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Lessons from Alibaba, previously hit by SARS, on handling a pandemic

The Chinese ecommerce giant has put together a handbook for entrepreneurs with takeaways from when the group had to quarantine its employees back in 2003—and how CEOs should handle the crisis

Published: Apr 17, 2020 02:09:59 PM IST
Updated: Apr 17, 2020 02:13:23 PM IST

Lessons from Alibaba, previously hit by SARS, on handling a pandemic
Jack Ma, Alibaba co-founder
Image: Shutterstock

The lessons that Jack Ma’s Alibaba Group learnt 17 years ago, during the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and consequently the actions taken by the company on how to tackle Covid-19, now has been complied into a handbook called ‘Digital Action for Entrepreneur in the Age of Covid-19’. The key innovations and changes undertaken by the company in 2003 to deal with SARS is now a resource collated by the health experts and doctors who were at the frontline of the crisis.
 
This time too, Alibaba Group has moved swiftly to put in place quick and strict measures for the safekeeping of not only its employees but also health workers dealing with Covid-19. Offering insightful anecdotes from Alibaba business units such as Cainiao, Lazada, Alibaba Cloud, Fliggy, Ant Financial, Tmall and Taobao, the handbook shares the actions and rationale behind major projects and initiatives launched during the pandemic.
 
It has advice for CEOs too: They should “keep calm” in the face of a crisis as big as this pandemic. In these crucial moments, where day-to-day operations are affected, the values of the respective companies will come into the play. Alibaba says that its employees’ first reaction, for instance, was that despite the lockdown, customer services should not be affected. It is then the CEOs duty to facilitate and assist employees in achieving that. It is also the responsibility of the businesses to ensure that their employees are not treated just as tools to make money.
 
In 2003, a much smaller Alibaba had to quarantine all its employees. Savio Kwan, COO of Alibaba at the time, made hundreds of calls every day to check up on employees. “This is the best I could do. Instead of orders or supervising, I tried to encourage my employees to keep fighting,” Kwan says.
 
One of the key focus areas of the handbook, other than prioritising customers, is small and medium-sized enterprises (SME). SMEs will be the hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic. Alibaba put in place measures such as reduced-platform fees, low-interest loans for SMEs and flexible job openings during the SARS crisis. SMEs weren’t willing to trade face-to-face, which resulted in an increased pressure on the companies’ platforms. They had to scale their operations to keep SMEs operating through their platforms.
 
Alibaba Group says it wants to aid companies, enterprises and SMEs on how best to deal with this global crisis. As cofounder Jack Ma says, “Only those who can face challenges, and enterprises that can overcome difficulties, will have a bright future.”

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