COVID-19: The new world war


COVID-19 reminds me of wartime,” says Tomas (not his real name), 82, owner of a family business in Luzon. “Uncertainty, confusion, panic. Cowards also, then and now. Heroes: soldiers putting their lives on the line then; doctors and nurses now … The enemy before was visible; now it is more nebulous.”

Tomas assured his employees they would still get paid even if they could not report for work. “But I am not sure how long we can do so. We are in services, closed during the enhanced community quarantine. Our employees don’t have Wi-Fi, only spotty mobile access. We don’t have the resources of tycoons, who are helping now, as they should. We are doing what we can, but I worry about our people every day.“

“Some might die of hunger rather than the virus. But the only way for the quarantine to work is for everyone, except for essential personnel, to get out of the way.”

The Luzon lockdown illustrates the Chinese war tactic of “shut the doors to catch the thief.” Pretty obvious, but as our slapdash measures reveal, common sense is sorely needed.“When catching a thief, one should shut off all routes of escape,” say National University of Singapore professors Wee Chow Hou and Lan Luh Luh in their book “The 36 Strategies of the Chinese.”

“If one gives chase without sealing the exits, the thief, seeing the possibility of escape, will put up a strong struggle. However, once the exits are sealed, the thief loses his fighting spirit, making his capture easier.” “True!” Tomas says. “But how can this be relevant to my business?”

If your product brands are strong, then use them to shut off your competitors’ weaker ones, I say.

“Sadly for us, it’s the reverse,” Tomas says. “Last year, when a huge retailer entered our space, we lost heavily. Slashing our prices did not work; they also cut theirs. They are shutting off our exits. We have to think of other ways.”

A workaholic, Tomas is not used to staying home. “But we are lucky. My son and his family live with us. At dinner, we [already] ran out of things to say; work had stopped. So I started talking about how the [quarantine] reminded me of World War II, and to my surprise, my son and his children got interested. My apo even put down his iPad!” Tomas advises family businesses: “Take this chance to connect or reconnect with loved ones. Check up on your employees, but do not expect them to be equally productive. Some live far, some have no internet, some are not healthy. Encourage them to stay home as much as possible. Let us not add to the burden of those trying to save lives.”

Another Chinese strategy is “feint to the east but strike in the west.” Always have a Plan B.In the 1980s, Coke was steadily losing out to Pepsi in the United States, so Coke decided to come out with New Coke. The plan backfired. Consumers lashed out, and New Coke infamously made it to the cover of “Time” magazine.

But bad publicity is still worth billions, so Coke quickly reverted to the original version, renaming it Classic Coke. This product turnaround was done in just three months, which meant the company likely had contingency plans in the first place.

COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, caught everyone by surprise, but some countries are managing the situation better than others. Our leaders need to come up with a feasible and concerted Plan B—and C, D, E.

Queena N. Lee-Chua is with the board of directors of Ateneo’s Family Business Center. Get her book “All in the Family Business” at or call National’s Jennie Garcia at 0915-421-2276. Contact the author at [email protected]

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