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Working during a pandemic

What we have learned from living with Covid-19

One of the strengths of the Asian team is that they know each other very well, and that helped handling the turbulence during the first months of the pandemic.

Damien:  There were no testing capabilities for many months, so it was a scary situation. Also, at that time, we were already under a chickenpox outbreak. But we quickly implemented our Covid-19 policy and created a special Covid-19 taskforce with our medical doctor, our permanent nurse, our HR manager and myself. We had many people sick in February and March, including key managers. We started to send people to home quarantine, and managed the best we could to avoid production delays or project delays.

Emilie: I think at the beginning it was really scary, because of the proximity between Vietnam and China. We have a common border in the north of Vietnam. So I think everybody was scared because if something was getting out of China, we were one of the first to get it. Thankfully the government reacted quickly and closed the borders, and the borders have remained closed since March.

Xiaotong: The past Chinese New Year, I believe, was extremely special for many people in Wuhan and even all over China. It was also a very difficult time. The reunion time was disturbed by the sudden epidemic. The travel ban started on January 23, 2020, so many people who had been travelling had to be quarantined. At the beginning of the epidemic, people didn’t know enough about the virus, but we quickly set up an emergency group in Jacobi. We collected information from all parties, established a system of hygiene and epidemic prevention measures for the factory workplace and employees, and then shared them with other Jacobi factories. Now it seems that it had a positive effect on our whole group to avoid or slow down the epidemic.

Damien Saison
Country Manager, The Philippines
Joined Jacobi in 2017

Emilie Lavinh
Country Manager, Vietnam
Joined Jacobi in 2010

Yu Xiaotong
Country Manager, China
Joined Jacobi in 2007

Jeannie: Malaysia got hit in March, and since we are a logistic and customer service office, we could start to work from home. We had to make some quick decisions on how we should organise our work. Compared to other Jacobi countries, where we have production and factories, we had small problems. But we had to set up new routines fast.

Thomas: In India, we had the first positive case in Jacobi. We have prepared many plans, but when it actually happened, we had to adjust our plans daily. We ran the factory with just 20% of our people, and I was amazed to see the commitment and support from our employees. I sent all the managers home and did the managing myself, so I got exposed and got Covid-19, but it was okay. We set up a medical team in the factory with our own doctor and tested all the employees. And we worked closely with the local government, so they supported the company.

Rasanga: It took some time before Covid came to Sri Lanka, it was at the beginning of March, and we realised how terrible it was. The country locked down on March 16 and was entirely locked down for two months where all our operations had to be closed. After many discussions with the authorities, we started with a skeleton operation, which means we run with the minimum amount of people. People were really scared to come to work initially, and they heard from China that people are dying. Everything we did was for the security of our people, and we really took a step forward with the procedures around testing, disinfection, planning and communication with the society. The authorities also took us as an example, pointed to us and said: ”Jacobi is doing it this way, why can’t you do it the same way?”

How are you finding your routines now?

Jeannie: We have a team here in Malaysia of around 30 people, and everyone is working from home. The longer you do this you will isolate yourself, so we try to get people together in smaller groups at least once a month. We will be okay; the most important thing is keeping the customers informed and working well with the communication.

Thomas: We have accepted the situation and are used to managing it; we know what to do if someone gets infected. It’s our new normal, I would say. But India is a big country, the population is huge. The states live their own life, one state can be over its peak, but in the next state Covid-19 can be on the rise, so it’s hard to know if we are in a second or a third wave. But I think we are very well prepared now.

Emilie: We had two waves in Vietnam, at the beginning of March, and then later in April/May, but that’s about it. At the moment, we haven’t had a new case for almost three months. It’s really weird because, for us, life is pretty much normal. You still have to wear masks, but masks are common in Vietnam anyway.

Jennie Khoo
Director Global Shared Service, Malaysia
Joined Jacobi in 2003

Thomas Anthony
Country Manager, India
Joined Jacobi in 2008

Rasanga Adikara
Country Manager, Sri Lanka
Joined Jacobi in 2006

Rasanga: When we overcame the first wave, everyone was happy, and we had two or three months here in Sri Lanka with no Covid-19 cases. But suddenly in November, it all started to rise again. There was a company here with 1,900 employees, and 1,700 of them got Covid-19! If you relax too much, everything starts all over right away.

