In light of the first Coronavirus case being confirmed in South Africa yesterday, employers will need to be more stringent in their approach to managing what the World Health Organisation (“WHO”) has declared to be “a global health emergency” in their workplaces.

It has been said that false information about COVID-19 (otherwise known as the Coronavirus) is spreading faster than the virus itself. Understandably, this has created global hysteria, but what do we really know about the Coronavirus?

The virus is a highly transmissible respiratory disease, with a mortality rate which WHO estimated as recently as 3 March 2020 at around 3.4%. Similar to influenza (or the flu), the Coronavirus is transmitted through respiratory droplets. In other words, inhaling or ingesting these droplets that have been released by an infected person who may be some distance away. Most people infected with the virus experience mild flu-like symptoms and recover. However, the risk of more severe symptoms, and possibly death, increases with age and is more prominent in those with weakened immune systems. For example, individuals who suffer from conditions such as HIV/AIDS, diabetes, heart and lung disease are more susceptible to experiencing serious illness if infected with the virus.

Considering the manner in which the virus is transmitted, and how easily and quickly it has spread across the world thus far, it is understandable that employers are concerned about the virus penetrating their four corporate walls.

So, what should South African employers be doing? Employers have a legal obligation to provide and maintain a safe, healthy work environment and to use reasonable endeavours to limit risk to employees. In the context of the Coronavirus, employers should be looking to do as much as is reasonably possible to ensure that its workforce is not susceptible to outbreak.

Some of the recommended steps for employers include:

  • creating awareness in the workplace about the Coronavirus and its risks, and communicating transparently and responsibly about the latest news on the virus. For example, posters and other marketing tools promoting hand washing could be useful;
  • in order to determine which employees are infected or at risk of infection, implementing a procedure to encourage employees to disclose if they have:
    • any symptoms indicative of the virus;
    • travelled to or intend travelling to affected areas; and/or
    • been in close contact with anyone who they know has the virus or has travelled to any affected areas;
  • circulate a list of relevant contact details should an employee get infected;
  • advise all employees of the preventative measures that they can practise on a daily basis. For example, employees should:
    • wash their hands frequently and properly with soap for at least 20 seconds after touching others or exposed surfaces; and
    • avoid touching body orifices such as the mouth, eyes, nose; and
    • ensure that any wounds or bites that breach the skin barrier are covered to avoid ingress.
  • ensuring that the workplace is clean and hygienic, eg, regular cleaning of shared areas, placing of hand sanitisers in shared places where access to water and soap is unavailable.
  • discouraging or restricting (personal and business) travel to any affected area until the virus has been contained, alternatively, advising employees and contractors to obtain credible national travel advice before travelling to affected areas; and
  • employers would be well advised to:
    • direct “at risk” employees to seek medical assistance immediately and get tested for infection. If they test positively, the relevant medical professional or official will be required to report the matter to the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (“NICD”);
    • advise employees who suspect that they may be infected with the virus, or who have travelled to affected areas, or who have been in close personal contact with others who have travelled to affected areas, to stay at home and isolate themselves until they have been tested, received medical attention, and recovered; and
    • if there are reported cases of the Coronavirus in the workplace, immediately contact the Department of Health or a known medical official to inform them that their workplace has been compromised so that it can be reported to the NICD.

Ultimately, to manage the Coronavirus epidemic effectively in the workplace, it is vital that employers confront it head-on in a proactive, context-responsive and precautionary manner, while making an effort to contain panic as much as they do the virus.