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Evacuations in a global crisis: lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the duty of care that organizations have for employee well-being and how this sometimes requires extreme measures. Dr. Rodrigo Rodriguez-Fernandez from International SOS highlights some key lessons learned during the pandemic.

Multinational businesses faced huge challenges at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, as many of their employees around the world were left stranded, unable to use commercial flights to return home. There was huge demand for repatriations, but questions remained about how these could be carried out safely given the infectiousness of COVID-19.

International SOS supported many organizations with this issue, playing a vital role by carrying out safe evacuations throughout the pandemic. To date, we have arranged evacuations for over 1,500 passengers (and their pets in some cases, including 12 cats and five dogs), supporting governments and commercial entities to repatriate their people.

Some instances were extremely time sensitive with evacuees needing to be flown to a medical facility to receive care. One case involved a suspected COVID-19 positive patient – who was suffering from shortness of breath, fatigue, and a fever – being evacuated from El Salvador. Located outside the capital city of San Salvador, the individual requested evacuation to the United States for urgent medical attention. During this period, many were concerned that local health care systems in less developed regions, like El Salvador, would soon become overwhelmed by mass numbers of COVID-19 cases. This added a heightened sense of urgency to our work with this evacuation, as we coordinated with local authorities and medical teams to transport the individual from El Salvador to Texas. This required the use of an air ambulance, which moved the patient with a Portable Medical Isolation Unit to avoid the risk of the individual spreading coronavirus whilst travelling. The evacuation was completed without any serious complications, with the process actually being repeated the next day for another suspected COVID-19 patient in the region. This is just an example of one of the thousands of complex evacuations we have carried out over the last six months.

Through this work, we have identified some key lessons to guide how organizations should operate during moments of crisis. These include:

Contingency planning is essential

With unpredictable events, such as COVID-19, businesses need to do their best to bring some order to the situation. Maintaining up-to-date contingency plans is a key part of preparing for any crisis, as these can bring some sense of process to management operations, highlighting mitigating actions an organization needs to undertake with particular urgency.

When it comes to evacuations specifically, making sure that an organization has essential information centralised is critical. Organizations need to understand where their assets and people actually are. With many employees now working remotely, a decentralised model means that a business might not have this information ready to hand. It may appear obvious, but the evacuation process becomes a lot simpler when an organization knows where all its dispersed employees are located and where they need to repatriate to from the get-go.

Always be prepared to be flexible

Even if a company spends the correct amount of time updating and evaluating contingency plans, crises are naturally unpredictable. They often cause situations that could only have been partly accounted for at the planning stage, which generates the need for businesses to be prepared to be flexible in their response. We understand this principle at International SOS, as we constantly adapt to the new challenges posed by major catastrophes such as COVID-19.

This was particularly the case for one of the recent evacuations we organized, which saw 81 people repatriated to the United States from Peru. We identified charter options, but the landing permits required Peruvian government approval, who had recently issued a rapid lockdown with restrictions on outbound commercial air traffic. We therefore liaised with US Embassy contacts to send a diplomatic note to the Peruvian government in an effort to gain approval. Although one permit was approved for the city of Cusco, it arrived too late for the operator to fly. At this point, we were able to use our embassy contacts to secure spots on US government flights from the capital Lima and Cusco.

This hectic situation demonstrates how flexibility is a crucial trait during a crisis. To respond successfully, organizations need to be goal orientated, understanding that there may be multiple routes to achieve objectives. Trying one route and it failing is clearly not an ideal result, but businesses should respond to this failure with adaptation; they should explore different strategies, displaying operational flexibility to produce the best results during a crisis.  

Good communication, both internal and external, is key

During a crisis, it is never more important that employees understand what is going on and what exactly is expected of them – good communication is at the heart of this. Internal messages need to be clear and concise, cutting through the noise and misinformation which is often associated with large catastrophic events. This principle also holds for external communication, as often organizations need to collaborate with each other to mitigate the fallout caused by a crisis.

External communication was particularly important for our evacuations support, as often the evacuations required communication with different international governments and regulatory bodies. This was the case with one evacuation, which involved the first repatriation of a Chinese national with confirmed COVID-19 back to mainland China. The evacuation itself required authorisation from both the Chinese government and Nigerian authorities (the Chinese national was stuck in Nigeria before we were brought in to assist). As such, we had to stay in communication with both governments to ensure the process could go ahead without any hitches – with the successful result that on June 13th the evacuation was completed after over 20 hours of travel.

Bear in mind your duty of care responsibility

Organizations should remember that their duty of care responsibilities are crucially important, and that this responsibility also extends beyond only ensuring the physical safety of employees. They should understand the individual differences present in any company, bearing in mind that different people react to stress in a variety of ways requiring a range of solutions. Experiencing an evacuation or even just working through a crisis can be extremely stressful, as organizations must account for the mental strain caused by disruptive situations.

According to recent research from International SOS organizations are anticipating that in the next 12 months, employee mental health issues are likely to become more prominent, with over one fifth of respondents fearing that these will have a tangible negative impact on business continuity. Employee mental health issues need to be handled with care, with businesses understanding that they are a natural part of life and one which needs to be taken seriously if an organization is going to fulfil its duty of care responsibility and maintain a productive workforce.  

It’s clear that no one crisis is the same and there is never going to be a perfect playbook telling you what to do at every stage. Organizations should, however, understand that there are clear principles which inform good practice. Appreciating this is key during a crisis, as companies need to take steps to ensure that they are doing what’s best for their employees. Evacuations may happen at the last minute but successful evacuation strategies are months or years in the planning.

The author

Dr. Rodrigo Rodriguez-Fernandez is Chief Medical Director, Health Consulting, NCDs & Wellness, International SOS.



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