This explains why the viruses are so viral.
Origins of the COVID-19
It is suspected that the outbreak of the virus is linked closely to Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Market. This market reportedly sold live animals and animal parts in addition to seafood. Scientists explained that when animals are brought in close proximity with humans and housed in poor living conditions, the virus hops between humans and animals. Because of the mutation, the viruses can affect and eventually spread among humans. Speculations link the origin of the virus to bats, with some suggesting potential links to snakes.
It is believed that the virus spreads through the air the way the common flu does. When a healthy person encounters an infected person, the healthy person is at risk. As of now, virologists believe that the COVID-19 is going to be as infectious as the Sars was, although the strain of virus is different. Researchers claim that the COVID-19 only shares 76% genetic material that is like the Sars.
The current deaths related to the virus are reported 2%. This means that two out of every 100 people infected die. However, there is concern that the number of infections are under-reported, especially when the symptoms are easily mistaken for flu.
Is There Cause for Concern?
Yes, there is a cause for concern when a virus is potentially life threatening. While the government has taken active measures to control the outbreak, the public, employers and companies alike should be vigilant themselves, to protect your homes and workplaces. Especially when it comes to good hygiene habits. If at any point you feel unwell, the safest thing to do is always consult a doctor and to stay at home to avoid infecting others. Unfortunately, a flu jab is not going to protect you from the virus.
If you need to go out in public, you should wear a surgical mask to minimise the possibility of infecting others. A surgical mask will suffice as the N95 masks can be rather difficult to breathe in. The Ministry of Health (MOH) Singapore is advising all Singaporeans and those living in Singapore to avoid traveling to Wuhan at this time. In fact, avoid traveling to China altogether for the time being, as there have been confirmed cases of the virus spreading beyond Wuhan. Cases have been reported in Shanghai, Beijing, Guangdong and Tianjin.
For those already traveling in China, the MOH is advising that you exercise caution and to be vigilant about personal hygiene. Upon your return to Singapore, the MOH advises all travellers to monitor their health closely for at least two weeks. Should any symptoms arise, seek medical help immediately. Singapore is doing what it can to step up precautionary measures and screening all travellers arriving from China.
Infographic from Ministry of Health:
What Employers and Employees Should Do
The recent Chinese New Year holiday means an increase in traffic to and from mainland China and Singapore. Therefore, the MOH is advising all employers and employees to adopt the following precautionary measures.
- Frequently check the MOH’s website for the latest news and updates on the virus situation.
- Advise employees to regularly check MOH’s website for the latest updates. This should be done prior to making any travel plans not for work purposes.
- Use updated information and news to make decisions about whether to proceed with any business travel plans.
- Plan for alternative solutions in place of a face-to-face business meeting in affected areas in China. If alternative arrangements like video conferences are not possible, consult a doctor regarding travel advise before proceeding.
- Ensure that employees having to travel for work in affected locations are protected as per MOH’s guidelines.
- Obtain a travel and health declaration from their employees. Request that employees report if they have been to China or have any upcoming travel plans.
- Monitor the health of any employee who recently returned from China for at least 2 weeks.
- Conduct twice daily temperature checks on employees who have returned from China.
- Ensure all employees seek proper medical help if they feel unwell.
Employers are encouraged to be flexible work arrangements for employees who recently returned from China. This is during the 2-week period when an employee’s health needs to be monitored. Flexible work arrangements could include work from home options, teleconferencing and telecommuting.
If the arrangements above are not possible, other alternative solutions include:
- Allowing annual leave applications.
- Allowing no pay leave applications (if an employee has used up their leave entitlements).
- Treat leave of absences as sick leave.
- Paid leave of absence (over and above annual leave entitlements) for employees who have had to travel to China for work.
- Other mutually agreed upon terms.
Any employee who served in the Quarantine Order will be considered on paid sick leave. During this period, their absence will be treated as hospitalisation leave (paid). It will be considered part of their hospitalisation entitlements as per their employment contract.
Employers are urged to consider providing medical coverage for employees who have used up their medical benefits. Some employees may be facing financial hardship during this period. Any support from the company will be welcome relief.
Employees Working in Healthcare, Education and Eldercare
The MOH together with the Ministry of Education (MOE) Singapore and Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) have announced that special arrangements will be made for these employees. That’s because employees in these sectors are more likely to come into close contact with people who might be more vulnerable to the virus.
As such, employees in this sector will be given a 14-day leave of absence if they have been in China. The leave will be given in the form of paid leave of absence for those working in government funded institutions.
What You Should Do
To keep yourself safe and minimise the risk of infection, consider the following precautionary measures:
- Stay away from those with respiratory infections.
- Frequently wash your hands.
- Avoid encountering wild or farm animals.
- Avoid eating undercooked or raw meat.
- Wear a face mask if you display any flu-like or respiratory symptoms
- Practice good cough etiquette (cover your mouth, use disposal tissue, keep your distance, wash your hands)
Safety Measures Implemented by the Singapore Government
MOH has taken their own precautionary measures, which include the following:
- Thermal and temperature screenings for all incoming flights as of 29 January.
- Temperature screenings at sea checkpoints, bus and train arrivals.
- Special attention given to incoming mainland China flights at the aerobridge.
- Visual identification of any passengers who may be ill.
- Referring ill travellers to nursing stations for medical assistance.
- Initiating compulsory 14-day leave of absence for education, healthcare and eldercare employees, students, and staff coming back from China.
- Preparing quarantine facilities in Singapore. The facilities will be on standby in case the number of suspected cases increases.
- Hostels and chalets located near National University of Singapore (NUS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and Singapore Management University (SMU) have been shortlisted as quarantine facilities.