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Navigating the Wuhan coronavirus: A guide for office-goers and employers

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Last evening (23 January), the Ministry of Health (MOH) confirmed the first case of the novel coronavirus infection (also known as the Wuhan virus, or nCoV) in Singapore. The affected individual has since been placed in isolation at Singapore General Hospital. The ministry has traced close contact to nine of his travelling companions, and one of these companions as been warded as a suspected case.

In light of this, the MOH has urged the public to remain calm and vigilant and adopt good personal hygiene practices, as it expects to see more suspected and imported cases given the high volume of international travel to Singapore.

The Ministry has provided the following precautions to be taken:

  • Observe good personal hygiene - Use a tissue when you sneeze or cough. Discard of any soiled tissue in a rubbish bin immediately.
  • Wash your hands frequently with soap, ensuring to wash off any dirt on your hands, under your fingernails and between your fingernails thoroughly.
  • If you have a fever, cough or running nose, wear a mask and consult a doctor immediately. Be sure to call the clinic in advance before you head down, to inform the doctor of your symptoms and travel history.
  • Avoid crowded places, and contact with anyone who is unwell.
  • Avoid consumption of raw food, and contact with live animals such as poultry and birds.
  • If you've recently come back from travel, monitor your health closely for two weeks following your return.
Meanwhile, Malaysia's Director-General of Health, Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah, has also issued an advisory, stating that the nation's National Crisis Preparedness and Response Center (CPRC) has received reports on four suspected Wuhan virus cases so far.

Of these, three have already been found negative, while the fourth and latest suspected case held at an isolation ward in a hospital in Sabah is in stable condition. Test results are likely to be available in the near future, per Datuk Dr Hisham's statement.

Employers and HR should also note the following advisory, jointly released by the Ministry of Manpower and the MOH, on flexible work, leave, and salary arrangements to manage employees' absence:In the case of absence due to work-related reasons

  • For employees who are required by employers to stay at home for reasons that are attributable to work (e.g. if they need to stay at home for a period and check for symptoms of nCoV after returning from a business trip to affected known countries), the employers should continue to pay them their salaries during their period of absence.
  • To minimise work disruptions, employers could arrange for telecommuting and remote communications access systems (e.g. teleconferencing) to allow the employees to work from home.
In the case of absence due to non-work-related reasons

If the employee has returned from non-work-related travel to affected known countries (e.g. for leisure or other personal reasons), the employer may, as a precautionary measure, require the employee to consult a doctor. If the employee is found to be unwell, he/she should consult the doctor who would issue medical certification if needed.

Further, if the employee is not unwell, but has to be absent from work due to non-work related-reasons, the following arrangements could be considered:

  • The employer may implement alternative work arrangements such as telecommuting to minimise work disruptions. Employers are encouraged to be flexible when implementing such arrangements.
  • For employees who have chosen to travel to known affected countries on their own accord (e.g. for leisure or other personal reasons) and are encouraged by the employer to stay at home upon return, the employer could grant them special leave of absence, with pay, based on the circumstances of the individual company and workers.
  • Employers are encouraged to adopt a flexible and enlightened approach to implementing flexible work arrangements.
  • The employer could also request the employees to take annual leave, treat the leave of absence as sick leave, and grant time-off or no pay leave if annual leave has been used up. Employers are encouraged to be flexible when implementing such arrangements.
  • For employees who need to stay at home for reasons such as taking leave to take care of family who have traveled to known affected countries and are exhibiting symptoms of nCoV, employers are also encouraged to adopt a flexible and enlightened approach in implementing flexible work arrangements as well as allowing employees to take their leave (e.g. annual leave). For employees who have used up their leave entitlements, employers could consider granting them no-pay leave during the period of absence.
  • Where applicable, by mutual agreement, employers and employees/unions could also agree on other arrangements for employees' leave of absence relating to the virus.
Medical benefits

If the affected employee has used up the medical benefits provided for, under the employment contract and/or collective agreement, employers should consider providing medical coverage as the employees concerned may face financial hardship during this time.

As a guide to keeping yourself and those around you safe and healthy, the World Health Organization (WHO) has put together a set of infographics, some of which are shown below. 

[gallery link="file" ids="130862,130863,130864"]

To help reduce the risk of you and your employees getting affected by the virus, do take note of the following tips:

  • As advised by the MOH, do try to avoid travel to the whole of Hubei Province, in view of the travel restrictions China has imposed on Huanggang and Ezhou. That said, those who need to travel to the affected areas are advised to check the ministry's website for regular updates.
  • If you or an employee are feeling unwell, and have any respiratory symptoms such as a cough, sneezing, or shortness of breath, wear a mask. More importantly, consult a doctor immediately and if you are still well enough to work, choose to work remotely instead of coming into the office (and encourage your unwell employee to do so too!).
  • If you are unclear about anything relating to the virus - what to do if you've recently travelled overseas, treatment methods, and more - do be sure to keep the MOH's FAQ page on the virus bookmarked.
The MOH has also shared the following Wuhan coronavirus health advisory:

Tip: Print these out and paste them around the office as a reminder.

Note: This article does not constitute medical advice. 

Lead image / 123RFInfographics / MOH and WHO

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