While infections in Europe and North America have yet to peak and the extent of the spread of the coronavirus in Africa and Latin America is not yet fully understood, in South East Asia challenges created by having shut down to limit COVID-19’s impact are beginning to reveal themselves, making clear the complexity of starting over.
As is the case elsewhere, the approach for many companies in South East Asia has been one of crisis management and short-term ‘firefighting.’ In this context, it can be difficult to engage longer-term planning — including on sustainability — because so much resource and effort is being channeled to address the immediate impacts the virus has left in its wake.
The priority for regional businesses in the current situation has been workforce health and safety. This is especially true in sectors where a significant percentage of the workforce is tied to site-specific environments, be those in manufacturing, energy, food & agriculture, or logistics. Businesses are grappling as well with how to ensure that employees and customers have access to adequate financial and health resources. In response, senior leaders at ride-hailing firms Grab and Gojek have taken 20–25% pay cuts and used the money freed up to create support funds for drivers and delivery partners.
A secondary focus area for South East Asian business has been supporting front-line health workers. Thai conglomerate CP Group has invested 100 million THB in a face mask factory which will produce three million masks per month that will be donated to medical personnel and others without access to appropriate and needed protective equipment.
At a basic level, many of these corporate responses can be seen as purely business-driven, as companies recognize that a healthy society is good — essential! — for business. As we know, business does not exist in a vacuum; safe and thriving employees and communities are critical enablers of corporate success. Beyond this, corporate leaders in South East Asia also feel an obligation to respond to diverse stakeholder needs and particularly to contribute to the well-being of vulnerable groups in these challenging times. In the FMCG sector, this has led companies including Thai Union to distribute food products to communities most impacted by COVID-19.
Some business responses to the current situation highlight future corporate sustainability opportunities. Some of the most impactful interventions in South East Asia have come about where companies have applied core business skills, products and services in relief efforts. Telecommunications firm Singtel is supporting small- and medium-sized enterprises with free work-from-home plans to maintain continuity. Online classified site Carousell’s #ChooseToGive campaign encourages users to give items for free on the platform. This demonstrates the need and opportunity for “purpose-driven” businesses to help and differentiate by shifting use and distribution of core products and services to enhance the wellbeing those in greatest need — and to simultaneously reconfigure economic performance drivers to allow those ends to be achieved.
COVID-19 has tested the preparedness and resiliency of businesses in South East Asia in terms of their ability to respond to a systemic global shock. In a region where other disruptions to ‘business as usual’ are expected to accelerate in coming decades — be that due to the physical impacts of climate change, water security or equity issues as a growing population stresses infrastructure — corporates will need to be able to balance short-term crisis management alongside longer-term investments for business resiliency. South East Asian business responses to the current pandemic have revealed areas where more work is needed to overcome future challenges, and provide a glimpse of the innovation global business will need to continue to embrace to weather the coming months.