OPINION | How to strengthen society in a time of crisis

A sunrise is photographed from the International Space Station, December 25, 2017.
A sunrise is photographed from the International Space Station, December 25, 2017.

Development foundations and philanthropic organisations should play an indispensable role in the national response to the Covid-19 outbreak. We have proven track records of working with communities that can be leveraged during this period of immediate action but, as importantly, in the rebuilding of a post-coronavirus society.

Covid-19 is placing extraordinary strains on health systems and economic resources of countries across the globe. Despite the major advances in the management of infectious diseases that were made in recent decades, this outbreak has laid bare our collective vulnerability to the impact of a rampant disease.

It is in this environment in which the cooperation between the public and private sectors, as well as broader civil society, has become essential. As developmental organisations we should not attempt to duplicate what the public sector is doing in terms of prevention or treatment. Neither should we step on the toes of major corporations or global charities who are launching high-profiled campaigns.

The Eskom Development Foundation has been active for more than three decades in initiatives that benefit grassroots communities across a spectrum of activities, from healthcare, to education, to the environment, to support for emerging entrepreneurs.

We share this space with many similar foundations established by state-owned entities, the private sector and the international donor community. Despite budgets that are under pressure we are making invaluable contributions to the country and supporting the broader momentum towards social cohesion and a more equitable society.

This accumulated experience is what we are offering to a country and a society that are engaged in a struggle to overcome the biggest crisis it has faced since the democratic transition of 1994.

In joining the national effort, we should focus on our own strengths and unique capabilities. We should draw deeply from our past experiences gathered over decades of involvement with communities. We should activate the networks we have established and reinvigorate the relationships that have, in the past, overcame other crises.

We should use our access to communities to promote awareness, distribute correct and verified information and combat fake news and rumours. We should leverage our relationships with community leaders and activists to support their vital efforts and offer guidance, support and resources.

Our existing focus areas and priority programmes must continue, but we must also be agile enough to identify and address new situations that might arise in the coming weeks and months.

Through our strong community ties, we are in a prime position to improve communication between healthcare providers and communities. We can emphasise the importance of essential preventive measures such as handwashing, personal hygiene and social distancing which can limit the spread of the virus.

Long-term impact

We can counsel families and provide vital societal support to families who have to deal with issues related to social isolation, stigmatisation, anxiety and grief. Mental health issues will grow in importance as the tentacles of the disease spread into communities.

The long-term societal impact is likely to be as disruptive as the disease itself. And, as the World Economic Forum has noted, even prior to the outbreak of Covid-19, the largest losses will be caused by cascading consumer reactions, labour scarcity and future shortages in supply chains even after we have recovered from the health impact.

The single most important requirement of organisations involved in philanthropy and social development is to demonstrate long-term commitments.

Covid-19 will definitely be with us for months to come, most likely for many, many months. Without a doubt, the immediate focus must be on containment, medical interventions and the mobilisation of society to overcome the adversity.

But we must already have a much longer-term perspective. We should already be planning for what we want to achieve once the threat has subsided and our country returns to some semblance of normality.

Long-term thinking will be required to restore the economic damage already caused by Covid-19. Small businesses will have to be rebuild from scratch, supply chains will have to be re-established and entrepreneurs will need to find new and innovative opportunities to create jobs in a post-Covid society.

As developmental organisations we may lack money and financial resources. But we have built up a wealth of experience, a treasure trove of credibility and integrity and an abundance of networks that stretch very deep into the communities that we have partnered with over many decades.

Ramonotsi is the CEO of the Eskom Development Foundation

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