There was a time where the COVID-19 death toll had passed 100. Could we possibly have imagined that we’d be here now at over a million deaths with millions of cases?
We sat down with Dr Mark Parrish and reflected on the lessons we have learned so far from the COVID-19 pandemic, including:
- how companies can better plan for the inclusion of global health and security into their Duty of Care agenda;
- top priorities and plans for organisations during the next few months;
- the long-term effects of COVID-19 on people and business;
- good things can we take away from the pandemic so far; and
- one of the more unusual COVID-related stories that Dr Mark Parrish was involved with.
Looking back, did you ever anticipate the pandemic would pan out the way it did?
Yes and No. Yes: we’ve always known that there would be a pandemic, the World Health Organisation has talked about it for ages. For us, it wasn’t unexpected, but to many of those organisations whom we work with, it was unexpected – some were better prepared than others.
No? Well, we’ve been surprised with the transmissibility of the virus and the speed that it has travelled around the world. And there has been a lot of disinformation, whether on social media or through other news content. I’ve found the ways which different countries have managed the pandemic to be interesting. For example, Asian countries with their previous history of SARS and other infectious diseases were more decisive, efficient, and long-term looking in their responses. Other countries have had different ways of dealing with it, which related to their natural character as well as their culture and political situation.
How can companies better plan for the inclusion of global health and security into their Duty of Care agenda?
One of the few good things to come out of COVID, from a business perspective, is that organisations are now much more focused on the area of health. It has traditionally been health, safety, and security, where ‘health’ would often be left at the end. I’ve always found that strange, when companies talk about their employees being their most important asset and with the majority of their costs being their staff.
We’ve seen an increasing need from companies requiring a health advisor and a recognition of that role’s importance: after all, companies have legal advisors, security advisors…what happened to health? The position of Chief Health Officer (CHO) is one we see much more now and we’re well equipped in that regard, because we can provide companies with full or part-time CHOs. And that CHO can 'phone a friend’ of more than a thousand other International SOS doctors and 3,000 other healthcare staff when he/she needs advice on pretty much anything health wise, in any country, in most languages and any health speciality. Companies may only need this service from us three days a month for instance, so it makes a lot of sense.
The other good thing about COVID is that it has made us understand and become much more aware of other healthcare related issues that arise from it. Mental health impacts from COVID is an example here, where many organisations have started to implement mental health policies and training to better support their employees.
What are the top priorities and plans for organisations during the next few months?
Mental health is a key priority. Also, companies shouldn’t become too COVID-myopic; other health issues haven’t stopped and they may be larger than the risks of COVID. Organisations need to understand their overall health risks, and how they are managing these to protect their workforce and businesses. We have adequate tools in our consulting practice which can help start this conversation with global companies. We can help give them ideas of where they may have gaps and work with them on prioritising those issues.
We’re ideally placed for international businesses with operations in many countries, health people in those countries and we understand local healthcare issues, regulations, and how they work. We can work at a global level and then translate policies to different countries and regions where local rules and regulations effect how they are applied.
We can do this in local languages too. A lot of companies perceive us as an ‘assistance’ company and that’s reinforced by our brand; while this is true and we are one of the few companies that can carry out medical evacuations in some of the most difficult conditions, in reality, over 90% of the service that our clients benefit from is prevention-based.
Can you share with us a unique or interesting COVID-related story that you were involved in?
Yes of course. We get all sorts of requests from various industries. I’ll share one memorable scenario with the media and tv sector. One of our large clients in this space was filming a Viking saga TV series and they had a question about face masks. This industry is particularly strict in their COVID management, they follow very tight protocols and carry out regular tests to ensure employee safety. I received a call from them which went a bit like this:
Film set: "we have an issue with face masks, we can’t get them to fit on the faces of our cast because they have big bushy beards!”
Mark: "that’s correct, you can’t use those tight masks with bushy beards. Could their beards be shaved off?”
Film set: "No, they’ll no longer be Vikings then!”
Mark: "Ok, can you put them back on with computer graphics or trim their beards?”
Film set: "they still won’t look like Vikings!”
We thought about different ways to help but the reality was that those guys weren’t going to look good with no beards. Then they called again and asked if we could provide 100 extra COVID tests between 8PM and 4AM, in a field in the middle of nowhere, in two days-time, for some extras filming a battle scene. I said yes and we phoned a lot of friends for that one. We had it all sorted when I got a call the day before to say "cancel it Mark. The whole set blew away in the storm last night and there’s no battle scene anymore.”
Regarding the long-term effects of COVID-19, what impact do you think this will have on people and business?
Businesses will realise that they need to be better prepared for pandemics and will understand that health is a significant risk. They will be in a better position to deal with the next pandemic, because there will be another one. But we have short memories. And when there is another pandemic in maybe ten or twenty years’ time, many of us will have forgotten the lessons we learned now, and we’ll need to start again.
What positives can you take away from the COVID-19 pandemic (so far)?
As well as the recognition of health being important to business? Telehealth. We do a lot of it already, but your local GP here where I’m based in the UK wasn’t doing much of it. They’re doing a lot more of it now, and there’s no reason that it shouldn’t continue. Another positive is the big impact in vaccine research and development. The technology in this regard has really ramped up. There wasn’t a lot of new technology in the last couple of decades, but this has significantly changed now. Moreover, our focus on dealing and better managing the mental health of our employees is a very positive outcome.
Special thanks to Dr Mark Parrish for his time to share such insightful and useful information. As this pandemic continues to evolve, it is important for us to reflect and to see what lessons we can take into the future. Three key takeaways from this interview include:
Takeaway #1: organisations are now much more aware and focused around the area of health, including mental health, with increasing demands for Chief Health Officers;
Takeaway #2: businesses will become much better prepared for future pandemics;
Takeaway #3: positive impacts in vaccine research and development as a result of new technologies.
Emotional support for your entire workforce is just one component of our Workforce Resilience service: everything you need to safely manage your global teams while they work around the world.
Dr Mark Parrish is the Regional Medical Director of Northern Europe for International SOS and responsible for the European consulting practice and the medical care delivered across the region.