Coronavirus: What to do NOW – and how it affects entrepreneurs, our lives, and our businesses

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🇬🇧 THE ARTICLE BELOW IS IN ENGLISH.
🇫🇷 Traduction française ici : Coronavirus: infos importantes, et comment cela affecte nos vies et nos entreprises

This is all based on data I’ll provide links for, and most of it is not catchy enough to be explained on TV. So… this message is important but it’s long. Like record-breaking long.
In case you only have a very short time, I’ll start right away with the critical information.

BTW: this is not medical advice, etc. (I’m serious. As you read  you’ll be surprised to see that it isn’t)
READ THIS FIRST – IMPORTANT MESSAGES  (laid out as a CONVENIENT, EASY TO READ BULLET-POINT LIST)

  • It looks like a pandemic is about to start.
  • This is different from previous « flu pandemics ». This virus seems to spread for a long time with carriers that do not show symptoms, and also manifests with mild symptoms in 81% of cases (which gets it confused with the flu or a regular cold). It spreads really well, to lots of people, before the carrier ever shows symptoms.
  • IN SHORT : You’re likely to get the coronavirus.
  • Nobody knows how bad it will be. BUT:
    • If you’re over 60, OR a smoker, OR have a medical condition, you might want to take steps to avoid/delay being contaminated since these are the riskiest groups (https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/coronavirus-age-sex-demographics/ )
    • If you’re under 60, and not in the risk groups, then don’t dismiss the importance of avoiding to pass along the virus to an at-risk person (say, elderly parents) while you yourself might feel just fine.
  • We may have a window of opportunity now to make some practical preparations. We must make the most of it – even though the effort may be wasted if a severe pandemic doesn’t happen.
  • What matters most is how households, neighborhoods, community groups, and businesses prepare.
  • Individual and community preparations will focus on three tasks:
    • reducing each person’s chance of getting sick,
    • helping households with basic survival needs during a pandemic,
    • and minimizing and coping with larger societal disruption.
  • The more prepared you are, the later you get sick. Say everybody was going to get sick anyway, then there is a distinct advantage to getting sick later rather than sooner: we’ll know more, have faster testing, be closer to a vaccine, etc.
  • Social distancing will be important but unpleasant.
  • School closings present a particularly difficult social distancing dilemma.
  • Hand-washing is far from a panacea. But it’s easy, it’s under your control, and it has no significant downside.
  • Like washing your hands, wearing a facemask may help a bit. But it has more downside than washing your hands.
  • Getting ready for a pandemic is largely about preparing for possible shortages.
  • It’s probably too late to stockpile much now, but do what you can.
  • Now is also the time to think about how you will care for loved ones at home.
  • As a business leader, I believe it’s our responsibility to anticipate rather than react. We have a responsibility to our customers, our teams, our communities.
  • If the pandemic is severe, the hardest job won’t be coping with the disease itself. It will be sustaining the flow of essential goods and services, and maintaining civil order.

That’s it in a nutshell! If you just read that and passed this information around, then we are much further ahead already.

If you want to get all the data so you understand this all better, then I’d like to share:

  1. Why the pandemic will likely NOT be contained (hint: it’s not realistic and it’s probably not what governments are trying to do, either)
  2. Some context: why am I compiling this information? (I’m an entrepreneur not a doctor)
  3. Why we need to act now rather than wait for more news flashes to « make up our mind » 
  4. What the definite, probable, and likely consequences are
  5. What I’m doing
  6. What I’m telling other people to do (and why it’s not the same as #5 above)

Hey – by the way, I’ll use the expression « the coronavirus » here because that’s how regular non-doctor humans speak, but I’m of course referencing the novel Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, also known as SARS-CoV-2, which causes a disease which bears the unimaginative name of coronavirus disease 2019 or COVID-19.

