The coronavirus pandemic has killed more than 7,000 people worldwide out of around 173,000 confirmed cases at the time of writing.
But the situation is changing by the hour. In this blog, we’ll attempt to summarize what has happened, what is happening now and what is likely to happen as the impact of coronavirus on business becomes clear.
This is a long blog post that covers a lot of ground, so please click on any of the links below to skip ahead.
- Coronavirus Definitions and Origins
- History of the Coronavirus Pandemic to Date
- The Global Situation in Mid-March 2020
- China and Asia: How Businesses have been Affected
- Europe: How Businesses have been Affected
- America: How Businesses have been Affected
- Which Sectors are Most at Risk from Coronavirus
- How Can You Protect Your Business?
- What Does the Future Hold?
1. Coronavirus Definitions and Origins
It may be helpful to begin with a quick breakdown of all the terminology.
The disease at the heart of the pandemic is COVID-19. That name comes from:
- CO – for “corona”
- VI – for “virus”
- D – for “disease”
- 19 – for 2019, the year of discovery
2019-nCoV Acute Respiratory Disease is an alternative name in common use.
Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) or 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) is the virus that causes COVID-19. The coronavirus symptoms range from mile (temperature, cough) to acute (serious problems breathing) and resemble the common flu.
There are many different kinds of coronavirus, but those which affect humans cause respiratory tract infections. Some are serious, but some are not.
The “corona” part of the name comes from the virus’ appearance when viewed under an electron microscope, which looks like the halo effect seen during a solar eclipse.
Like other coronaviruses, SAS-CoV-2 is spread between people by droplets from coughs and sneezes.
COVID-19 first appeared in the Chinese city of Wuhan, a port on the Yangtze river of 11 million people. Wuhan is the capital of Hubei province in central China and the ninth-largest city in the country.
The Chinese authorities dated the first case to November 17, 2019, but did not recognize it as a new disease at the time.
During December 2019, hospitals detected a number of cases of unusual viral pneumonia. A high proportion of these was linked to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market.
This so-called “wet market” sold live animals and “bushmeat” as well as conventional meat and seafood.
Most experts agree that the virus originated in bats, although it may have made the jump to humans by way of pangolins.
China reported the outbreak to the World Health Organization on 31 December 2019. The market closed down the following day.
On January 7, 2020, the WHO confirmed that the cause of the disease was a new virus.
2. History of the Coronavirus Pandemic to Date
In very crude terms, the history of the outbreak to date can be divided into three monthly phases.
First Phase: January 2020 – The outbreak spreads through China
- January 11 – China confirmed the first fatality from the coronavirus, which occurred on January 9
- January 13 – The WHO reported a case in Thailand. This was the first outside of China.
- January 20 – China had reported more than 200 cases, which now included cases in Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen
The USA reported its first coronavirus case on January 21.
Starting on January 23 with Wuhan, the Chinese government began to quarantine heavily affected cities and close down entertainment venues.
The first EU case came to light in France on January 24.
Second Phase: February 2020 – China peaks and coronavirus spreads globally
By the beginning of February, the WHO had declared a global emergency.
In China, there had been 11.791 cases and 259 deaths, while cases had been reported in the UK, Sweden, India, Russia, Spain, Australia, Canada, Germany and elsewhere.
New cases and the death toll in China continued to rise rapidly in the first half of February.
1,300 people had died in China by February 13, when Japan reported its first fatality. Then France saw the first death in Europe the next day.
But from around this time, the spread of infection in China began to slow down. By March 12, authorities reported only 15 new cases.
However, new centers for the outbreak were emerging:
- On February 19, Iran reported two cases and two deaths within hours of one another
- By February 21, South Korea had suffered two deaths and over 200 cases
- By February 24, seven people in Italy had died from coronavirus
Through the rest of February, more countries that had been free of COVID-19 reported their first cases.
New case numbers shot up in South Korea, Iran, and Italy, but the death rate was much higher in the latter two countries.
Third Phase: March 2020 – China slows, Europe becomes center
By March 3, each had seen 77 deaths. Yet South Korea, with 3,105 cases had experienced only 17 by the end of February.
On March 10 alone, Iran reported 54 new deaths and Italy 168.
The next day, the WHO declared that the coronavirus outbreak was a pandemic.
3. The Global Situation in Mid-March 2020
The most reliable source for up-to-the-minute data is the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 interactive situation report.
Another good source that updates constantly and has country-level data is Worldometers.info.
But of course, the real numbers are likely to be much higher because not every case gets reported.
Many countries have also restricted international travel.
