Covid - 19: A comparison of the impact between Italy, Japan, Singapore and Malaysia

  • 21 Apr 2020
  • Laura,  Kuniyuki,  Henry,  Mohan

In this article, 4 business continuity professionals and BCI members from Italy, Japan, Malaysia and Singapore compare the challenges faced in each country and share their suggestions for the coming 'return to normal' phase.

What happened in your country and what were the key challenges on business continuity and crisis management?


The ongoing Coronavirus pandemic has started in Italy in late January, when two tourists in Rome tested positive for the virus, a cluster of cases was later detected in late February in Lombardy and, by the beginning of March, other cases have been registered in other Italian regions. 

Starting from March 9 the government of Italy under Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte started to impose a national lockdown considering some measures like social restriction, ban of non-essential travel, closure of selected business and public events and teaching in schools and universities. 

On numbers at May 2, we registered 100.704 people tested positive, 79.914 patients recovered, 28.710 died.

New instructions applicable starting from May 4 have been presented on April 27 following the guiding principle of protecting people's health and will be adapted to how the contagion curve goes. The main indications are the followings:

The reopening of companies is allowed on the condition that security protocols are respected;

  • Bars and restaurants will reopen for takeaway service;
  • Retail shops will reopen on 18 May along with museums and libraries. Hairdressers, beauty salons, bars and restaurants are expected to reopen for dine-in service from 1 June;
  • People will be allowed to move around their own regions, safety distance must be at least one metre;
  • Value added tax will be scrapped on facemasks and the price will be blocked at 50 cents;
  • Individual athletes can resume training, and people can do sports.

The uncertainties of the current environment serve as a powerful reminder to the decision-makers of the need for resilience planning including more and more the pandemic scenarios, building a proactive organizational culture, awareness and focus on performance and will be a great opportunity for us to improve our resilience in the future.

Although the Covid-19 pandemic is the most severe crisis we ever seen, we experienced some challenges on the management of crisis starting from the Covid-19 threat magnitude recognizing, the systematic response setting and the communications on the strategies to put in place.

On business continuity, the companies have been strongly impacted by the pandemic due to the strong and interconnected impact at global level, in addition to the national and international government restrictions put in place. The first step challenges have been mainly related to:

  • Crisis Management Plans or Business Continuity Plans not fully updated to support a pandemic scenario, having a deep time duration;
  • Adequate remote working capacity to support the operations and the critical activities based on a proper digitalization of processes with a proper security level;
  • Procurement of personal protective devices and assurance of social distancing;
  • Face risks with growing impact over time, mainly related to HR, Supply Chain, Strategic & Financial, ICT, Legal & Compliance (e.g. security risks related to remote working on possibly unsecure networks vulnerable to hackers or not controlled use of communications tools, increased numbers of absenteeism, loss of demand);

Due to the difficult procurement caused by whole low stocks or delivery issues because of border blocks, some companies started to diversify the production lines to satisfy the high internal request of facemasks, coats for healthcare workers, sanitizing liquids and respiratory machines. The product and services diversification strategies, have been a strong demonstration of react capacity and innovation.


The first case of COVID-19 in Japan was found at 15 January, however the cases were limited in small numbers until we faced the outbreak on the cruise ship at the port in Yokohama at February. It had been under very difficult situation for infection control because it was legally outside of Japan - the ship is registered in UK, owned by American company, and the passengers had not entered Japan yet at that time. As a result, infection control operation was not perfect, then over 600 people were infected, and it led negative impact on confidence in crisis management capability of Japanese government.

The number of the infected cases in Japan is increasing since February and we can't find any sign of declining despite the Japanese government declared a state of emergency at 7 April. The followings are summary of the current situation in Japan (as of 28 Apr.):

  • The declaration of the state of emergency was done, however the government can't force people to stay home because the law (*1) does not allow the government to limit people's right except some special occasions. So the government just asked citizen to stay home, avoid crowded situation. Additionally, the government seems to have their priority on mitigation of negative impact on economy, so they are inactive to limit business activities. These conditions make infection control difficult.
  • The infection control team of Japanese government have their priority on 1) breaking the chain of clusters of infection and 2) saving severe cases to avoid death. On the other hand, they didn't allocate much resource to improve capability for PCR test. Therefore there might be many "hidden" infected people exists.
  • Currently death rate in Japan is relatively low in comparison with European countries. (source: )
  • Four prefectures including Tokyo metropolitan government have launched "Stay Home Week" campaign from 25 Apr. to 6 May. The campaign contains suggestion to the companies to expand their holidays to 12 days (*2) and recommendation to implement working from home.
  • The expiry date of the state of emergency is 6 May, and it might be extended with evaluating future situation.