WHY THE CORONAVIRUS IS UNLIKELY TO BE « CONTAINED »

Why is this not just « yet another flu »

  • Viruses like Ebola or the H5N1 (« bird flu ») are scary because they are extremely deadly. They kill more than half of all recorded cases. But because of that, it’s harder for the virus to spread (Ebola victims are not walking around contaminating other people for long ; AND you can’t spread Ebola before you have symptoms which makes it easier to locate and isolate contaminated people)
  • It is similar with SARS, which is a pretty deadly virus, but SARS symptoms show early, andyou’re mostly contagious in the second week of symptoms, so it is a « fairly easy » virus to quarantine. Just lock up anyone with symptoms and voila! SARS is contained.
  • On the other hand, viruses like the seasonal flu, or swine flu (H1N1), spread really easily BUT have a low fatality rate  (about a billion people have contracted swine flu at some point in the last 10 years and most people probably don’t even know they’ve had it). So swine flu has killed about 200,000 people in the worst year, and the seasonal flu kills about 290k-650k per year. We’re used to it, we vaccine people as much as we can, and we call it a day.

So why all the fuss now?

  1. Coronavirus is interesting because people seem to be spreading it while still showing no symptoms. It’s called asymptomatic shedding and it’s a huge problem when you try to contain an epidemic, since we have seemingly-healthy people flying around all over the place, like this « super-spreader » salesman who single-handedly started foyers of the coronavirus in 3 new countries. The Pareto principle seem to apply, and just 10% of infected people might be responsible for 80% of the transmissions.
  2. The period during which contaminated people can feel just fine seems to be up to 27 days (more than the 14 announced earlier)
  3. Coronaviruses can persist on inanimate surfaces like metal, glass or plastic for up to 9 days. People touch a LOT of metal, glass and plastic surfaces in public spaces in the course of 9 days.

For those reasons, « containment » (say, quarantining people in small Italian towns, or forbidding Chinese citizens to travel around) is not likely to work. In fact, this virus is spreading way faster than SARS, actually even faster than Swine Flu, which, remember, ended up spreading to A BILLION people.  Here is an super-short animation you should watch : if there was a race between SARS, Swine flu, Ebola, and the coronavirus it would look like this.
And to be fair, the goal of containment measures is NOT to stop the virus from spreading. It is to slow it down. Virologists have been asking the World Health Organization to stop communicating as if we’re trying to « stop » the virus – because it prevents people from getting ready, by creating a false sense of safety, and a feeling of « it’s not in my backyard so why should I care ».

CONTEXT: OK SEBASTIEN, WHY DO YOU CARE? AND WHY WOULD YOU KNOW ALL THIS? YOU’RE NOT EVEN A DOCTOR.

In case you don’t know me well, I am indeed not a doctor. I’m an entrepreneur and my company creates online trainings, and seminars, for business owners.
I know all this because I had to do all this research to make an informed decision for our most important event of the year. We were flying in a prestige guest, business legend Jay Abraham, to teach a 4-day high-end workshop in Nice, France. The event was set to start this Thursday (Feb 27th). On Sunday, Feb. 23rd I got a call from Jay, who was then in Italy. He was scheduled to speak at a 5,100-people event in Rimini that was just forcibly cancelled by the local government. At the same time, Italy announced that they were quarantining 52,000 people in 10 cities because of several new confirmed cases of the coronavirus. To be more precise: by « several », I mean they went from 3 confirmed cases to 150+ confirmed cases in about two days. Jay and his wife were leaving the country as quickly as they could, in order to avoid being stranded in Italy since quarantines might be extended, and neighboring countries might consider restricting travel from Italy.
I had previously dismissed news about the coronavirus, like many people are still doing, because I was thinking « yet another scare for the media to sell more advertising » and other knee-jerk reactions. Plus, it’s really easy to ignore the media cycle since I don’t own a TV, radio, nor read newspapers/news sites.
The Italian quarantine was enough to get me out of this low-information diet. Within 24 hours, I had done my research and consumed an enormous amount of data, starting with what the actual epidemiologists were saying. Through a convoluted series of coincidences, I even ended up having a 50-minute conversation with Tim Ferriss in the middle of the night (you can read his preliminary conclusions on the coronavirus issue here), who recommended other resources and sent me on an even longer journey of research.
One non-medical point was salient to me as I was assessing the situation: containment sends a message. For China to take such drastic measures is one thing. For them to talk about it and report such high numbers (which you’d assume are still an underestimation) is another significant data point. And then it was clear that 

  1. (a) Italy cancelling the end of the Venice Carnival must have been a hard call to make,
  2. (b) quarantining cities in Europe is not something to be taken lightly,
  3. (c) anything that shows up by surprise in Northern Italy is either already in Nice, or on its way there.

