The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has caused major disruption for many industries and organisations around the world. So what are the implications for the provision of responsible security, especially for those companies and civil society organisations working in already complex environments?
To understand more about these implications, ICOCA has been speaking with many of its civil society and corporate members. From the feedback so far received, the impact of COVID-19 is clearly being felt by all. From safeguarding the well-being of staff and running current operations, to planning for the longer term economic fall-out, the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic have become the new reality for everyone.
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Private security personnel are on the front-line in the fight against COVID-19, with many countries deeming private security an essential service. In India, with over five million people employed in the sector, the Union Home Ministry has asked private security agencies not to lay off guards or decrease their salaries during the 21-day lockdown.
In China, ICoCA Member Company, HXZA has been mobilized since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, responding to a higher demand for static manned guarding, putting their staff in close proximity to the general public, including the vulnerable and infected. HXZA, like all of the ICoCA Member companies we have been in touch with, has developed and implemented procedures to safeguard their staff and those they interact with to reduce opportunities for transmission of the virus, including the provision of personal protective equipment.
Blue Hackle, a recently certified ICoCA Member based in Iraq, briefed all their staff on Coronavirus the day after the first case was confirmed in the country. Fact sheets and guidance sheets from WHO and the Center for Disease Control are posted in all company locations, all staff are issued with face masks, access to hand sanitizer and have their temperature taken when entering locations. Charles Nassif, Chief Operating Officer at Alstora described new equipment protocols they have introduced, which requires weapons, keys, radios etc. to be sterilized before handover.
Kevin Carlin, Director of ICoCA Member, Unity Resources Group Middle East LLC, told us how the company has implemented new control measures, including non-essential staff working from home, frequent temperature and health checks of all personnel deployed to sites and issuing of personal protective equipment. After consultation and with the approval of clients, Unity also repatriated and evacuated all their ex-pat staff, especially those whose visas would expire in the coming weeks or months, and have replaced these positions with senior experienced locals. In addition, they have revised deployments and travel policy and have increased communication flows with staff and clients.
Charles Nassif, Chief Operating Officer of Alastora reported that they recently received a new requirement from a client that all guards go into 14 days-controlled quarantine off site in an Alastora controlled environment before working 28 days at the work site, followed by 14 days leave at home. Prior to this, the company had already instated extending relief days and rotation between duties to a minimum of 8 days to decrease the risk of infection.
Finally, some Member Companies have taken a proactive role in safeguarding the broader community. Landmark Security in Ghana, for example, has donated critical medical supplies to one of the foremost tertiary hospitals in the country. As Frank Amoyaw says, this crisis presents an opportunity for private security companies to think beyond their traditional boundaries by supporting the communities in which they work.
New Ways of Working
Alastora, like many of the Members we spoke to, are ensuring business continuity by having all their administrative and support staff working from home. All sectors have been impacted by the pandemic, not least civil society organisations working on the front lines with human rights defenders. Saviour Akpan, Executive Director of Comppart Foundation in Nigeria explained that while staff may be restricted to working from home, they are leveraging WhatsApp as a platform to share messages amongst the communities they work with, including Private Security Companies, impressing on them the need to be in compliance with various government directives and efforts in combating the virus.
As Charlie Mayne, ICOCA Board Director and Managing Director of ICoCA Member, VSC says ‘the nature of the restrictions on movement have presented an opportunity to look at how we do things. Web conferencing was not something we used much before but it has advantages [including] no journey time and a format that is conducive to adhering to an agenda’. COVID-19 has forced many organisations to adapt new ways of working, some of which may stand the test of time and shape the world of work in the years to come.
This new operating environment presents new challenges for ICoCA’s security company Members on many levels. For Unity, faced with a 24hr curfew in Iraq, no banks operating and restrictions on travel, the biggest challenge has been accessing cash for their operations, which Kevin Carlin described as ‘near impossible’. The resulting delays in having salaries paid on time has resulted in some unrest within their workforce.
Unity has at least managed to obtain permission for security personnel to travel to and from their worksites in Iraq. This isn’t the case for all, however. Blue Hackle’s staff are having to remain in place until the curfew is lifted. As Craig Brewitt, Blue Hackle’s country manager noted, the greatest impact is felt by those who have had to remain on-site, unable to return home to their families. It also affects the company’s efforts to ensure standards are maintained, as site visits, inspections, welfare checks and training can’t presently be carried out. ICoCA Affiliate, VSS, based in South Sudan, are now looking at a total shutdown scenario which will entail feeding and lodging their guards at client premises.
For HXZA, a maritime security provider, with borders closed, flights cancelled, mandatory quarantine for arriving travellers, some airports and ports closed altogether and port operations in many countries restricted the company’s ability to provide effective logistics solutions to support its fast-moving global operations have been severely hampered. While vessel based armories are operating normally for the time being, the daily throughput of guards creates a risky situation should COVID-19 break out on board. Despite these various challenges, HXZA is implementing measures to limit the company’s exposure to the logistical challenges and minimizing health threats to their personnel.
