Opinion

How India Inc can assist in the Covid battle

Lloyd Mathias | Updated on June 30, 2021

By adopting healthcare facilities, offering their best resources to govt/NGOs and addressing the concerns of their staff

As India gasped for breath in the second wave, Corporate India could have moved swiftly and led from the front. India’s healthcare systems were completely overwhelmed by the rampaging virus resulting in a shortage of beds, oxygen, ventilators, ICUs, medicines, ambulances and healthcare personnel.

While citizens and voluntary organisations stepped in to fill the gap, most businesses remained mute spectators to the death and devastation all around.

Given that the pandemic is still playing out and a third wave is anticipated, it is fair to expect Indian businesses and their leaders to step in. Businesses can only succeed and thrive when the communities they exist in are safe and healthy. But beyond just business objectives, it’s the only option given that India’s healthcare systems are woefully inadequate and millions of Indians have really no safety net.

India needs all hands on deck — the sharpest minds and best teams in procurement, logistics, supply chain and execution. Who better than corporations that have skilled professionals trained to handle tough situations?

Here’s a six-point agenda on what Corporate Indian can do to help India battle this crisis:

Lead from the front: Form task forces across geographies that reach out to government agencies and healthcare centres for support with managing communication and logistics of vaccines, medical supplies, personnel and other essentials. The CEO should personally drive this. Each company can adopt one healthcare facility in their vicinity for the next two months.

De-prioritise commercial objectives for the immediate term: This means focussing on more than just profit and, instead, seeking to bring value to the world at large. Use all available resources in the fight — physical, financial, logistical, intellectual and media assets. Companies can offer their best resources and minds pro bono to help the government, NGOs, local bodies and healthcare agencies.

Agility and resilience are the hallmarks of a good businesses. Swift action at this time can help sharpen this and redefine purpose. It’s also appropriate to pull back commercial advertising in deference to the grim situation. Now is the time for practising good corporate citizenship and make the much hyped CSR come alive.

Ensure support to all stakeholders: Employees, temps, vendors, associates and customers. This has to go beyond virtue signalling and must be backed with real action, like assurance of wages; extending credit; support in finding healthcare facilities or even creating relief and isolation centres using vacant office facilities.

Form an internal group of volunteers to coordinate emergency responses for those in critical need. As fear, worry, and anxiety shoot up, mental well-being is an area companies can help employees and their families with. Needless to say, companies should cover the cost of vaccination for its employees and associates and host vaccination camps when the supply stabilises.

Be compassionate: The second wave has impacted the livelihood of people and small businesses like never before. Real compassion is ensuring no lay-offs or salary cuts till at least the end of 2021. Also, India Inc. should revisit the old tradition of looking after the welfare of the family of an employee lost to Covid. There were many companies that in the past offered roles to members of bereaved families. This has sadly been discontinued due to commercial pressures. A crisis is a good time for a corporation to rediscover its soul.

On pure business metrics, there is exhaustive research to prove that companies that show compassion and prioritise social, environmental and governance issues also consistently deliver better results in their bottomline.

Relook and alter internal policies with empathy: Many businesses didn’t really take the minutiae of this crisis, or certainly its duration, into account. For instance, companies are yet to address the challenges faced by employees who cannot work from home: factory workers, security staff, sales reps, or delivery teams who need to be physically on site to perform their duties.

This begets the question whether their lives are less valuable? Or should they be compensated for the higher risk in these trouble times — a hardship allowance? This issue is grappling many corporates. Time to settle it.

Another, more humane issue, is the need to support remote working for staff that don’t have the conveniences of a home-office set-up: viz., a private room, reliable wi-fi and a laptop. Many have to even contend with small homes and multiple family members all of whom need to be on work calls and children attending online classes. Corporate decision-makers are often insensitive to this discrepancy.

Take a long term view: While the pandemic will result in a short-term shrinkage in the economy, the larger shifts will be apparent in months and years to come. Good organisations need to invest in reskilling and upskilling their workforces.

Amidst all this, there are clear watch-outs and don’ts that need to be called out. There have been companies which have, sadly, used Covid to drive business gains on the basis of unsubstantiated claims. That’s bad in letter and spirit. Also avoid posturing and loud proclamations of support. Importing oxygen supplies in an emergency is laudable and appreciated, but handing out press releases and seeking photo-ops undermines the deed.

Companies cannot just look away and wait for normalcy to return. The ultimate test of good corporate citizenship is looking India Inc. squarely in the face. Will it stand up and be counted?

The writer is an early stage investor and a business strategist.

Published on June 30, 2021

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