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This problem is everyone’s problem

Apr 05, 2020 Leadership, Life & Society

We are, all of us in the world, deeply affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. Some more than others, though.

Consider a first group. The members of this small but privileged category fled to safety once the dangers of the coronavirus were clear. They were the first to work from home, because they can. They have the get-up and gizmos and gear, and the bandwidth. They can get food and other essentials delivered. They are affected, but not catastrophically – not yet. Their immediate income is not under massive threat; and where it is, they have reserves to live off. 

For this first group, ‘social distancing’ is about social media and virtual meetings, Zoom calls and digital parties and meet-ups. They share memes about working from home. They are troubled – only an idiot or a sociopath can stay untroubled during a global pandemic – but they are not hurting. They are able to talk about reading more and using the time to learn new things.

A second group is also working from home – but not by choice. These folks have been sent home. Initially they are using up their leave days, but they are a worried bunch. What if shutdowns and lockdowns persist, and their employers can no longer sustain them? In richer countries the state has provided a cushion. In poor nations, there are no guarantees. So, worrying times for this group.

A third group is not allowed to work from home. They are the workers manning essential services, or part of the skeleton staffs keeping businesses open. Those in this group aren’t supposed to worry too much about possible infection – it will be fine, we tell them, if you take precautions. If they want to keep their jobs, they have to keep braving the risks.

And lastly, especially in the poor nations of the world, there are the people for whom there is absolutely no option. Pandemic or not, if they don’t earn their keep every single day, there is no food to eat. These are the casual workers, the hawkers, the day labourers – the invisible ones. We tell them to maintain social distance knowing full well they live in dense colonies and travel in overcrowded vehicles. We tell them to wash their hands knowing we haven’t even bothered to give them running water all these years. We proclaim lockdowns followed by crackdowns, forgetting one simple thing: for this group, an order to stay home is an order to starve. 

And ain’t nobody going to starve willingly.

Today’s column is an appeal to those in the first group. You are the movers and shakers of society; the decision-makers and policy-shapers; the influencers and the privileged. Sure, you are troubled by this pandemic. Many of you are facing unimaginable decisions for your teams and organizations. But please remember this: your situation is as nothing compared to those in the other groups.

For you guys, this is the time where you make a bigger deal with life. As you plan your adjustments and make your decisions, do everything with great empathy and with an eye to the actual meaning of your life. What are you all about? What is the point of your life? A shared crisis makes that crystal-clear. Most, I fear, will turn out to be self-absorbed and self-centred, and their decisions will reveal this. A precious few will do things that will never be forgotten.

Even the small things matter. Look out for the people who are working so that essential services can be provided to you. First and foremost the medical professionals who are treating and managing this thing, saving as many lives as they can. But also the security guards, the bank assistants, the call-centre staffers, the cleaners, the shopkeepers, the kiosk owners, the delivery guys – all those who are working so that you can be safe at home. Think of them, have a good word for them, look out for them, help them.

Most importantly, the poorest amongst us. If their livelihoods go, they go. If you have some privilege in this world, you cannot stand by and watch as society implodes, starting with the most vulnerable. Offer your insights, your influence and your resources to answer that most vexed of questions: how can we slow down the virus without shutting down the lives of the most desperate amongst us? Give your time and attention, give your money, give everything you can. This problem is everyone’s problem.

To those already giving: bravo. All strength to you.

(Sunday Nation, 5 April 2020)

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