There’s a lot more to it. (And this text contains many of the links that brought me to my final decision).
Basically, I was faced with a decision to either 

  • do « business as usual », or
  • follow the data, and preserve our attendees from possible sanitary risks… which means I’d bear the cost of postponing or cancelling our event – a decision cost of about $440,000 when taking into account our sunk cost, the speaker’s fee, the crew, plane tickets, hotels, the venue, surprise artists, and opportunity cost. That’s roughly 30% of our entire annual revenue in our best year.

At this point nobody else was cancelling events. Many of my friends, and many of the attendees, were AT international events at the very same time I was considering the health risks of holding this one.
But it came to this simple scenario (real people, I’m just changing the names):

  • Miguel flies to my event from Mexico. He’s a young guy, healthy in his twenties.
  • Suppose that at this event, he meets François. François is European, but has been traveling quite a bit these past few weeks and has a bit of a cough – nothing serious, not even a fever, he feels just fine and is excited to attend the event. So he flies back to Europe, from NYC, and they meet in my seminar room.
  • You can guess where I’m going with this – Miguel gets the coronavirus from François (or from a waiter, or from Jay or myself for all I know) AT MY EVENT.
  • Luckily, he’s young and healthy and shrugs off any symptoms. BUT on the day after flying back to Mexico from MY EVENT, Miguel visits his beloved but ailing grandfather Papi José at the hospital on the way home.
  • Two weeks later, Papi José dies. Tests show that the virus killed him and it is MY RESPONSIBILITY.

Wait! Is it MY problem and MY responsibility if people are willing to fly to my event, are unworried, and don’t care about the virus ? Yes it is. I am responsible for my people. The minute they placed the trust in me to buy that ticket I acquired that responsibility of placing their safety first.
Rough analogy: One of my aunts is allergic to seafood but loves to eat it anyway. If she comes to MY HOUSE and says she’d be fine (even though I know she’s allergic), will I ever serve her prawns for dinner at MY table? Not going to happen.
So. I consulted with Jay (within that timeframe, the situation had yet evolved further, with 2 suspected cases in Nice, amongst other factors) and we took the decision, at my request, to postpone the event. Here is the email we sent our attendees. I’ve been dealing with the fallout since and will be for a while.
To be clear: I hope I’m wrong. 
Writing this puts me in a weird spot of probably 5-10 days of public ridicule*, followed by either 

  1. some deep awkward silence through March as people take stock of what’s really happening, and then a bit of panic and really bad outcomes, OR
  2. a few more decades of public ridicule as I’m proven spectacularly wrong in the next month and year.

I’ll gladly choose the public ridicule outcome any day.
My « superpower », which has served me very well in business, is to gather a ton of complex information, digest it, learn to understand it, and then explain it in a structured, simple way. This is what I’ve decided to do here, and why I’m sharing all this.
I’ve done my best to link to all my sources, and to do as little speculation as possible. Basically this whole piece is a structured compilation of data from many experts, in one place, in as simple a language as I could manage.
* I started writing this on Monday but it took me long enough to write, that both the American CDC and the French government are now telling people they « need to prepare », so I guess maybe the ridiculing will be shorter than expected.

OK, BUT SÉBASTIEN, THE GOVERNMENT IS NOT SAYING ANYTHING REALLY WORRYING. WHY DO WE NEED TO ACT NOW ?