Now, it’s very much about long term planning. We have tested around 230 people so far, and all were negative, and we keep on testing every week. Also, we have good communication with the government, and they know that we are taking care of the situation beyond their expectation. At the same time, we are helping our community and give what we can give. There are many poor people around this area, and because of the lockdown they lost their income, so we provide the surrounding area with the basics.

And at this time we had our 15-year celebration of the factory, remotely and with distance with the people within the factory. It was a new experience, but I must say it was fantastic anyway.

Damien: Now, we have the testing capabilities and an isolation tent in the factory to detect any potential suspect. We also test people who have stayed in the accredited hotel by the medical test centre. Those who test positive are sent to a special facility to be isolated for two weeks, and they need to be negative to get a clearance to come back to work. It is always a challenge to choose between sending people to quarantine or keeping people, but we have good help from our medical doctor, so we are making the right (medical) decision, quickly. We were able to run the factory without even a one day stop for the whole year, it’s a good team achievement!

Xiaotong: We feel well prepared here in China, and Rasanga bought very good masks, from China actually, that we can use in our operation. In China, we have learned a lot from the other countries’ operations that are bigger, and we can benefit from their preparations.

When it comes to the clients, we are often an essential part of their end products. How is the relationship with them at the moment?

Thomas: The customers are in the same situation as us, and they are helping us as much as they can, because as you say, we are an essential part of making products that are essential for the society. With their help, it has been easier to make the government listen to our needs. They provided us with letters and communicated with the government. In the beginning, when we had to shut down for ten days, and we had no idea when we would be able to restart again, then suddenly the customer came in, and good things happened.

Rasanga: The success is mutual, and we had really good support from the customers understanding the situation but also helping us to prioritise what they needed. We are supplying the majority of our products for water purification worldwide, and without water, people cannot survive. Recommendation letters and emergency classification letters from our customers helped us convince the government to let us start a skeleton operation. And the global supply chain department in Sweden has also done an outstanding job in assisting us prioritising.

During the first closure situation, we were able to ship about 75% of our order book by prioritising the key customers for the essential goods and delivering on time. We have received many appreciation letters from our key customers for how we have handled the situation.

More than 200 countries and territories have been aff ected by Covid-19. Suspected cases could be 10 % of the global population.

Yves Debayles is president of Jacobi in Asia and responsible for the Asian Business and Operations.

Yves, you were in the middle of where it all started. Can you remember what you were thinking at that time?

Well, nobody was prepared for something like this and it was tense in the beginning, but we had to learn quickly. It started in China as everyone knows, and we knew that if we had a Covid-19 case in our Tianjin facility, the authorities would shut us down for two weeks. A lot of our products come from China, and JAM (Jinnan, China), is a big logistic operation: a shutdown in China would be very bad. Fortunately, we never had a case as our team was quick in making the right decisions.

In every country, first there are national regulations that we have to follow and that can change quickly. In addition, the local authorities have a lot to say that affects the running of our plants: it is thus critical to keep a very close contact with them. Then, of course, there are our employees and their families: without their trust, we can do nothing! Opinions or rumours spread very quickly, and several of our plants are situated in villages: our engagement with the community is essential.

Being an essential business gave us some advantages, right?

Yes, activated carbon is an essential business; we are suppliers to companies and organisations which, through their products, keep people safe and save lives, for instance the water, food, pharmaceutical or personal protection industries.

When we were forced to shut down in Sri Lanka and India in the lockdowns of March – April, we had to demonstrate to the authorities the essential nature of our business in order to obtain the authorisation to restart. With our marketing department, we made a simple educational document in one day which was very instrumental to convince both the authorities and the community that we had to restart. Later on, we were also helped with letters from our customers stating the essential nature of their own industry in their country.

How did you handle the communication with each other?

We are very close in the Asian management team. We have a call every week and the   information flows very well between us. It takes little time to share essential information and take decisions. Similarly, at the global level, we have the Crisis Team which has been meeting on Teams every Friday since March. Without meeting each other, I believe that we have become even closer and stronger as a team!

Is there a good side to all this?

If I look at Asia, I think we have been working more efficiently in many areas, for example in managing projects at the factories, or in doing technical trainings to our distributors. No travels and visits have given us time and enabled focus. Of course, this is also the case because we know each other very well from before. So yes, I see a positive side, Covid-19 has strengthened us!

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