Uniting Businesses to fight the Pandemic

Pandemics by their nature test, challenge and overwhelm all the countries alike. When outbreaks race through the world they transform the way people relate to each other, businesses are run and  people work. While governments are duty bound to provide for its people in times of crisis, it would be naive to expect an overstretched system to do all the heavy lifting. This is more true for the market-driven, capitalist societies where Governments have limited, if not forsaken, their welfaristic roles. When health, safety and lives of the entire human race is at stake businesses need to rise to the occasion and corporate giants need to step up efforts to meet the critical needs of our times.

As public health services of most nations buckle to the pressure of the pandemic it is time for responsible capitalism to step in. Although these are critical times for businesses too with disruption in global supply chains, volatility of markets , social distancing and looming economic slow down. But they have to make these difficult choices.

Companies with their hearts and heads in the right place can lap this opportunity to make this once in a lifetime  opportunity for the greater good .The way the likes of General motors tackled the wartime crisis during World War II and rushed to create what President Franklin D Roosevelt called the ‘arsenal of democracy.’ The Company morphed from automobile manufacture to war supplies and made sacrifices that underwrote the success of Amercian forces on the battle field. “With the fate of the world at stake, GM played the starring role in the effort to outbuild Hitler and Hirohito. No other corporation, anywhere on earth, at any time in history, ever did more to win a war.”

In a similar way companies can redeploy their capabilities to meet the critical needs of the time. Businesses big and small can collaborate with each other to bring innovative solutions to tackle the crisis. A report from the Guardian states how British Industry tycoons like Airbus, Dyson, Ford and Rolls-Royce  have thrown their weight behind in COVID 19 fight in a wartime effort to make personal protective equipment, hand sanitisers and ventilators.

Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos announced  $ 100 million to feed America’s growing number of out-of-job Americans while Bill and Melinda Gates foundation announced the launch of COVID 19 Therapeutics accelerator a $ 125 million fund  in partnership with Chan Zuckerberg initiative  to address the pandemic.  Chinese giant Jack Ma is also contributing by supplying testing kit, protective equipment and face shields to African countries.

UN Global Compact world’s largest sustainability initiative has urged business leaders everywhere in the world to unite to support workers, communities and companies  affected by the pandemic. It called for a coordinated international plan to limit “disruption to the economy and facilitate business continuity for a swift recovery.” In the spirit of solidarity and cooperation the compact urged business leaders to use 10 principles of the compact on respect for human rights, labour rights, environment and anti- corruption to respond to the crisis.

 Indian Companies too are joining this fight. Tata Sons the leaders in philanthropy in the country have pledged Rs 1500 crore for the cause. Maruti Suzuki and Mahindra and Mahindra have offered to use their production facilities to  make ventilators while Bajaj group, Hero and Vedanta have all contributed financially to fight the pandemic.

Responsible companies can aggressively pursue and protect  the health and mental well being of their employees while supporting and uplifting them. Decision of  IT tech Giant Cognizant to grant COVID 19 bonus to employees is a case in point. Engineering giant Larsen & Toubro has also  committed to the well being of its 160,000  contractual labour force and is  providing them with food and basic amenities at labour camps during the ongoing lockdown in the country. We can expect more Indian companies to follow suit in the near future.

While this is easier said than done however companies that invest in their employees and communities now will have more reliable and resilient workforce  and will be better prepared to tackle the impending economic slump.

Its time for businesses to show the way, to offer stability and security to the panic stricken. This requires extraordinary leadership and a shift to larger consciousness. Companies must remember as they step up efforts and contribute in the fight that  their actions can inspire confidence, add to brand equity and strengthen corporate reputation which is the heart of CSR debate.

Dr.Navjeet Sidhu Kundal
Dr.Navjeet Sidhu Kundal
Dr. Navjeet Sidhu Kundal, Assistant Professor (Law), VIPS, GGSIP University, Delhi, Author - CSR: Concept, Genesis, Evolution & Practice, Wolters Kluwer, 2019. Teaches and publishes extensively on issues concerning International Law, Human Rights Law and CSR.