For authorities faced with a pandemic, the right thing to do is to…

  • Stop it altogether. As soon as they can. (sometimes it does work, if you can catch it when it’s still local to just a small number of cases)
  • Failing that, they need to slow it down. Because it reduces the peak burden on the health system (so less people die untreated in the corridors, less doctors fall sick, etc.) and it reduces infections overall.  Even if you know that dozens of undiagnosed people are still running around passing the virus along, it is still worth quarantining a couple (or dozen) cities when they show the first confirmed cases because it reduces the number of infected running around – and slows the spread of the epidemic.
  • But you need to tell the people to get ready, so that they have the time to adjust. The “adjustment reaction”  is a step that is hard to skip on the way to the new normal.  Going through it before a full-blown crisis is more conducive to resilience, coping, and rational response than going through it mid-crisis.  Officials make a mistake when they sugarcoat alarming information, postponing the public’s adjustment reaction in the vain hope that they can avoid it altogether. (see  http://www.psandman.com/col/teachable.htm)

  So, my friends, I’m writing this to help you get ready.
So here’s a quick view of the near future based on the data that is currently available to me. This part is just MY interpretation and I’m open to feedback/comments.

WHAT IS DEFINITELY GOING TO HAPPEN
This virus is already hurting the economy and will have a much deeper impact in a few weeks/months. Case in point: my postponing of a small event in Nice is costing me a huge percentage of a year’s revenue and profits. It is also costing the venue, hotels, AirBnBs and restaurants a lot of revenue. It is costing the attendees money (although I managed to negotiate w/ the hotel to reschedule rooms, which makes them my favorite people in the world right now, but emphasizes my point about monetary cost – to the hotel in this case).
Can you imagine the lost revenue and profits from canceling the Carnival in Venice? Fashion shows? Sports events? The lost revenue and profits from shutting down the production capacity of… China!?
Even if the virus miraculously disappeared with the spring, as some of the most powerful people in the world have predicted, we will still pay the price in the coming year.
Therefore I believe it is crucial to be aggressive in pursuing opportunities, getting additional training, make hay while the sun shine, and then as the economy reels, to be even more open to the new opportunities that will open when less-prepared companies will flounder and leave markets and niches under-served or empty.

WHAT’S EXTREMELY LIKELY TO HAPPEN

  • The virus will spread outside of « containment »  and reach a significant number of cases. It is relatively fast to go from no or almost no confirmed cases, to hundreds or more per country in just a few days, like Italy – it basically has been happening in those countries that somehow decided to actually run tests. So if you live in a country that has « very few » cases, but is testing no one at the moment (not even, say, people with pneumonia symptoms)… just know that the number might change if they ever start testing.
  • More places will be quarantined, or flights suspended, and new governments will play that card when the virus starts spreading more in their country (because it is effective in slowing down the spread, initially)
  • Country after country, city after city, when the first cases show and measures are taken (closing schools, quarantines, etc.), the supermarkets will be stormed.
  • And then all of a sudden we will switch to local measures : suspending public transport, closing entertainment venues, and banning public gatherings. These measures, when taken proactively (BEFORE the first case is declared) have been shown very effective – reducing the spread by 37% in the week after the first case.
  • Many people, however, might NOT understand why the « big » measures were suddenly removed and replaced by « little » measures (since the government isn’t communicating this already-foreseeable series of events to the population). And this might create un-needed stress and weird behavior from the humans in your community.

WHAT’S VERY LIKELY TO HAPPEN

  • 40-70% of adults might catch the coronavirus if there is no « miraculous » surprise.
  • So: You and people around you will catch the coronavirus, and so will I. Not now. But certainly at some point. (Remember my earlier point about the advantages of catching it as late as possible?)
  • Some hospitals will get overwhelmed at the peak of the epidemic. Some social unrest in places. And basically, because this is a big planet and some people are already rioting/fighting/looting somewhere all of the time, some of that will happen and will be blamed on the virus.
  • Sales of « prepper » books and supplies will probably skyrocket. You might still be able to find food in a deserted, emptied supermarket if you look at the top shelf. (the hilarious caption to this photo says in Italian that this is proof that people would prefer to die of starvation rather than eat Barilla pasta)
  • Financial markets might at some point take stock of what is happening and the recession/crash/bear market/end-of-the-world-for-a-little-while that many people have been clamoring for for years might actually happen. Or not. That’s a system that’s way more irrational than the scope of this discussion.