Changing Demand for Security
The COVID-19 pandemic may see a heightened demand for certain types of security services. HXZA cited that they have seen a heighted demand for manned guarding, initially at airports, for example, and hospitals. While ICoCA’s Member Companies operate around the world offering a diverse array of services, from risk management to static guarding, mobile security along with maritime security represent a significant percentage of the ICoCA Corporate Membership. China is home to seven of the world’s ten busiest container ports, but traffic has declined during the crisis, with the number of port calls at Shanghai and Yangshang declining by 17% in January 2020 compared to the same period in the previous year . The Port of Los Angeles, which is the largest US container port, saw cargo volumes fall approximately 25% in February 2020 compared to the prior year.  If this contraction continues, this will inevitably result in a reduction in demand for maritime security services.
With international aviation all but on hold since travel restrictions were imposed around the world and many countries now in lockdown, demand for mobile security has largely evaporated. In complex environments like Iraq, many clients have simply left. Unsurprisingly, a number of ICoCA Members in Iraq offering mobile security services reported that their businesses have been significantly impacted. Unity Resources is maintaining its static guarding operations, but Kevin Carlin commented that business development is now at a standstill as companies reassess their plans for 2020. ‘We are reviewing our exposure to certain inter-dependencies which compound the effects of curfews and lockdowns. It is clear Unity must invest in strategic, operational and financial resilience to be better positioned to respond and recover.’
The pandemic has caused new economic dynamics the likes of which the world has never seen before. There is no rule book for predicting what the demand for different types of private security services may be in different regions and countries in the weeks and months ahead. ICoCA and its Members, nevertheless, need to continue to monitor the situation and its implications for maintaining standards, responsible security and protecting human rights.
Implications for Security, Human Rights & International Standards
The lockdowns have, perhaps, temporarily improved the security situation in some countries. In Iraq, for instance, which had seen security deteriorate since last October, the 24-hour curfew has resulted in a much-improved security situation, in the short-term, at least. Many of the countries where ICoCA Members operate, however, like Iraq, have significant populations who are economically vulnerable and weak health services. As Kevin Carlin notes ‘any prolonged outbreak or economic disruption coupled with the poor state of the Iraqi health service will further provoke the public discontent leading to societal unrest and might result in the government implementing repressive measures.’ According to Kevin ‘it’s clear that all businesses in Iraq will have to contend with intensifying political, economic, health and security risks.’ Roger Warwick of Pyramid Temi Group believes that in the countries where they provide service ‘the risk of social unrest sooner or later is high’.
In Nigeria, according to Josephine Alabi, Executive Director of ICoCA CSO Member Keen and Care Initiative (KCI), ‘insecurity has reduced drastically for now’. At least for now, then, in some of the complex environments where ICoCA Members operate, it doesn’t appear that state action to combat Coronavirus has led to a security vacuum enabling human rights violations to occur. Yet this space needs to be watched closely. Josephine updated us just before this article was published to say that security forces are now deployed on the streets and arresting people who have not stayed home, ‘issues of human rights violations can’t be overemphasized’. As this article was written, more and more incidents were reported of state security forces around the world using excessive force to enforce lockdowns. State security forces in Kenya, for example, have reportedly used excessive force since the curfew was called on March 25. Recent reports from Colombia site death squads exploiting the coronavirus lockdown there to kill land rights activists. 
Another area that requires careful monitoring is the impact on international and national standards, including those pertaining to human rights. As Coronavirus continues to dominate headlines around the world, there is a danger that society takes its eye off the ball by loosening standards. This is already being seen in other sectors, and is starting to be seen in private security. The Quebec government, for example, will start issuing temporary security agent licenses in response to rising demand for private security personnel due to the pandemic.  With governments stretched to their limit, the danger is that concessions may be made allowing for sub-standard providers to operate, undermining the market for responsible service-provision.
The Coronavirus pandemic, and the world’s response to it, present many challenges and some opportunities for the provision of responsible private security in complex environments. ICoCA Member companies are responding to these challenges by seeking to maintain the highest standards and by continuing to be honest, open and transparent about the challenges they face. As Charlie Mayne reflects ‘By committing to being part of the ICoCA companies are opening themselves to focussed external scrutiny and showing the highest commitment to providing services to an exceptionally stringent standard. It is this openness to external scrutiny and desire to work in a way that respects human rights, above and beyond the bottom line, that fosters an environment where decisions that provide the best possible threat mitigation can be made quickly and effectively.’
The Coronavirus pandemic will pass. Business will resume. Now more than ever before, clients of private security companies, including governments around the world, need to ensure high standards are maintained and tightened, so that when it’s time to get their operations back up and running, there are responsible providers ready to meet their demands.