Social distancing does not mean distancing from social responsibility

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Updated: March 20, 2020 6:13:43 pm


Bus passengers use masks to protect themselves from coronavirus infection. (Photo: Amit Chakravarty)

Written by Vice Admiral Girish Luthra (Retd)

Amid unprecedented turmoil caused by the coronavirus pandemic so far and in the offing, the pain, suffering and hardship of countless people across the globe cannot be overstated. The single-minded pursuit of the entire humanity ought to be on containing the spread of the disease and restoring normalcy in the shortest possible time. The response mechanism too is entirely different from what governments and people are used to. In the case of other disasters like earthquakes, floods, tsunamis and cyclones, existing organisations and procedures are adapted for rapid mobilisation and response, including for providing succor, and focusing on relief and rehabilitation.

But this pandemic is uncharted territory. Data about the virus, about its impact, and about effectiveness of various measures are being evaluated on a continuous basis around the world. Measures are accordingly being put in place based on lessons being learnt. At the same time, it is at present hard to determine if progression on the learning curve is adequate for an early solution. The uncertainty has no parallels, including wars, and it is natural to see unique and widespread concern and anxiety, in the face of a threat whose speed and lethality has shocked the world.

While Health and Protection of self and others are topmost priority, there is parallel discourse on the economic, social and psychological impact. Nobody will be spared the impact, and everyone will have his or her share of the suffering and discomfort. Of course, the level of suffering is not, and will not be, even. Precious lives that have been lost and those who have lost loved ones, and those who will go through the same in the near future, because of Coronavirus, should be in thought and prayers of all those who are continuing to grapple with the situation.

Coronavirus India updates Passengers await the arrival of trains at railway stations as several rail services in Mumbai have been suspended or cancelled amid coronavirus outbreak. (AP Photo)

Another section that deserves attention, empathy and help is the poor and underprivileged. Daily wage workers, to whom the concept of ‘Work from Home’ is not applicable, those who do not have the means to stock essentials for more than a day or two, those faced with starvation even during ‘good times’, those low-wage workers whose jobs are at imminent risk, those who lack resources for basic medical treatment, and those poor people attempting to come out of very stressed financial situations, are all strong contenders for support from the society, particularly from those who are in better position to do so.

The question is: how do we support and help the poor at a time when we are ourselves facing a serious situation and peculiar challenges, when we are ourselves losing financially in our businesses, in our jobs, in our investments (in addition to huge opportunity costs), and at a time when we are all focused on ‘Social Distancing’. The simple answer is: Yes, we can. Social distancing does not mean distancing from social responsibility. We only need to discharge this responsibility while taking necessary precautions, and without exposing ourselves or others to any risks emanating from the current situation.

Two men wearing masks walk past the Gateway of India monument in Mumbai, India, Tuesday, March 17, 2020. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some it can cause more severe illness. (AP Photo)

As individuals, we need to support all those who work for us, and provide assurance to them if we can, about job continuity, at least for the short term. Those who provide regular services to us, and are unable to do so currently, due to circumstances, can be given or assured financial compensation, notwithstanding the fact that many of those chores we may be doing ourselves. We should check that essential services and materials continue to be available to the poor and assist them where needed. We can update them regularly, share relevant information regarding precautions, and check their well-being, just like we are doing for our family and friends. We must guide them to be vigilant and strictly follow the do’s and don’ts, and pass these to others.

Corporates can similarly focus on the requirements of the poor and vulnerable, and create a joint central corporate task force which should take guidance from the government. Corporate social responsibility plans can be reoriented. Ongoing programmes for the poor, particularly in remote areas, may be adversely affected due to limitations on travel, supply chain challenges, and restrictions on physical interaction, and alleviation measures may be needed. We can expect that higher CSR contributions and other donations will be suitably incentivised by the government soon. We should also anticipate the role and requirement of aid agencies and aid workers, in the rebuild or bounce back phase.

In his impressive address to the nation yesterday, the Prime Minister made a clarion call for public participation. Each one of us must support the government and other agencies, follow the guidelines and join this very different campaign. Let Janata curfew planned for Sunday be an unambiguous indication of our resolve, patience and support.

Jai Hind! Jai Hind ki Janata!

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