COVID-19: How Long Will Businesses Be Impacted?

By Helen Leis and Til Schuermann

This article was first published on March 26, 2020 on NACD BoardTalk

Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) has spread rapidly around the world and is currently at different levels of maturity across impacted countries. As a few nations begin to recover—with China reopening more than 60 percent of their factory production—most organizations globally are asking themselves how long their businesses are going to be halted by the health crisis.

Based on what has been observed thus far, and by looking at the early signs of recovery in China, Oliver Wyman foresees three major scenarios for how the pandemic crisis could unfold:

  1. Scenario 1 (three to four months to “normal”): Serial outbreaks in the United States and/or major trading regions are successfully contained, as they have reportedly been in China.
  2. Scenario 2 (up to a year to “normal”): Difficulties exist in containing the outbreak, with mitigating factors becoming significantly effective in the next quarter.
  3. Scenario 3 (more than a year to “normal”): There is an ongoing pandemic with insufficient containment, or mitigating factors fail to prove effective.

Will Other Mitigating Factors Contain the Spread of the Outbreak?

If global public health measures are ineffective in containing COVID-19’s spread, then the containment timeline of three to four months becomes increasingly unlikely. Thus far in the United States, we have not seen quarantines or testing at the levels of China or South Korea, but we have experienced major measures like international travel restrictions, cancellations of public events, social distancing measures, and selective lockdowns (such as in San Francisco).

Additional mitigating factors that would support containing the spread of the virus include COVID-19’s potential seasonality (resulting in lower transmission rates) or possible mutations that render the virus less virulent.

If the combination of these factors is effective enough to reduce the degree of infectiousness or case fatality rates, this could lead to public health mitigation efforts lasting up to a year from today (Scenario 2). Vulnerable industries would experience a continued drop in demand as consumer confidence wavers into the first half of 2021. In parallel, supply chain shocks would play out over a six-month period, after which momentum could begin to stabilize, recovering in the first half of 2021.  

Impacted countries would likely still experience a serious recession, and significant government and central bank intervention would need to be implemented (including extended unemployment insurance, credit support for small- and medium-sized enterprises, and large-scale funding and liquidity programs). Economies that are dependent on international trade would likely be hit harder, and consumer confidence would need to be rebuilt globally. Taken together, the economic effects from even this scenario could take as long as a year to fully recover from.

What Is the Worst-Case Plausible Scenario?

If the virus cannot be contained, and key mitigating factors such as seasonality or advantageous mutations do not come into play, then the COVID-19 timeline starts to extend. The virus could infect up to 80 percent of the United States  population, potentially placing sustained strain on health systems. The only means of halting the progress of the virus would be via vaccine—which could take more than a year to deploy.

The economic impact of taking more than a year to regain normality (Scenario 3) would be a severe recession in the order of the 2008 global financial crisis, stretching well into 2021 or beyond. This scenario would necessitate massive government support and central bank intervention, easily exceeding the scale of, for instance, the Troubled Asset Relief Program in 2008.

Businesses Need to Act Now.

At the time of this writing, and based on Oliver Wyman’s model to forecast the number of confirmed cases in a region or area based on the starting number of cases, daily case growth rates, the speed with which officials move to enact containment measures, and the effectiveness of those measures, Scenario 1 (three to four months to “normal”) is becoming increasingly difficult.

A lot of attention has been paid to potential actions governments and individuals can take. However, to ensure that their firms are able to weather the crisis, boards should discuss the following critical areas with their management teams:

  1. Business resiliency plans: Rapidly create or adapt existing contingency plans to ensure readiness for supply chain constraints, demand shocks, and impacts to business partners.
  2. People plan: Prepare for the impact to employees, creating policies and conducting reviews to ensure the health and safety of employees. This should include mental health, considering support mechanisms for employees, flexible working practices, and clear and consistent communications.
  3. Financial scenarios: Evaluate the financial outlook; model supply and demand across several scenarios; and identify potential strategies for managing variable costs, cash flow, and liquidity under alternative government policy programs and their expected efficacy.
  4. Customer outreach: Understand consumer concerns and evolving needs and incorporate them into the business continuity plan to maintain trust.
  5. Digitization Speed: Be aware that retail, financial services, and health-care companies in China have experienced a massive acceleration in key digital channels (100 to 900 percent growth) during the outbreak, leaving doubts about whether customers will return to analog channels after this crisis.
  6. Preparations for the long haul: Prepare for each of the above scenarios, such that the strategies will still prove effective in the worst-case scenario.
  7. Industry actions: Work alongside industry and government collaborators to share best practices, stimulate demand, and rebuild consumer trust.
  8. Recovery plan: Ensure that this plan includes processes to restore the supply chain, return to production, return employees to work, and reestablish the “new normal” for operations and customers.

Given the evolving nature of this crisis, it is understandable that the priority will be to ensure business continuity, if not survival. That being said, we envision structural shifts that will play out during this uncertain time, and by taking the long-term view now, businesses can significantly increase their ability to persevere through the crisis and to position themselves to thrive once it has ended.