By Peter Matlare, Deputy Group CEO of the Absa Group Limited and Chief Executive of Absa Regional Operations

Working together requires an environment of trust and understanding, to leverage strengths for optimal value in working towards a common goal, writes Peter Matlare. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to persist in countries across the world, organisations have recognised that it is not, as many had first thought, a short-term problem simply needing a quick response. The extraordinary disruption precipitated by COVID-19 is driving deep structural shifts that will require businesses to make permanent changes to the way they operate.

It has brought to the fore a question asked in boardrooms around the world – what is the role of the corporation in society? And how can it contribute differently and constructively to a changing world?

COVID-19 has highlighted that fostering healthy and productive societies should be everyone’s concern. It has not only shown how vulnerable we are to health emergencies even in this modern age; it has also reminded us how intimately interconnected we are and of the importance of collaboration and co-operation in dealing with issues that affect us all. We are all as strong as our weakest link.

Organisations cannot abdicate their responsibility for facilitating a mutual duty of care. It is not a time for retreating into silos and only looking to health experts to lead the charge in addressing the challenges brought on by the pandemic. Efforts to remedy the health crisis; have triggered severe economic and social disjunctures, which in many developing nations has exacerbated fiscal vulnerabilities.

It is thus imperative that the private sector steps up to its responsibilities by directing its social spending, and re-orientates its strategic business priorities to address acute crises that may arise from time to time, and to contribute meaningfully to achieve long-term, global sustainable development goals.  

Global cooperation and efforts directed at finding solutions to prevent the spread of the virus and to put in place longer-term solutions to fight the threat of future pandemics have been laudable.

In some respects, Africa was able to respond proactively to the pandemic, borrowing from lessons learned from managing other health emergencies. In South Africa, the need for a bold response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1990s informed the country’s comprehensive response to COVID-19. In other parts of Africa, the experience of managing the spread of the deadly Ebola virus, enabled countries to develop a similar response to containment, which has proved life-saving in this crisis. 

However, the impact of COVID-19 on developing economies cannot be underestimated. The pandemic threatens to reverse the significant gains made in recent decades to address the socio-economic problems of poverty and income inequality and previously intractable healthcare challenges, such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.

In the face of these perilous global risks, companies have had to carefully consider how to balance its role in the broader community while managing the impact of the pandemic on their businesses. At Absa, we quickly introduced a coordinated and comprehensive response to COVID-19 across 12 markets in Africa that prioritised the health and safety of our colleagues and customers, while at the same time tailoring implementation plans that addressed the unique socio-economic initiatives of stakeholders in each country.

To date, the Absa’s group contribution to relief efforts has been in the region of $4,5m (R76m), which has funded personal protective equipment, feeding schemes and facilitated access to remote learning. Customers were afforded  financial relief through measures such as debt repayment moratoria and reduced banking costs. Efforts to support and assist our colleagues and customers also precipated an accelerated transition to new ways of working and digital transformation.

Our agile response to the pandemic, however, brought into sharp relief an appreciation that we could not succeed in achieving our objectives alone. The importance of social partnerships – with governments, civil society and other business actors – are critical to crafting a holistic, customised and robust response.

New partnerships and alliances with subject-matter and sector level experts are crucial to helping companies convert internal crisis response efforts into wider organisational shifts, as they provide perspective and tap into the needs of stakeholders at the coalface.

In this regard, Absa has concluded a three-year pan-African Memorandum of Understanding with The Global Fund, a partnership organisation focused on accelerating the end of the AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria epidemics.  It invests billions of dollars every year to strengthen health systems in more than 100 countries in Africa and Asia, and supports a country’s efforts to prevent and treat the three diseases, as well as, more recently, COVID-19, for which it has made available a further $800m.

Recognising that behaviour change lies at the core of how we beat infectious diseases, Absa is working with the Global Fund, to leverage its voice, programs, communication platforms and financing expertise to promote healthy societies for healthy economies, with a particular focus on empowering adolescent girls and young women.  This is a group that is disproportionately impacted by HIV (and COVID-19) as a consequence of gender based violence, social dynamics and a lack of economic opportunities. Absa believes that empowering this group is one of the keys to unlocking the potential of the African continent.

Absa is also exploring how to support innovative finance initiatives undertaken by the Global Fund and it’s in-country principle recipients, to contribute to new and sustainable sources of funding for AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and COVID-19.

The partnership will initially be focused on supporting Global Fund programmes in South Africa, with an ambition to expand to other Absa countries in the near term.

Underpinning a successful social partnership to navigate social crises or to achieve sustainable long-term goals,  requires building an environment of trust between the different stakeholders so that each understands the others’ role in formulating successful solutions and an understanding of how their strengths can be leveraged to optimise value, while working towards a common goal.  

COVID-19 has been a call to action on many levels. The unexpected impact of the pandemic has been to remind companies, governments and other actors of the tenuous links between global health security and economic prosperity; to consider aligning short-term responses with an eye to building longer-term resilience; to adopt a transformation mind set; to recognise the criticality of collaboration and communication to achieving common goals; and to ensure that we draw on leadership from all levels of the organisation and from all aspects of the community to craft robust and sustainable solutions.

 Only through partnerships can we build a stronger and more resilient post-COVID world.