What Corporate India Can Teach Us About COVID Response

Since time immemorial, the one question that has dogged management gurus is: What is the main purpose of business? Is it to make profits? To generate returns for shareholders? Or serve the community? While the jury is still out on what the answer is, last month in India, we edged closer to the truth.

For those not in the know, the months of April and May 2021 saw a second and extremely deadly wave of the coronavirus pandemic engulf India. In spite of its large expanse and population of over 1.4 billion, the country had somehow managed to survive the first wave in 2020. By early 2021, the situation seemed to be under control. And leaders and ordinary citizens alike seemed to have been lulled into complacency. Then suddenly the virus spread quickly.

The result was tragic. Following a rapidly increasing trajectory, the daily lives lost figure crossed the staggering 400,000-mark by April’s end. In a nation where health care standards vary dramatically across urban and rural centers, the consequences for people, especially at the lower economic levels of society, were debilitating.

Corporate India Rises to the Occasion

It was then that some of us in corporate India saw something that we had never seen before. We witnessed an organic movement that spread contagiously much like the coronavirus against which it rose. It strengthened each one of us and lit up hope in our fatigued hearts. So, what exactly did we see?

We saw corporate India rise to the occasion by deploying their ingenuity, resources (people, technological and financial), and might to supplement the government’s efforts in the war against the pandemic. Some of the key stand-out support mechanisms were:

Financial Support

Organizations loosened their wallets like never before. While some already had their employees covered under Group Insurance Plans, others stepped up to roll these out. Special COVID treatment insurance packages introduced by some of the big insurance players were quickly offered to employees. Apart from this, organizations also enabled reimbursement of expenses not covered under the restrictive insurance packages. Not only this, but many organizations also donated freely to causes and institutions that were serving the needy. India Inc. also saw the introduction of the “bereavement policy.” Rolled out by many large companies such as the reputed Tata Group, this new addition to the HR policies was aimed at supporting family members who lost an earning member to this horrible virus.

Material Support

The second wave also exposed a huge lacuna in the country’s medical infrastructure. This is quite strange for a nation seen as the world’s “pharma factory.” There were inadequate beds and a shortage of medicines and critical life-saving equipment. Once again, global organizations activated their international linkages to procure devices like oxygen concentrators. These were hurriedly imported into the country and sent across to their employees’ doorsteps. Larger IT behemoths like Wipro converted some of their sprawling campuses into makeshift Covid-care centers. They worked closely with the authorities to ensure that non-critical parents did not clog up the already stretched mainstream hospitals.

Manpower Support

With the immense pressure on the healthcare ecosystem and the resultant shortages, even securing basic facilities like COVID testing at home or procuring critical medicines became an ordeal. For caregivers already stretched and worried about the inflicted patient(s), this is a big hurdle to cross when wanting to help loved one(s) recover. To solve this piece, organizations such as the global provider of marketing solutions, Interpublic, put together internal “task forces.” These operated much like a call center. Employees could call in and place a request and an army of their colleagues would work the phones and crawl the Internet to find a solution for them.

Emotional Support

Senior leaders in Indian industry were quick to realize that their people needed emotional support. In many cases, the HR personnel became the conduits that provided this support to their colleagues. Techniques used include regular check-ins, well-being seminars by experts, and additional leave allowances. In many cases, companies tied up with specialized organizations, providing counseling services 24/7.

Optimism for India’s Corporate Future

More heartening, however, is this fact. Employees aren’t the only ones who reaped benefits. Many organizations also donated freely to causes and institutions serving the needy. One of the country’s largest and respected organizations, Hindustan Unilever Ltd (HUL), a subsidiary of global major, Unilever, launched Mission HO2PE. In partnership with the not-for-profit organization, KVN Foundation, and Portea, India’s largest home healthcare company, HUL made available free oxygen concentrators for anyone needing them.

In essence, for all those employed by organizations in the private sector, it is reassuring to know that employers in corporate India have their backs. For others, it signals that help is around the corner. It gave hope to a nation’s people. In my opinion, hope can make us move mountains. It provides us the courage and endurance to move forward even in the most adverse situations. This is what corporate India’s benevolence ended up doing.