While governments and non-profit organisations are scrambling to contain the Coronavirus outbreak and assist in mitigating its effects there is still a lot that the private sector can do to assist the communities in which they operate. Since even a few isolated cases can jeopardize the health of entire communities, businesses must do their part to combat the outbreak which has already threatened the world economy.

This is not a mere call for charity work, even though that would go a long way. Even large international corporations such as Facebook are doing their part because they realise that their businesses will not be spared from the outbreak’s economic consequences and are thus doing their best to assist. Facebook has already pledged money to assist small businesses which have been affected. The internet giants have also suspended their infamous advertising and content policing policies and are now taking a more active role in taking down content which aims to deliberately spread misinformation or help unscrupulous individuals profit from the crisis.

With most governments still taking preventive and containment measures only after the numbers of infected have skyrocketed in their countries,  they are many ways that still operational businesses can assist during this critical period.

Help inform and educate the public

The combination of entrenched superstition and the deliberate use of social media to spread misinformation are putting ordinary citizens at risk. The government also seems to be grossly overestimating the number of people who read newspapers, listen to the radio or watch television as most of its efforts to inform and educate the populace are being conducted via these channels. The situation is not being helped by some public figures who are trying to use the situation to gain public attention and further their own agendas. Businesses can do a lot to help educate the public.

Posters and flyers are still one of the most effective means of disseminating information. Businesses can put up posters both inside and outside their premises. Flyers can also be used to inform customers about how they can help prevent the spread of the disease. Companies with websites can use these to disseminate helpful information about the virus. Businesses which have customer contact databases can also use these to share this information. Retailers and commuter transport operators have larger volumes of customers so they should already be at the forefront of such public awareness programs.

Telecom operators should lower the cost and increase the reliability of their services

At a time like this, the internet becomes more of a necessity rather than a luxury. It is much easier to convince people to stay indoors if they have access to cheap internet which they can use to stay informed and enable one to work from home where possible. It is disheartening to note that at a time when internet service providers in some countries are removing data caps, our own are hiking their prices instead.

It is not only the members of the general public who need to stay in touch. Members of critical public services such as health officials, utility companies and emergency services need reliable and affordable communication services even more.

Banks and microfinance institutions

With the threat of a national shutdown imminent and a large number of our populace surviving on daily incomes (e.g vendors and hawkers), it is important that institutions such as banks and microfinance institutions attempt to provide funds to help these individuals stock up on basic necessities. Also in order for businesses, some of which have become increasingly necessary at a time like this, to survive and in some cases enhance their capacities access to affordable loans is needed. This money can be used to increase the output of businesses such as grain millers and other producers of necessities.

Other businesses which may need financial assistance to scale up their operations or just to weather the situation include fuel stations (including sellers of the LPG used for cooking), manufacturers and distributors of medical supplies e.t.c

Detergent manufacturers and distributors

With some major cities such as Bulawayo still reeling from the drought, blindly promoting regular hand washing is not going to be enough. Increased access to hand sanitizers is needed. Detergent manufacturers of all sizes can either start producing or increasing their output of these. Importers can also help import more since cargo will continue to be allowed across borders.

Regular soap is still necessary for hand washing. This means that people need more affordable soap with antiseptic properties where possible.

Introduce social distancing guidelines on business premises

Some businesses despite being necessary even at a time like this still pose a very significant risk of promoting the spread of the disease. In Zimbabwe queues have become a way of life in the last year or so; it is then necessary for the people in charge of the premises which host these to limit interpersonal contact between their customers. This can involve limiting the size of these queues and maintaining the physical spacing between people. In other countries, floor markings are being used to help separate people in queues such as those in retail stores.

Businesses such as restaurants can also reduce the number of patrons which they can accommodate. This will then allow them to increase the physical separation between sits and hence reduce the likelihood of infections being transmitted within their premises.

Promote and facilitate regular hand washing

It is surprising how much effort is actually needed to keep something as simple as hand washing in the public’s consciousness. Right now people are being advised to adhere to handwashing habits more regular than those that are required during cholera outbreaks – it has become necessary to wash hands before touching your own face. This means that people need far more than the odd reminder to wash their hands.

Businesses can assist by setting up public handwashing facilities both within and outside their premises. If people are constantly reminded to wash their hands and are also provided with the facilities to do so, this is more likely to develop into habits.

Offer online shopping and delivery services

In order to reduce the amount of traffic into their premises and continue providing services in the event of a shutdown, businesses can introduce online shopping services. Orders can then be delivered to the shopper’s home. This can either be facilitated through fully-fledged online stores or at the barest minimum, messaging platforms such as Whatsapp. The ubiquity of electronic payment methods in the country has made this kind of shopping easier than ever before. Businesses which can utilise the existing technologies to achieve these include ordinary grocers, beer retailers, restaurants and even sellers of electronics.

Even though it appears we are heading towards a somewhat difficult time, we will prevail if we place the interests of our fellow man at heart. While businesses are not obliged nor is it necessary for them to offer their products and services at no cost, attempts to profit from this crisis will have a negative impact on everyone.