*1) "Act on Special Measures for Pandemic Influenza and New Infectious Diseases Preparedness and Response" established at 2012 and revised at 2020.
*2) The days from 29 Apr. to 6 May (8 days) are holidays of schools, public sector, and many companies in Japan, it is called as "Golden Week" consist of several national holidays and weekend. So "Stay Home Week" campaign suggest to add 4 days on that.

Following to the local situation above, I'd like to point out some challenges on Japanese organizations which come from local situation:
a)     As mentioned above, the number of confirmed cases which released by the government doesn't display actual number of all infected cases. It makes the organizations difficult to evaluate current situation and forecast.
b)     The leadership of the government is still unclear, and financial support from the government for citizens who have lost income is very limited (and it is still under preparation process). As a result of that, many people tend to continue to work, small and medium enterprises don't want to stop their business despite the government asked them to stay home.
c)     Many Japanese organizations are struggling (or inactive) to implement remote working solution. According to the survey which was operated by Shinken Press at the middle of March, only 24.5% of respondent answered "implemented remote working" and 29.8% answered as "partially implemented", much less than the result of the BCI’s Coronavirus Organizational Preparedness Repot. Therefore many people still have to go to their office, then it is difficult to decrease traffic on public transportation.
d)     We can't expect to stop spreading and decreasing infected cases in short term because b) and c) of the above would make infection control ineffective. So the Japanese organization should prepare very long battle against pandemic.

Additionally I'd like to add some explanation about cultural background related to implementing working from home or remote meeting.
One of the bottleneck for Japanese companies on transformation of business process is using seals. Various seals like the picture below are required for some business documents. Recently the opportunities to use seals is decreasing, but it is still required for some important processes (e.g. contract, financial process, some official documents). Without stop using seals, it would be impossible to transform paperwork process to online.
Another bottleneck would be the way of thinking about meetings. Some Japanese business people (mainly older generation) believe that web meeting or conference call is not good for their communication because it is difficult to express/catch their feelings in comparison with real meeting. Furthermore, some Japanese think that online meeting might be disrespectful to the important person. Since such cultural background, web meeting and phone conference is not so popular in Japanese business scene before pandemic.
So, in many Japanese companies, implementation of working from home or remote meeting have been done over conflict with old way of thinking or culture.


Singapore was alerted on the coronavirus outbreak and started screening inbound travellers from Wuhan, China, from 3rd January 2020 and expanded this screening to all inbound travellers from China from 22nd January 2020. 

Despite these efforts, Singapore detected their first COVID-19 case on 23rd January 2020. This was an imported case from a Chinese Tourist and his family, arriving in Singapore 3 days earlier. Upon his diagnosis, the Singapore Government began its efforts to implement contact tracing. Within 5 days, there were 7 cases of the Coronavirus in Singapore, all Chinese Nationals from Hubei province. 

In our attempt to stem the spread of this outbreak, all travellers who had been to mainland China were imposed with a 14-day leave of absence and told to isolate themselves. All visitors who Hubei-issued passports or with recent travel history to Hubei were not allowed to enter or transit in Singapore. 

Within 2 weeks from the first positive case of the coronavirus being detected in Singapore, there were evidence of local transmissions with the first cluster emerging. By 7 February 2020, the Singapore Ministry of Health had raised the Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) level from Yellow to Orange (the current level at the time of this article). 

The day that the DORSCON Orange level was announced, supermarkets across the nation reported panic-buying, wiping the supermarket shelves clean of ‘instant’ foods with longer shelve-life such as instant noodles and canned food. 

