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Exit strategy for disaster zones

Published on Friday, 22 Apr 2011
As Chinese citizens wait for flights home at Narita International Airport, in disasterhit Japan, companies such as CIGNA International Expatriate Benefits and International SOS arrange the accommodation and evacuation of their clients.
Photo: Bloomberg

The huge number of casualties and the devastation to homes and livelihoods following Japan's massive earthquake and tsunami have been a catastrophe for the people of that country. And the subsequent radiation leaks from the damaged Fukushima nuclear facilities have meant that the uncertainties surrounding health and safety issues in the affected region have not yet abated.

This has also been an anxious time for expatriate employees of local companies working in Japan and for their families, whether they are with them or back in Hong Kong.

Although the severity of events in Japan was impossible to foresee, many of the businesses and individuals from Hong Kong who were working there had arranged backup and support services they could call upon in case of emergencies.

"At the time of the disaster, CIGNA International covered hundreds of clients, their employees and their dependants living in the region," says Brock Judiesch, sales director for Hong Kong at CIGNA International Expatriate Benefits.

An organisation that CIGNA worked closely within weeks after the earthquake was International SOS (ISOS), a medical assistance and security services company.

Besides providing up-to-the-minute health and security advice over the telephone and via a special website, ISOS also assisted its members more directly.

"We arranged radiation check-ups for travellers returning from Japan if they had any health concerns," says Dr Ahmed Fahmy, ISOS medical director for Hong Kong, Taiwan and Korea. "We helped clients book commercial flights to return to their home countries or come to Hong Kong. At the same time, we organised chartered flights. Such evacuation involved the arrangement of flights, accommodation and land transportation."

ISOS has more than 9,200 corporate clients worldwide. They help globetrotting employees of these corporations deal with illness, pollution, adverse weather, tropical diseases, crimes and outbreak of civil and political unrest, along with natural disasters.

"Our doctors help them find the most appropriate care options," Fahmy says. "They also call us if they need personal security advice and journey management guidance.

"For our clients that operate in disaster-, disease- or war-torn areas, we often work with them to prepare robust crisis management protocols, medical evacuation response plans and incident management plans."

Business travellers may have an accident or become seriously ill in a remote area. In these instances, there may well be other tangible and intangible costs along with the initial expense of treatment and evacuation to a place with better medical care, according to Fahmy.

"These include staff replacement costs, disruption to the business and the suffering of the sick or injured staff and their families."

Last year, with the support of ISOS, the Association of Corporate Travel Executives published the results of a survey of the way in which corporations and organisations in the Asia-Pacific region "manage the risks of their global workforce".

Among the survey's findings, it seems that a cap on travel spending is a higher concern than security.

Although a few companies are sending their executives to high- or extreme-risk countries, 75 per cent of those that do send them fail to see the need to conduct travel safety training for their employees.

The Employers' Federation of Hong Kong helps local businesses recognise the need to plan for the unexpected when venturing abroad. "We conduct seminars with experts like International SOS to talk about the risk assessment on business travelling and overseas assignments," says the federation's Jodi Koon.

And in terms of insurance, some firms provide broader cover than others. "Our [CIGNA's] plans have few exclusions and unlike other health care companies, we cover illness or injury due to an act of God - such as the disasters in Japan - and treatment as a result of exposure to radiation," Judiesch says.

Risk business

  • Medical - the risk of being ill
  • Financial - the risk of paying for medical care
  • Treatment quality - the risk of receiving suboptimal health care at the location they are travelling to 

Advice from Dr Ahmed Fahmy, International SOS medical director for Hong Kong

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