The internet has been flooded with videos of handwashing dances; every world leader urging us to wash our hands; and lines for the sink in bars and restaurants as customers jostle to scrub their fingers and palms before returning to their table – all in aid to reduce the spread of novel coronavirus, or COVID-19.
In a normal situation, this would delight me. I wish handwashing with soap had shot to the top of the agenda without a global health crisis. Once this virus has been overcome, however, some good must come from this. Wall to wall coverage driving home the importance of washing our hands will hopefully turn into longer term handwashing programs in schools, in hospitals. Anyone who knows me well will have heard it before: handwashing with soap is the most cost effective public health intervention. Good hand hygiene protects children from deadly illnesses like diarrhoea, which kills more under-fives than HIV / AIDS, malaria and measles combined. We might laugh at the handwashing dance, but this is no joking matter.
Much has been said about the risks to business of coronavirus. Less has been said of the opportunities to work with businesses to overcome it. There’s a balance to strike here. Critics have warned against profiteering as unscrupulous businesses take advantage of shortages of face masks and hand sanitisers. But business involvement will be an essential part of the solution. I have demonstrated the possibility of this previously, joining the world’s largest soap manufacturer – Unilever – to run what became the largest hygiene program in the world. Led by the Lifebuoy brand, this effort recently surpassed reaching 1 billion people with handwashing behaviour change messages. I recently documented this evidence as a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School with my book “Brands on a Mission: How to achieve social impact and business growth through purpose”, coming out in May 2020. There is definitely a clear role for businesses in influencing positively healthy habits like handwashing.
So, how can businesses get involved in solving this crisis responsibly? Firstly, those involved in media and communications must play their part in ensuring correct information about the virus and how to prevent its spread is heard. Panic and fear driven by rumour and fake news is the number one enemy here. Correct information will be key to minimising damage. This responsibility lies with media and social media companies, creative agencies, and brands with a media budget could align with these priorities.
Secondly, businesses must work collaboratively with other agents, playing to their strengths to achieve a common aim. This should include governments and international organisations, with whom businesses can work to ensure access to necessary goods and capabilities, such as putting to work their creative know-how, and having access to distribution networks.
We must unite our efforts to address the crisis. We should make sure that structures and processes are in place to deal with similar situations when they arise in future. Local coalitions promoting handwashing, like what we’re seeing in Vietnam and beyond combining the government, soap manufacturers and influencers, have proven impactful in halting the spread of Coronavirus. And what gets handwashing to stick is powerful, coordinated and consistent communications and coalitions.
Another successful campaign to take inspiration from here is Global Handwashing Day, marked on 15th of October, which last year reached over 500 million people in 100 countries with handwashing messages. This has been achieved by competitors like Unilever, Procter and Gamble, Colgate Palmolive coming to the same table with international organisations like Unicef, USAID amongst many others. This has already inspired many similarly impactful initiatives. But much more is needed, especially at community levels and in hard-to-reach areas where more resources are required as well as running water in some cases.
Lastly, businesses must become resilient. As the markets shift with every announcement from the World Health Organisation or national leaders about the virus within their borders, businesses must consider how best they can safeguard their employees, and their role in the wider economic system itself. We have seen banks offering mortgage breaks for those affected, we also need to look at how businesses responding to basic needs of those going into self-isolation to avoid further spread of the virus.
This crisis has the potential to reshape business and society, one way or another. The direction that takes depends in a large part on how business reacts with regards to emerging opportunities and wider social responsibilities.
Shared humanity is what it will take to defeat Covid-19 and including a new way to rethink how businesses can be part of the solution.
WHO has confirmed #coronavirus as pandemic. What is role of business in tackling #COVID19? Responsible marketing, securing supplies, safeguarding employees, building resilience…We’re launching urgent process to gather together views. Join us on Thursday 19th March to ask Myriam and her co-expert panellists questions on this important issue here.