WHAT MIGHT HAPPEN

  • As countries and cities play the quarantine/travel restrictions game for a while, you might get stranded somewhere you don’t want if you’re not, right now, in the place you’d want to be during a major crisis.

MY PERSONAL DECISION THROUGH THIS CRISIS(aka. what I’m doing)  

  • I’m 34, my wife is 33, our baby girl is 2 years old. We are fairly healthy (although all three of us have a cough now, heh heh!). So we’re not in the most at-risk group. Meaning, if we catch the disease, our fatality risk is (based on current data) the same as it would be for regular flu.
  • Members of our families over 60 years old have been warned, and made their choice to keep their social activities and enjoy living.
  • So we decided to also keep living (if it was JUST me I’d stay locked up in my house for a month but I’m an introvert. I don’t need any excuse to just stay locked up in my house). Alice is still going to daycare, we are still having dinner with friends.
  • However, we still
    • take precautions,
    • avoid touching surfaces in public spaces,
    • wash our hands,
    • walk around with 70%-ethanol sanitizer,
    • do our polite best to avoid getting coughed on, etc.
    • It’s not a battle to NOT get infected. It’s a race to be infected last. And to not have to fight mobs in supermarkets.

MY THOUGHTS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
(aka. what I’m telling others to do)

BUSINESS

  • As business leaders we have a responsibility to our people. I chose to do it by researching all of this information and making it clear and shareable. You can chose other ways. But you can’t abdicate your responsibility to your people. If this message makes sense to you, you can just copy/paste it (or just the important message bit at the beginning) to share with others*. If you think this is unwarranted/fear-mongering, then maybe you need to be the voice of calm and reason, and explain to your people why I and others like me are wrong?
  • Create redundancies
    • Having contingencies like cross-training (so that core functions won’t be derailed because certain key employees are out sick) is important.
    • Map out how you’ll stay connected if you have to work remotely. Do you have all team member’s contact info if someone’s phone or internet is down? Weird stuff happens in unplanned situations
  • Allow team members to work from home if they want to.
  • Pandemic planning research suggests that employees are likeliest to say they will show up for work during a pandemic if three specs are met:
    1. if they think their family is reasonably safe;
    2. if they think their employer is being candid with them about the situation; and
    3. if they have a pandemic-specific job assignment in addition to or different from their routine “peacetime” assignment.

PERSONAL LIFE

  • Slowly (so no one will accuse you of panic-buying) start to stock up on enough non-perishable food to last your household through several weeks of social distancing at home during an intense wave of transmission in their community.
  • Think through, now, how you will take care of sick family members while trying not to get infected by them.
    • If you have loved ones in an aged care facility, ask the facility about its plans for keeping their residents safe from flu (a similar situation) and whether they have thought about what they will do if SARS-CoV-2 is spreading widely.
    • Check that your parents and grandparents have prepared a Will and have considered an Enduring Power of Attorney in case they are unable to make care-based decisions for themselves.
  • Think through how you will take care of dependents if you are sick yourself.
  • Make plans for childcare when you are sick, or when your child is sick.
  • And of course: Take measures to not get sick (truthfully, these are actually measures to « get sick as late as possible »)
    • Practice touching our faces less. Right now, today, start practicing not touching your face when you are out and about!  You probably won’t be able to do it perfectly, but you can greatly reduce the frequency of potential self-inoculation.  You can even institute a buddy system, where friends and colleagues are asked to remind each other when someone scratches her eyelid or rubs his nose.
    • Replace handshakes with elbow-bumps (the “Ebola handshake”). 
    • Start building harm-reduction habits like pushing elevator buttons with a knuckle instead of a fingertip.
    • Build your immune system now. Get your vitamins, eat your vegetables, go for a walk barefoot in the sun (OK, not barefoot if you’re up North, that would defeat the purpose, but the rest stands)