From 15th March, there was a second wave with a spike in COVID-19 cases in Singapore, with daily number of cases reported in the double figures. This is partly due to the return of many Singapore residents from abroad. The local government had urged many of its residents who were working or studying abroad to return. Another issue that was uncovered was that due to the living conditions of the foreign workers in overcrowded dormitories, containing the spread of the coronavirus was a challenge. Active testing was done in the foreign workers dormitories even for those who were asymptomatic. Despite the official recommendation to defer all large events and social gatherings, there were still a considerable number of people who went on to hold and attend these events. Together with the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) recommendation for citizens to only wear masks when unwell, it led to the spread of COVID-19 by those who were asymptomatic. 

All businesses were encouraged to allow employees to work from home, and schools started home-based learning once a week. A “Circuit Breaker” period from 7th April to 4th May 2020 was announced with the spike in COVID-19 cases. Only essential services were allowed to operate, and all schools switched to home-based learning for the month. It was mandatory to wear masks when outside unless doing vigorous exercises and people were told to stay home as much as possible. On 21st April 2020, the Circuit Breaker period was extended to 1st June 2020. 

DORSCON levels were put in place in Singapore since 2003 after the SARS outbreak that hit Singapore and the region. During that time, the Singapore Productivity and Innovation Board (since renamed as Enterprise Singapore) had put in place the Singapore Standard SS540 for Business Continuity Framework. With the emergence of the coronavirus outbreak, Enterprise Singapore updated its Guide on Business Continuity Planning for COVID-19, making this resource available to the public to encourage adoption of business continuity measures. 

However, as the COVID-19 situation is fairly different from a typical business continuity scenario, companies which do not have a Pandemic Response plan as one of their contingency plans were still caught off-guard. 

Some key challenges: 

  • With the raise to DORSCON Orange level on 7th February 2020, many organisations have started their split team operations. With staff working in a different office, an alternate site or working from home. Most smaller businesses such as Small to Medium Enterprises (SMEs) do not have an alternate site and have never tested out a long-term split-team or Work-from-Home operation. They had to adopt these practices on short notice and had to scramble to ensure that staff had the equipment and capability to work from home
  • The Manufacturing and Logistics industry was hardest hit by the COVID-19 measures put in place by the government as many of them only had 1 working site and were unable to implement a split-team operation or even enforcing a staggered time working schedule
  • Based on a quick survey, it is estimated that only 50% of businesses in Singapore have a business continuity plan in place. Many businesses were simply keeping up with the new regulations and putting in place temporary measures which were untested. 


Malaysia entered the Covid-19 crisis with a triple whammy.  Just before the virus emerged as a major threat, there was a sudden collapse of government late in February, with a transition of power happening in a completely unexpected manner, leading to one of the most politically de-stabilizing periods the country had ever seen.  

The oil price crash last month made a further big dent to our income.  Any one of these 3 crises, would have placed a severe level of stress on the country.  We had the perfect storm -  all 3 ‘weather systems’ hitting us at the same time.  We feared the worst.  And initial data seemed to confirm our fears.  By late March, the country was registering the largest cumulative number of COVID-19 infections in Southeast Asia with more than 2000 active cases.  And we had only just begun.

Thankfully, with the implementation of comprehensive social controls and distancing measures, coupled  with strong leadership from the Ministry of Health, we’ve managed to stem the tide over the last month,  registering a comparatively low fatality rate of 1.65% as at 7th May 2020.  From having the highest number of cases in Southeast Asia in March and early April, the country's case count has since been eclipsed by several other ASEAN countries.  New cases are in low double digits and the majority of persons infected have recovered.  This has led to the government lifting most of the lock down measures a week ago.  

How did it all start…

COVID-19 was initially detected on travellers from China arriving via Singapore on 25 January 2020. The cases remained low and were mostly to do with imported cases.  But by March, localised clusters began to emerge.  

While the nation was completely consumed and distracted by the unexpected collapse of government, a single incident occurred that reared the ugly head of COVID-19 in Malaysia.  A large religious gathering was held late February in Kuala Lumpur.  It involved thousands of Malaysians and foreigners.  Due to the crowded venue, this led to a massive spread of the virus.  By end March, we were hitting 2000 cases.  Sustained community spread had begun.  

The country was now shaken out of its political pre-occupations.  Barely finding its sea legs, the new government introduced a series of strict lockdown measures as follows.

