FIVE LESSONS FROM THE COVID-19 BATTLE

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There is need for mature leadership to manage the pandemic, writes Rajendra Aneja

Managing a global predicament like Covid-19, calls for visionary and pragmatic leadership from heads of nations. Leaders should keep the people of the country fully appraised of the situation, tell them the truth and also keep the morale high by providing direction and hope. They need to ensure preparedness to meet the medical and civic challenges. Leaders should govern effectively, without indulging in symbolism.

Not all global leaders have stood tall during the Covid-19 turbulence. President Donald Trump is leading the fight against the pandemic from the front in USA, but he could avoid generating a controversary a day. Again, if the public is advised to wear masks, leaders like Trump and PM Boris Johnson of UK, should have set personal examples.

Volatile Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, could have been more statesman-like, instead of playing a divisive role. Germany’s Angela Merkel and New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern have managed well through steely resolve. Both have preferred silent action over words.

Many national leaders have been content to stay safely ensconced in their homes or offices. They should have been in the streets, to assess issues first-hand and galvanise their people.

Health Spending: Covid-19 should make developing countries review how much they spend on the health care of their citizens. As people caught the virus, they were traumatised by concerns on whether they would get a ventilator in the hospital. Many patients died trying to find a bed in a hospital. Doctors in Europe had to make hard decisions, about allotting the limited ventilators.

Many countries spend as low as three per cent of their GDPs annually on health care. India spends 3.6 per cent of its GDP on health. The United States spends 18 per cent of its GDP, which is over USD 10,000 per person per year. The world spends about 10 per cent and sub-Saharan Africa spends around five per cent of the GDP on health. After the Covid-19 watershed, every country should spend at least 10 per cent of its GDP on public health, especially in Asia and Africa.

Doctors and nurses have buffered the immense damage that Covid-19, could have caused across nations. Health workers have endangered their own lives to save patients. Many of them work 12 to 14 hours at a stretch in hospitals.

Apart from showing due respect and appreciation to health workers, their salaries should be enhanced. They should also be insured generously at government expense.

Caring for Elders: Around 65-70 per cent of the deaths due to Covid-19 have been amongst patients above the age of 65 years. Perhaps some of these elders had associated issues like diabetes, blood pressure, etc. Nevertheless, there have been reports that in Europe many elderly home-care agencies faced a shortage of staff and equipment.

The health, spirit and morale of the elderly need special attention. Most countries have issued advisories that citizens above the age of 60 should stay indoors. However, many elders stay alone. They need assistance for domestic chores, cooking and shopping. Moreover, being alone they also get more dispirited and lonelier than others.

A society that does not care for its elders, does not have the right values. In many developing countries, old-age homes are conspicuous by their absence. This is the time for governments to review how many elderly care homes are required and build them, with adequate open spaces, where the senior citizens can walk and get some fresh air.

Manage Slums: About a billion people across nations, which is around 18 per cent of the global population, live in slums and shanty areas. Covid-19 has spread faster in the slums, since social distancing could not be practised.

In many slums like Dharavi in Mumbai in India, there are five to 10 people residing in small rooms of 80 to 100 square feet. Only 20 per cent of Dharavi’s population of about 1.5 million have access to toilets. Similar situations prevail in slums in Kenya, Mexico, South Africa, Brazil and Venezuela. The informal economies of many large cities, is dependent on workers, who stay in these over-crowded and unhygienic slums.

Governments should prepare emergency five-year plans, to replace the slums with low cost apartment housing, which provides more space and toilets to residents.

Managing Migrant Workers: Migrant workers constitute the backbone of many economies. They leave their villages and work in shops, factories or as hawkers in the cities. A traumatic fallout of the lockdown in India, has been the horrendous plight of the migrant labour. Trains and buses stopped abruptly and an estimated 80 million migrant workers lost their livelihoods.

The return journey of the migrants to their villages was gut-wrenching. Labourers carrying their belongings in bundles, mothers carrying babies, trudged on highways, walking distances of 200 to 1,000 kilometres, over a period of eight to 15 days to reach their villages.

Many workers walked continuously, without food, water or shelter, in the blazing summer. The picture of a child tugging at the tunic of her dead mother at a railway platform tore hearts. About 225 labourers died in accidents, on their desperate journeys. Another 15 migrant workers were crushed by a train in the night as they slept on railway tracks, on their journey on foot.

When lockdowns were declared in many countries, the employers or local governments should have arranged to transport the migrant workers home or ensured food and accommodation for them. It would have cost very little to open community kitchens and start health-check centres for them. In this time and age, it is deeply disappointing that anyone dies of hunger or exhaustion.

Thus, to manage pandemics like Covid-19 effectively, we need to elect our leaders wisely, spend 10 per cent of the GDP on health, manage the well-being of elders, revamp slums and show compassion to migrant workers. Wisdom and humaneness can help us to fight any pandemic, populism and jingoism cannot.

Aneja was the Managing Director of Unilever Tanzania. He is an alumnus of the Harvard Business School and is the author of “Little Thoughts for a Better World”