A logical deconstruction of the COVID-19 episode will probably point towards its inherently social origins. In hindsight, all contagions recorded in the history of humanity, be it the Black Death, the Great Plague of Marseille or the more recent SARS, MERS and Ebola outbreaks are the physiological repercussions of unbridged social fault lines like poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy and information divide. The global community seems to take notice when the problem metastasises to achieve a critical mass that is enough to disrupt the global trade and geopolitical linkages. But against an existential crisis of COVID-19's ilk, solutions enforced from the top and limited to a few may no longer prove to be fruitful.
For a world obsessed with erecting more barriers than it plans to remove, the proverbial doomsday clock had been ticking for long. An unsettling attachment to ultra-right ideologies, the systematic dismantling of supranational bodies, the continuous undermining of climate change initiatives and a conscious blocking of techno-intellectual percolation to the social rock-bottom points towards our hubris, that has been thoroughly exploited by the pathogen. Today, the time is apt for realising that the solution to the COVID-19 situation lies in innovative thrusts, powered through resolute social collectives.
As the driver of consumer demands, businesses are ingrained into the social fabric. At a time while governmental agencies are hard-pressed on several fronts, private agencies lacking much of bureaucratic-inhibitions of their public-counterparts, are taking up the mantle for the harbinger of change. One of the prime action-areas should be preserving the gains of the climate-change reversals resulting from the economic lockdowns. Even amidst an ambience of tragedy, we need to remember that the rollbacks have been the end objectives of a decades-long struggle by activists around the world and dozens of international covenants on climate change and environmental pollution.
Other than taking recourse to green industrial solutions in areas like power generation, waste management, and mobility and pursuing enlightened industrial effluent and emission management policies, today businesses have before them a unique option to reduce their operational footprints. The COVID-19 crisis has amply demonstrated the potential of remote working, even for complex performance verticals. The innovative use of technology and policy mechanics to move jobs away from traditional offices can have an across the board positive impact on various socio-environmental indicators.
However, the telecommuting model should not lead the businesses to lose the emotional connection with its human capital. Instead, an interplay of technology and community action needs to be achieved for binding the members of the workforce, both active and superannuated, in these trying times. Such initiatives may range from developing multi-platform applications for collaboration, employee engagement and community welfare. They can help keeping a tab on the health of retired employees and community members who are more vulnerable to coronavirus infections, remote training programs for skill up-gradation for employees as well as underprivileged youth to establishing supply chains with vendors to source essential commodities to employee and needy families in their communities.
Also, the present situation underscores the importance of disseminating research initiatives beyond organisational boundaries. For a crisis of COVID-19's scale, which is claiming human lives by the hour; solution development must match the pace of pathogen transmission. Vaccine research for COVID-19 should be thrown open to society. Contributions may be in the form of fundings, lobbying, testing, sourcing intellectual inputs or lending of computing resources over massive grid computing networks to help in running protein simulations that can reveal the vulnerabilities of the virus or predict its next phase of mutation.
The involvement of social contributions through the crowdsourcing model has profound implications for the present data-driven civilisation. Today, by sourcing data from millions of social contact points and through the application of Big Data analytics and machine learning, it is possible to generate unprecedented insights into areas like the transmission patterns of COVID-19, potential vectors, and new physiological susceptibility to the disease. Further, a crowdsourced fact-checking framework can be leveraged by social and conventional media outlets to deal effectively with rumour-mongering during the crisis.
The COVID-19 episode is also the moment of truth for the corporate social responsibility programs and their planners. Have they been able to develop enough resilience in the targeted societies to stand the test of these trying times? Can the existing CSR projects layouts be transformed radically to leverage the established infrastructure in fitting COVID-19 mission requirements? And most importantly, are the local actors like the NGOs, the SHGs and small businesses at the grassroots levels ready to act as the agents of change to drive innovation at the bottom of the social pyramid?
For instance, the NGOs that are active in the WASH segment can extend their expertise in promoting awareness about the importance of social distancing and hygiene in combating the coronavirus. The rural vocational skills development centres can train apprentices in the manufacturing of improvised protective gear and hand sanitizers for local distribution. Old Age homes can adopt special measures for protecting their residents. The infrastructure that contributes to the midday meal program in schools can be scaled temporarily for providing free food to migrant labourers and mendicants.
The result of the conflict against COVID-19 will also hinge on the convergence of business expertise and advantages in powering community-centric innovations that can bridge capability gaps. It is heartening to witness more and more companies diverging from their actual production mandates to manufacture essential supplies like critical care equipment and consumables to aid our first responders and frontline warriors against the coronavirus. Some are also leveraging the existing product and services portfolio to empower the change drivers. Several others are also leveraging their immense social responsibility networks to ensure food and essential supplies reach those in need.
The present phase is likely to be an inflexion point in our approach to environmental contingencies and mitigation measures. It is essential to focus on product and services development that can withstand the impact of disasters in the future. The scope is extensive; ranging from innovative financial instruments for covering post-catastrophe liquidity crunch, robotic process automated interventions for ensuring continuity of essential services, additive manufacturing systems for on-demand production of life-saving equipment and protective gears to electronic payment systems and digital currencies for restricting pathogen proliferation through contact.
In the globalised world of interlinked stakeholder interests, society is likely to undergo large scale disruptions from catastrophes, both human-made and natural. The present COVID-19 episode may be a point in a trajectory of upsetting events, extending well beyond the end of this century. Fostering the spirit of community-centric ingenuity will not only expand the horizon of mitigation options but will also strengthen the root of the social order to ensure survival in a new and dangerous world.
Contributing Author: Akanksha Sharma, Head - Sustainability & CSR, Sterlite Technologies Limited