4. China and Asia: How Businesses have been Affected
The outbreak began in China, and so it was the first country to both feel the effects and to respond.
After initial criticism, many experts have recognized Beijing’s response as effective. If official figures are to be trusted, then the spread of COVID-19 is under control in China.
But it took very strict measures to achieve.
- Almost 60 million people in Hubei province were put into quarantine. Public transport was closed down and people were forbidden to leave their cities without permission. Wuhan remains under lockdown at the time of writing
- Indeed, many cities even imposed limits on people leaving their homes
- “Non-essential” businesses were told to close on February 13 – including manufacturers
And the impact on the economy has been severe.
- In late February, a survey of business owners found that two-thirds feared running out of cash before the end of May
- Although many companies are returning to work now, industrial output, retail sales, and investment have all plummeted
- Even in less affected areas, there is massive economic dislocation. Disrupted supply chains will lead to as-yet-unknown knock-on effects
In essence, China’s response was to do everything possible to bring coronavirus under control, once it had recognized the seriousness of the problem.
The economy came second.
Of course, what is “possible” in an authoritarian state like China is not necessarily possible in democracies.
Smaller Asian nations, such as Singapore and Taiwan, brought their initial outbreaks under control very quickly with fast, decisive, pre-emptive action:
- Travel restrictions imposed early
- Widespread testing
- Strict quarantine arrangements
- Clear public communications
A similar, albeit slower response is seeing the situation in South Korea and Japan beginning to stabilize.
These countries all had the experience of dealing with similar outbreaks: SARS in 2002-2003 and MERS in 2015. Problems that were identified then have been dealt with.
The economic standstill brought about in China has not been necessary for these other countries because of their advanced state of readiness and quick response.
5. Europe: How Businesses have been Affected
European nations have advanced healthcare systems, but none of the experience and readiness seen in many Asian countries.
- As of March 17, every country in Europe (except Montenegro) has reported cases of COVID-19
- On average, national case numbers are currently doubling every two to four days
- The World Health Organization now describes Europe as the “epicenter of the pandemic”
France, Italy, and Spain have announced extensive lockdowns and curfews. People may only leave their homes to buy food, to travel to work, to exercise or to attend medical appointments.
Many countries have imposed other restrictions, including international travel and border controls, and school and university closures.
The problem for businesses in Europe is that lockdowns are the only known way to stop the spread of infections.
In Italy, for example, the lockdown includes:
- Quarantining entire affected towns
- Requiring up to 16 million people in northern Italy to get permission to travel
- Closing all schools and universities
- Suspending all sporting events
- Closing all restaurants, bars and most shops – except for supermarkets and pharmacies
What this means for the economy has not yet become clear. Claudia Parzani of Linklaters in Milan told CityAM:
We are still in the first phase. We have just crashed into the wall and we are still understanding how to deal with it. But everyone is aware we are starting to face another crisis, which is the economic one.
Like many other governments across Europe, the Italian authorities have promised to spend billions in the hope that the economy can be restarted when the health crisis abates.
But that be too late for many companies.
The worst-affected sectors – tourism and transport – could be down by as much as 90%.
Italy introduced its lockdown on March 10 – about a week before any countries imposed comparable restrictions.
Therefore, it offers a glimpse into what may be in store for others.
6. America: How Businesses have been Affected
The USA is currently experiencing a very rapid spread of COVD-19.
Case numbers doubled between March 14 and March 16 to over 4,000.
Deaths to date are centered in Washington state (42 of 69; 29 of those from one nursing home). But as the chart above shows, there are also many cases in New York state. Only West Virginia has no cases to date.
However, early problems with testing kits mean that official figures are not yet entirely reliable.
The Center for Disease Control advised Americans against all unnecessary international travel, and foreign nationals coming from China, Iran, the EU, and the UK are barred from entry into the country.
Over 20,000 schools across 14 states have closed, and many universities including Harvard and Cornell have canceled classes and closed halls.
Although day-to-day life has not yet been disrupted in the same way as other parts of the world, the US stock market has crashed disastrously in the last few days.
A University of Chicago study in March showed that 51% of academics agree or strongly agree that a “major recession” will occur.
Experts predict a contraction of the economy of between 4% and 8% in the second quarter of 2020.
7. Which Sectors are Most at Risk from Coronavirus
– Events and Hospitality
Many governments have ordered to cancel large-scale events and conferences or closed down social venues like bars and restaurants.
While this will be very disruptive, businesses affected by official instructions like this are likely to be able to claim compensation through their insurance.
In the UK, however, the prime minister has not ordered any shutdowns. Instead, Boris Johnson has simply advised people to avoid them.
