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Coronavirus gives us an opportunity to get things right

Lance Claasen works in reputation management. He has over 20 years experience in media. He has worked for Kaya FM, 702 and Cape Talk. He is not to be confused with his twin brother Larry Claasen who is Deputy Editor of at Moneyweb.

The threat of Covid-19, the disease caused by the Coronavirus, could play a role in ensuring that health and safety issues are uppermost in our minds and our structures, which goes beyond just getting one’s hands full of soap.

Sometimes it takes a big stink to get things right. This was the case of London’s actual “Big Stink” of 1858. The capital of the world’s largest empire at the time was overcrowded, smelly and ripe with outbreaks of typhoid, typhus and cholera. In July and August of 1858, the city of London was overwhelmed by a pong that would not go away, with the effluent of much of London’s three million residents flowing into The Thames. 

Something had to be done. 

There had been many proposals in the past to have a new sewer system constructed, but the costs of the exercise always stood in the way of construction. This was until the “Big Stink” convinced MP’s that the cost of not taking action was higher.

As Rahm Emmanuel, former US president Barack Obama’s chief of staff and the former mayor of Chicago, said:

“You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that, it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.

This is what the latest edition of the coronavirus presents us with: an opportunity to create a healthier, more conscious society, despite the stress and suffering of those affected by the disease.

It has already made people aware of personal hygiene, but with a more layered approach, it could do so much more.

The proper washing of hands and the use of sanitisers have become top of mind in combating coronavirus. If it becomes a habit, it means that the impact of all sorts of contagious diseases will be limited in the future. These interventions can happen quickly once big institutions implement them.

Let’s take the Catholic Church, not known for being the paragon of progressive thinking (just ask Galileo Galilei, who was brought to trial for arguing that the earth was not the centre of the universe), has taken a remarkable stance in cutting back on its key rituals to curb the spread of the disease. Holy water has been taken out of fonts, the shaking of hands during the sign of peace has been banned and in an unprecedented move, it prohibited communion in the form of wine to its parishioners. 

A 2000-year-old institution weighed down in baggage, ritual and history moved with uncharacteristic speed to protect the health of its members. It moved faster than many public-facing corporates that should have known better.

With the virus spreading, we will see an explosion of sanitary theatre, all meant to assure the public that efforts are being made to curb the spread of the virus. Wet wipes and sanitisers will be in every public touch-point from office parks to public baths.

In order for real healthcare change to take place, it has to happen at a deeper, more visceral level. It means every decision has to revolve around health and safety, which is far more than getting one’s hands full of soap. 

Just like running a green organisation is far more than having a recycling bin, health and safety measures are embedded in the culture of the entity. 

Eskom, for all its shortcomings, has ingrained this in its culture. At the Energy Indaba a few years ago, the power utility sent recently graduated engineers to man an exhibition stand. The first question asked:

“Who is going to give them the safety briefing?” This shows one how ingrained safety culture is in the organisation, that young employees are led to think about it even at conference settings. 

The airliner KLM has a system where health and safety is much more than a box-ticking compliance exercise, but addresses the mood and mental setting of each crew member. If a crew member is under stress or feeling out of sorts, the system allows him or her to flag it themselves and for the rest of the team to support that person. A safe psychological space is created, where health and safety issues can be raised without fear of repercussion. 

Both these examples address a way of thinking that is more than theatre or compliance. It speaks to the very values of what organisations take seriously. The current outbreak of the coronavirus allows society and organisations to reflect on issues of health and safety. More than that, it provides the energy and drive to put the issue front and centre in the public consciousness.

There are those who will argue against the cost of implementing such a system. But, like the victims of the Big Stink of 1858, we have reached the stage where the costs of no implementation outweigh any negatives from those who control the purse strings. 

Washing hands thoroughly is a good start, but it is just a start. DM

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