In much of post-lockdown China, urban life is humming. The streets of Beijing and Shanghai are bustling with traffic, smog again shrouds city skylines with the resurgence of economic activity, property sales are bouncing back and a revival in consumer confidence is taking hold. Emerging from monthslong shelter-in-place orders, the nation has seized a large measure of control in containing COVID-19 as it breaks fertile new ground in pandemic response and recovery.
In Wuhan, Hubei, the fountainhead of the novel coronavirus, one company offers a striking example of China’s muscular COVID-19 containment efforts, carefully continuing to operate through January and February as the virus set root, said Karel Eloot, a Shenzhen-based senior partner and Asia leader of Transformation and Operations practices at McKinsey & Company, speaking at a recent webinar presented with SEMI. Soon, COVID-19 spread to eight other provinces that suffered serious outbreaks and forced the nationwide lockdown that sent China’s GDP plunging 7 percent, its first contraction in 28 years.
An impressive arsenal of safety protocols, many designed to reduce people density as a bulwark against the virus, animates China’s fight against COVID-19, a return-to-work movement that is laying a path forward for companies around the world. It is these measures, Eloot said, that have kept the Wuhan company afloat and helped other businesses across China restore operations with unusual speed.
Community and Social Distancing – The Heart of China’s COVID-19 Response
In establishing safeguards, many companies started by assessing staffing requirements, identifying workers essential to sustaining on-site operations while allowing others, such as white-collar staff, to work from home, though some have since returned to their offices. Seen as non-essential, some factory maintenance workers have been instructed to stay home. To fill staffing gaps, business have turned to multi-skilling practices, such as having on-site supervisors and engineers step out of their daily roles to handle lower-level operations activities.
Much of the focus has been on community distancing, with businesses quickly identifying workers suffering even minor COVID-19 symptoms and using contact tracing to prevent sick or vulnerable employees from entering offices and factories and turning them into hot zones for community spread, Eloot said. Manufacturing facilities are staggering work shifts to reduce people density, closely monitoring workers’ body temperatures with an eye toward other symptoms, and following up with medical tests and quarantines as needs dictates. QR codes, long a staple of e-commerce, have been a particularly effective weapon in combatting COVID-19. Companies are deployed the scanning technology to identify workers by color code – green, yellow or red – and assign various levels of site access depending on who they’ve been in contact with.
Some factory workstations are now walled off by transparent plastic sheeting to prevent COVID-19 infection through aerosol drift. In business meetings and lunchrooms, staffers sit spaced a safe distance apart and facing the same direction to avoid crosscurrents of the microscopic respiratory droplets that can carry the virus. Others eat in isolation. Meeting room windows are opened, weather permitting, to admit fresh air. And elevators – perfect petri dishes for contagion – are shuttered to ward off human clusters, shifting all floor-to-floor movement to staircases.
Companies united by the common goal to keep goods flowing through supply chains are providing masks and other personal protective devices to smaller players most vulnerable to the economic shock of COVID-19. The aim: Shield the companies from the potentially crippling effects of the virus to avoid supply chain breakdowns that can undercut the performance of the whole. Even competitors have formed unexpected alliances, sharing parts and components that are in short supply.
“Some sectors have maintained steady production throughout the crisis” thanks to these practices, Eloot said. “China has been able to create safe communities where people can operate as normal.”
Executive Uncertainty Reigns, Hope Springs Eternal with Innovation
The objective of China’s fast, forceful response to the COVID-19 outbreak is economic: A V-shaped rebound after the 7 percent wallop to its GDP in the first quarter of the year. The trajectory is among nine economic recovery scenarios McKinsey & Company presented to more than 2,000 executives worldwide in a recent survey seeking their views on the likelihood of each. The business leaders coalesced around two – a full restoration of global GDP growth that could materialize this year or extend into next, or a two- to three-year recovery following the initial economic tsunami, Sven Smit, an Amsterdam-based senior partner with McKinsey and global leader of the McKinsey Global Institute and global COVID-19 response team, said at the webinar.
The executives see the multi-year recovery as the most likely. The shorter rebound ranked second on a scale of probabilities. Notably, the business leaders found the V-shaped bounceback China is attempting – returning to GDP growth in one quarter – the least likely outcome. But the biggest surprise from the survey, Smit said, was executives’ view that of the two major global interventions for restoring GDP growth – viral and economic – one will be ineffective, reflecting their deep uncertainty about what lies ahead.
A growing body of knowledge about COVID-19 tempers that doubt. It’s established fact that the virus is highly contagious, more lethal than the flu, and spread by means including aerosols and touching contaminated surfaces. But only recently has more insight emerged about human immunity. Broad-based blood testing in the Netherlands has discovered that only 3 percent to 4 percent of the people screened are immune to the coronavirus, leaving the vast majority of the population without natural biological protection – a sweeping vulnerability evident in Asian countries hit early by the virus only to see fresh flare-ups after initial containment.
Smit warned of the pandemic’s potential resurgence. Testing has revealed that coronavirus cases are underreported by a staggering 10- to 15-fold, a clarion call that countries “need to be very careful about how they re-open economies.”
That means in order to keep COVID-19 at bay until a vaccine is developed, the best defenses will remain temperature monitoring, contact tracing, quarantining, social distancing, mask wearing, frequent hand-washing and other proven protective measures. And while the relative contribution of each safeguard to slowing COVID-19’s spread is unknown, Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan and other Asian countries have shown that “if you apply them all, you are likely to keep this virus under control,” Smit said.
It remains to be seen whether protections the U.S. and European countries have put in place will stave off the virus as effectively as the rigorous measures implemented by Asian countries and, if the Western regions deploy a different cocktail of safety protocols, how well they will work. The re-opening of their economies promises to reveal the answers – and the McKinsey recovery scenario they’ll face. These and other open questions help explain the uncertainty of the executives McKinsey polled.
Pandemic Supercharges, Adds New Urgency to Long-Term Trends
What is known is that, far from upending the way all organizations operate, COVID-19 is supercharging secular trends and showing that people can react with dizzying velocity when confronting global mortal threats. That speed, Smit said, “is not determined by the potential of technology, but by events."
For decades, doctors and technologists have teamed to develop ways to examine and treat people from afar, yet telemedicine managed to eke out only small, incremental gains in adoption. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, patients have flocked online, with virtual doctor’s visits accounting for more than 70 percent of all physician-patient interactions. “People like it, and we can reach many more patients as a result. It happened in a few weeks,” Smit said.
Similarly, teachers and unions have only inched toward digital communications for years, fearing job losses in education at the hands of technology. When schools closed recently under shelter-in-place orders, teachers quickly switched to online lessons. The transition, Smit said, took one weekend. Meanwhile, as office workers holed up at home, usage of teleconferencing applications skyrocketed.
“We’re collectively learning at unprecedented speed,” Smit said. “We’re sharing. We’re learning about supply chains. We’re learning about collaboration. We’re learning about masks. We’re learning about contact tracing. We’re learning how to work more efficiently. We’re learning from real-time data about the behavior of people. And we’re investing collectively enormous sums in finding cures and treatments and expanding hospital capacity.”
While the coronavirus’s blistering spread caught many countries off-guard, Smit expects scientists to spare no effort to innovate. Expressing hope that new medical interventions will be available by summer, Smit said the world needs to buttress its key lines of defense against the coronavirus until a vaccine is developed – a shield that will quicken the global economic recovery.
“The race is on," he said.
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Michael Hall is a marketing communications manager at SEMI.