As a result, many bookings and events are being cancelled – but because these are “voluntary”, insurers are unlikely to payout.
Lockdowns have seen all but essential shops shut down in a number of countries, while curfews and quarantines are keeping shoppers away even where they are open.
An almost-universal phenomenon has been panic-buying in supermarkets, leading to shortages of essentials like toilet paper and pasta.
To survive, many businesses will need to step up their eCommerce game right away.
The struggling British carrier Flybe was the first airline to collapse as a result of coronavirus.
Other airlines have reduced their schedules, grounded fleets and laid off staff.
According to the Centre for Aviation, most airlines in the world will be out of business by the end of May without government bailouts.
– Travel and Tourism
With people unable or unwilling to travel, tourism is bound to take a big hit.
We’ve already mentioned estimates presented in Italy.
Worldwide, the picture is likely to be similarly bleak.
The World Travel and Tourism Council has suggested that as many as 50 million jobs could be lost globally if action is not taken.
In an environment where movement is restricted, any business that depends on people being in the same location – to work, to shop, etc – will need to adapt.
8. How Can You Protect Your Business?
We’ve tried to give a thorough picture of the impact coronavirus is having worldwide at the moment by compiling information from authoritative sources and pointing readers towards it.
But at the end of the day, Get A Newsletter is an email marketing tool.
We have to be realistic about what we can do to help businesses in such extreme circumstances.
And we have to be sensitive to the bigger concerns and problems many of our customers and readers will be dealing with.
But there ARE things that businesses can do to help protect themselves because a huge amount of economic activity – B2C and B2B – is going to move online.
So here are our tips.
#1 Start Emailing your Customers and Leads
Email marketing is cheap to set up and it’s THE most effective online marketing channel, bar none.
99% of people with email addresses check their inboxes every day. With less movement and travel, email is going to be checked more.
At the very least, you will be able to keep people informed about what is happening with your business with newsletters.
#2 Hone Your Calls To Action
More than ever before, success will depend on your ability to convert interested parties into customers.
You should take this opportunity to start testing different Calls To Action in your email marketing. See our guide to writing better CTAs here.
#3 Segment Your Audience Better
Segmented campaigns deliver 77% of all email marketing ROI.
Use this time to learn about your audience and what they want to see and hear from you.
The more you can personalize your messaging – from using people’s names to offering purchase history-based product recommendations – the greater success you will have.
#4 Use Social Media for Customer Service
Is your store closed or are your staff unable to man the telephones?
You can still offer comprehensive, real-time customer service to your customers via social media.
It is even possible to cater to many commonly-asked questions using simple chatbots, both on-site and through social media messaging platforms like Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp.
#5 Take it Online!
Video conferencing services have made massive improvements in recent years, and they are often very affordable.
For many service providers that work one-on-one, it is possible to move appointments online. This applies to roles as varied as:
- Therapists and mental health professionals
- Teachers, including language and music teachers
- Sales professionals
It is also relatively straightforward to set up online shops or to sell online through massive platforms like Amazon and eBay.
#6 Think Long Term
The best estimates say the current situation will last for weeks. The worst say months, even years.
While it is easy to be distracted by the difficulties your business is facing today, you should take this opportunity to consider how things are going to change.
This graphic from Nielsen shows how consumer behavior is likely to adapt to unfolding pandemic in each phase.
If the successful experiences of Singapore and Taiwan are anything to go by, the “new normal” will indeed alter public health practices permanently.
- What are people going to need and want?
- Can you fulfill those needs?
The trend towards eCommerce and away from in-store retail has been evident for a long time. Coronavirus is likely to accelerate that trend significantly.
#7 Swap in Software As A Service
When you use SaaS tools like Get A Newsletter, you pay only for what you use. There are no long contract periods. Services are not bundled together unnecessarily.
And, because SaaS tools are cloud-based, you can expect much greater resilience and up-time than with on-premises solutions.
Now could be a great time to look at your suppliers and maximize your flexibility.
If you run a very small business, sending 500 emails a month or fewer, Get A Newsletter is free!
9. What Does the Future Hold?
That’s very hard to say.
It’s clear that we are at the beginning of a long period of disruption unlike any in most people’s living memory.
The public health crisis has been brought under control in China but at the expense of enormous economic damage.
Other Asian countries have shown how those priorities can be balanced better, but Europe and the USA are now facing their own critical phases.
The next few weeks will determine whether the coronavirus pandemic turns out to be a short-term crisis or a long-term one.
For those of us in the business world, the best thing we can do is move as much of our activity online as possible so that life and commerce can continue through quarantines and lockdowns.