A partial nationwide lockdown was initiated on March 18 for 2 weeks whereby all businesses except essential services were shut down.  Trips to the grocery stores, supermarket, pharmacy or doctors/hospitals were allowed.  Quarantine restrictions were imposed for international arrivals.  To distinguish it from a complete lockdown, it was termed Movement Control Order or MCO.  

In addition to this nationwide MCO, a special type of stringent and localized MCO was introduced for specific locations from 27th March.  Specific locations where large clusters of new cases were found, were subjected to a complete lockdown, dubbed the "Enhanced Movement Control Order" (EMCO) lasting 14 days, to curb the spread of the virus out of the areas.  The lockdown measures of the EMCO were as follows:

  • all residents and visitors within the affected area were forbidden from exiting their homes 
  • non-residents and visitors outside the area were not allowed access
  • all roads into the area were blocked
  • all businesses were shut down
  • food was supplied by the authorities to all residents
  • a medical base was established within the area
  • Covid-19 testing for all residents

The nationwide MCO was extended into an MCO phase 2 which was implemented from 1st April for another 2 weeks till 14th April.  
The MCO was then extended again to 28th April.

Phase 4 of the MCO was extended to 12th May with some easing of restrictions.

But by early May, the statistics were looking much better.  Like most countries, Malaysia faced a dilemma.  Slowing down the virus with social distancing restrictions also meant slowing down the economy.   

Immediately after MCO phase 4 started, on May 1st, the government made a sudden change of course and relaxed almost all restrictions by switching to a new phase that was termed Conditional-MCO or CMCO.  Multiple family members could now move around whereas before only one person was allowed to travel per family.  Most businesses except those involving large masses (e.g. cinemas, weddings, etc), were allowed to proceed, on the condition they adopt adequate social distancing measures for staff and customers.

However, Interstate travel was still restricted. 

But then, several states refused to comply or did not comply immediately to the central governments CMCO directive to open up the economy.  By 3 May, a public petition objecting to the conditional MCO, urging the government to stay with the earlier more restrictive MCO, had garnered huge support.  

The CMCO is still expected to be implemented by all states in due course over the next several days or weeks.  

Some good did come about from the experience.  We experienced a much cleaner, quieter environment in the cities – something not seen in decades.  The traffic subsided for the first time in years.  Many learned that working from home is pragmatic.  Families came together.  The support and solidarity from the public was heart-warming. 

We have learned from the experience and are eager to resume work in a more mature fashion, mindful of the new possibilities.  It is hoped that the relaxing of measures would not result in a resurgence of infections.  


What potential improvements for coping with COVID-19 for “return as normal” phase would you suggest based on experience?


Italy is now approaching the second phase of the emergency and the completion of the “return as normal” phase is still far; it's now time to live together with the virus. A task force has been established, but the common thought is to guarantee a strong coordination at national level supporting the huge desire to ease the lockdown with a controlled and safe return to the sociality leveraging the needs of business sustainability, welfare and proper countermeasures to limit a new spread of contagion.

Based on the fact that the economies are fully interconnected intra and extra Europe, the cooperation among Countries is needed for coping with COVID-19 and guarantee the whole implementation of adequate strategies to absorb the effects of the crisis considering also proper financial resources for the long-term sustainability. On the other hands, a strong international cooperation on the government, medical, pharmaceutical and academic side could support the quick validation and distribution of a proper vaccine that represents for sure the way to finally go through to the emergency.

Starting from the beginning of the second phase of the emergency, the ready capacity of the organizations to support and manage a very dynamic period, allowing strategies based on working flexibility, a good capacity to centrally manage the risks that change very quickly and the ability to guarantee high level of communications internally and through the community will represent a strong competitive advantage to recover quickly and maintain a good level of the business.

Increasing the frequency of the risk assessment is important to reprioritize the organization’s top risks identifying and prioritizing the emerging risks related to the pandemic with impact on employee safety and well-being, supply chain, cybersecurity, legal and compliance and revenues. Updating the risk assessment is especially useful as this process can highlight the impact of similar risks if the pandemic dissipates before a second wave returns in the next four to six months.