CONSIDER STORING NEEDED ITEMS

  • Side note: if someone is shopping for your family, try to select the person who’s going to be the most cautious regarding washing hands, not touching their own face all the time, etc.
  • What to have in your cupboards
    • Try to get a few extra months’ worth of prescription meds, if possible. (In case of very predictable supply chain disruptions, and so that you won’t have to go out to the pharmacy at a time when there may be long lines of sick people) 
    • Paracetamol
    • Sanitizer. The coronavirus is destroyed by hydrogen peroxyde and 62-71% ethanol (regular alcohol-based hand sanitizer) in under a minute. 
    • Toilet paper
    • Food : we chose to aim for having a fully stocked kitchen of 21 days of our regular diet plus 90 days of « survival » diet (rice, beans, honey, oil, etc. I.e basic ways to get our calories).
    • Basic prepper stuff if you’re so inclined: Fire, Light, Heating and cooling, Hygiene, Power, Tools
    • I chose to withdraw some cash, as I don’t normally have any around
    • Mental health: board games, favorite books, headphones, movies downloaded to a tablet, etc.
    • Documents: copy of deeds/titles, insurance policies, birth certificates, maps, pictures of family members, etc. in both physical and USB thumb drive forms
    • Local & emergency info: write down important contact numbers, know the location of the nearest hospitals, etc.
  • What I chose NOT to buy
    • Every industry has « tourist traps ». Packaged « prepping » kits or MRE meals might be overpriced and not more practical than real-life equivalents.
    • I’m not one of the people who promote masks or bought any (they’re likely not available anymore in your area anyway). Masks have a steep social cost. They’re also better-than-nothing but imperfect (e.g don’t cover your eyes). Avoiding places where you’ll get coughed on might be a better choice than paying $150 for 10 non-compliant masks off Amazon.
    • I’m holding off on buying a gun (though I’m a really good shot) and holing into a bunker to avoid hordes of looters, or, worse, neighbors! – instead of that, we decided to be friendly with neighbors and attend Saturday’s neighborhood gardening meeting, and will be generous and forthcoming with advice and supplies if needed. While still avoiding to be coughed on.

FINANCES/INVESTMENTS

  • I’m a Mustachian (a member of an ironic cult which pursues « Financial Freedom Through Badassity ») so I’m going to advocate for people seeking financial freedom to just stay invested and not look at their accounts until this blows over and the market recovers. Actually, the possible recession would be like a « fire sale » on stocks, therefore an opportunity to buy more, not sell.
  • In full transparency, this is a case of « do what I say, not as I do ». Long story short, 2020 is the year where I had to leave my beloved online broker Degiro to move my investments to an account owned by my holding company rather than my person (which isn’t possible with Degiro anymore!). So I had to sell all of my equities sometime between January and April (when I expect the new broker to be set up). And, when I made the call for my workshop (see above), I did it for what I consider to be rational reasons that everybody else will surely also understand soon, triggering the infamous recession. So… I called the peak on Monday, Feb. 24th at 9:00AM Paris time and sold it all at market opening. I *WILL* get back into the market (whatever the valuation) as soon as I get my access codes to the new broker, but in the meanwhile I guess this makes me a rookie, involuntary market-timer. I will work this out with my conscience in a few weeks. Don’t worry about me.

AND THAT IS IT
If you read all that then wow! Bravo – but you must be totally overwhelmed by now.  So, just as a reminder, the bullet point list at the very top is the essential list of info to remember and to share with loved ones.
I love you! Be safe! And I hope that I’m dramatically wrong in my assessment of the situation, and that you get to laugh at me for decades to come when this all peters out. Right guys? Right?

With love from France,
Sébastien

*PS: My template for this communication is based on Peter M. Sandman and Jody Lanard’s recommendations to the World Health Organization, titled « What to Say When a Pandemic Looks Imminent »

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À propos de Sébastien

(Le Marketeur Francais : Biographie)Sébastien, surnommé "Le Marketeur Français", est consultant en stratégie marketing, spécialisé dans la croissance explosive des petites entreprises.

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