The global pandemic has laid bare risks we have ignored for decades: inadequate health systems; gaps in social protection; structural inequalities; environmental degradation; and the climate crisis. Entire regions that were making progress on eradicating poverty and narrowing inequality have been set back years, in a matter of months.

Those were the words of United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, when he recently delivered the 18th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture. In his address, Guterres called for a new social contract; a new economy of exchange; and a new basis on which people can associate and engage with one another.

With the spread of COVID-19 creating a crisis that is unprecedented in living memory, there is not an element of our lives that has remained unaffected by the pandemic. The full scope of the human and economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will not be known for some time; and the impact on our lives and our communities will likely be felt for generations to come. 

While the pandemic presented a global crisis, it also brought with it the opportunity to begin the work of refashioning towards equity and social justice.

And this is especially true for businesses.

A wake-up call for businesses

The global crisis has been a wake-up call for businesses to re-examine their role in society; it is precisely in times of crisis where a sense of unity and belonging are important for any community. For this reason, it was essential that companies also manifest this sense of belonging as an active part of the community.

In May, with most of the globe under lockdown, global non-profit business network Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) surveyed 102 companies across their global networks. The survey results showed that one of the biggest longer-term outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic may be a marked increase in the importance and relevancy of corporate sustainability as we adapt to our new reality.

As the role of business in society continues to evolve and shared value becomes mainstream, businesses are rising to the challenge. It is encouraging to see how, even in the midst of challenging times, companies across the globe are positively impacting society, assisting their communities in the wake of the pandemic.

One such a business is financial services provider, Absa.

Absa Group scales up COVID-19 community support

The Group employs just over 38 000 people across Africa, with an extensive retail network that reaches into thousands of communities across the continent. This placed an enormous responsibility on them to provide inspirational leadership and support during these uncertain times and their response reflected their commitment to protect lives and livelihoods.

In line with broader global and local efforts to assist employees, customers and communities impacted by COVID-19, Absa Group undertook a number of humanitarian, health and community support initiatives, focusing on the following three areas:

1.      The expansion of tracing, screening and testing, a very important requirement for the containment and suppression of the virus.

2.      Provision of medical equipment and enabling infection peak medical care. Securing personal protective equipment (PPE) for the heroes of this pandemic, the health workers, as well as initiatives such as training of nurses and health workers to support the public health response.

3.    Supporting vulnerable people and communities through the provision of food and hygiene goods.

Purpose in action

The bank was recently awarded the Euromoney 2020 Excellence in Leadership in Africa Award for their integrated COVID-19 response. The Award looked at what corporates in the banking industry have done for their employees, clients, communities, industry and economies in Africa.

When building a strategic response to the pandemic, Absa decided that the safety and wellbeing of its employees was their core priority, because they understood that a successful business is driven by its people.

The award acknowledges Absa’s efforts to ensure that their employees had all the necessary tools required to work remotely; observing and implementing heightened health and safety protocols for onsite employees; as well as investing in providing valuable counselling and mindfulness programmes to ensure employees wellness. They also provided employees with payment moratoriums to ease their financial hardships during this period.

Most notable from a customer perspective has been Absa’s Payment Relief Programme, which at the end of July 2020 had offered significant cash-flow relief to more than 600 000 Retail and Business Banking customers in need; totaling 735 295 accounts and amounting to R9,2 billion in relief.

Their Corporate and Investment Banking business approved in excess of R37-billion of COVID-19 related financing and continue to receive and assess applications from clients that have been impacted by this pandemic.

To date, Absa has donated R48 million towards its various COVID-19 humanitarian, health and community support initiatives in South Africa, supporting over 20 grassroots and national organisations, including the Solidarity Fund. The bank was also proud partners in the JSE #Trade4Solidarity initiative; and donated over R1m of their trading commissions to the Solidarity Fund.

To assist students with online or remote learning, Absa partnered with USAF (Universities South Africa), and contributed R6 million towards the procurement and distribution of 1100 laptops and mobile data devices and the production of lectures for free-to-air radio and TV broadcasts.

Absa employees furthermore donated proceeds of their accumulated leave and made generous cash donations towards COVID-19 relief efforts. 

The pandemic also brought into sharp focus the vital work of South Africa’s medical frontline, particularly our nurses. In celebration of International Nurses Day on 12 May 2020, the bank delivered blankets as “thank you” gifts to 14 580 nurses at 11 public hospitals across the country.

Navigating our new normal, together

The road to recovery will require continuous teamwork, patience and commitment as we navigate our new normal.  

The late Nelson Mandela was once quoted as saying "One of the challenges of our time is to re-instill in the consciousness of our people that sense of human solidarity, of being in the world for one another and because of and through others.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced this message more strongly than ever.