On the other hand, some are beginning to appreciate the speed with which their organizations can move once they change how they do things. In short, the coronavirus is forcing both the pace and scale of workplace innovation in some sectors supporting a simpler, less expensive, and faster ways to operate. In addition to this, a valuable opportunity to rethink our cities layout; Milan proposes one of Europe’s most ambitious schemes reallocating street space from cars to cycling and walking, in response to the coronavirus crisis.
Now more than ever, the world needs the contribution of risk and resilience professionals to support proper risk evaluations, the set-up of strategies and the rethink of organizational schemes.

Ministero della Salute – “Covid-19, situation in Italy”
The Guardian - “Milan announces ambitious scheme to reduce car use after lockdown”
Italian Association of Internal Auditors - “Gli impatti di COVID-19 sui profili di rischio e sulle priorità aziendali”


Our life and business environment have been changed dramatically. It should be temporary change but currently we don't have concrete forecast when it will end. On the other hand, many organizations are trying to adapt to environmental change by implementing new technology, changing business process, and introducing flexible working style.

Thinking our situation positively, I'd like to suggest to think the pandemic crisis as an opportunity for improvement rather than thinking just back to normal. Because it is one of the essential approach which is known as "build back better" to improve organizational resilience.

As I mentioned above, some Japanese organizations experienced big challenge to implement new technology or changing business process and working style. But if it worked well, it is worth considering to keep using after pandemic were ended.

Not only for Japanese organizations, formal review process would be necessary when any organization consider their plan or strategy for exit from pandemic. It is because we have experienced so difficult situation for several weeks and everyone might have their lessons learned, so now is a good time to gather them and improve plans. Review should be done for various aspect including business operation and welfare, and many employees (not limited to executives or managers) should have an opportunity to send their comments or feedbacks. It would provide valuable input for considering plan and strategy, and also it might be good for employees' mental condition. By having an opportunity to express their thought, the employees might feel that the management is care about them, and might depress their feeling of loneliness caused by staying home.

Getting over the pandemic period, the organization would be more resilient. The business continuity practitioners should focus how to "build back better" the organization with their experience and lessons learned.


1)    Relaying information faster and better communications. With this, it may lead to less panic among the community. This will lead to less cases of fake news being spread around.  
2)    React to the situation based on the worst-case scenario. Rather than react conservatively and risking the chance of an increase in the spread of the coronavirus, we should react based on the worst-case scenarios to better safeguard ourselves and ease the precautions after evaluating the situation should the spread be contained.
3)    Maintaining a Business Continuity Plan and a High-risk Contingency plan during peacetime. Having an established and tested Business Continuity plan and Contingency plan in place during peacetime would mean that staff would already know what to do during such situations and that having tested out these plans, they know what equipment staff would require and the capabilities that can be delivered during this period. Staff, along with their clients, would also be more reassured and more sure of what to do – especially during this time of uncertainty for everyone. 

Suggestions for 'return to normal'

1)    Continue to practise social distancing
2)    Continue to wear masks in crowded places 
3)    Reduce having communal meals with individuals who are not living n your household
4)    Avoid crowded places and stay home whenever possible
5)    Ensure good hygiene practices and maintain a clean living area
6)    Reduce unnecessary meetings or if they can be held via conference calls
7)    Reduce unnecessary travel and replace with conference calls or online tools wherever possible

With the easing of many precautions put in place due to COVID-19, we should remain vigilant and avoid social in-person gatherings and events. The spread of the coronavirus may have slowed down, but it is not eradicated yet. If we were to return to pre-COVID-19 practises and having large-scale events, there may be a third wave of the spread of the coronavirus. 

We should ensure the safety of ourselves and our close family members, many of whom may be more susceptible to the coronavirus. 


There are many improvements.  The common ones like face masks and PPEs are not mentioned here.  Here are 2 key ones….

Working from home is your number 1 weapon against this virus.  It also reduces carbon emissions and can bring families together.  We should not forget this modus operandi and hopefully, the world will migrate significantly to this new norm, especially here in Asia.    

You can only import this virus if you open your borders.  We should plan and perhaps even simulate or exercise closing of our borders from time to time.  Step up the quarantining infrastructure and requirements for those who need to travel.  E-Commerce will not be affected and can continue.  Just human international travel needs closer attention.  We must continue to be ready to restrict travel the moment there is a spike in cases somewhere in the world.  


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