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The Briefing

This virus has taught us that we must change to survive

by Claire Aiken


Over the past few weeks, we have seen Northern Ireland rally in a way that I, for one, have certainly not experienced in my lifetime.

We are far from seeing the final impact of the havoc that COVID–19 is wreaking upon the globe. However, while we are all feeling a communal grief for what we have already lost we are perhaps gaining something immense, the burgeoning of a powerful community spirit that will benefit our society in the long term. 

Over the past few weeks, we have seen Northern Ireland rally in a way that I, for one, have certainly not experienced in my lifetime.  This rallying most visibly manifested in the #ClapForCarers to health workers on a Thursday evening, goes deep and wide across civic and business life. It stretches beyond applauding to practical support from health to sport, business to charity. It is happening at individual, community and business levels.

Thousands of people have signed up to volunteer for the NHS taking on new roles that are being defined daily, from drivers, to hospital meet and greeters, to telephone befrienders.  These volunteers come from all walks of life, company directors who have been furloughed, retirees, teenagers staving off the boredom of lockdown life, amongst them are many who never before have considered volunteering.

Beyond individuals there are the existing groups that have ‘repurposed’ themselves to play their part.  GAA clubs with cancelled training and fixtures, were fast out of the blocks, galvanising to use their organisational and administrative skills to support the isolated and vulnerable in their community.  Their response, while fast, has been careful and considered, they put rallying calls out to members, they are mindful that many of the vulnerable will not be online and they are using their network of contacts with local businesses to ensure the needs of those they are supporting are met.  

Repurposing is a buzz word that also applies to the business world where reaction to the virus has been as innovative as it was swift. The list of companies who have used their production lines and skill sets to respond to the health sector’s clarion call for PPE is lengthening by the day and is nothing short of astonishing. 

Global and local companies alike have reacted fast; Diageo along with no fewer than eight local gin and whiskey distillers are among those who have turned from making alcoholic beverages to producing thousands of gallons of hand sanitizer. And, in an inspirational demonstration of positive collaboration, Belfast Hot Sauce Company of Helen’s Bay is donating thousands of plastic bottles required to hold the sanitizer.

O’Neill’s sportswear announced it was temporarily laying off hundreds of staff one week when orders for GAA kits fell off a cliff, only to recall a number of them the next to get to work on making 100,000 sets of scrubs.  The company, which originally took an order for scrubs for Northern Ireland is likely to produce for the south and GB as well. Last week Blocblinds based in Magherafelt repurposed its production line to begin producing 22,000 face shields with Mid Ulster Council giving over the local sports arena to the company to increase its factory floor space.

Meanwhile those companies that are unable to reapply their skills or set their production lines to make alternative products are offering what support they can in their droves.  From tech giants providing charities with devices, restaurants and supermarkets donating food to front line workers, to taxi companies offering a free service to the old and vulnerable, businesses from a cross section of sectors are doing their bit. 

The media, in addition to covering latest news on Covid–19 is also covering this community and business response as well as publishing its own advice on how to minimise risk and look after mental health.

It seems, if anything, this virus taught us that must change to survive. It turns out benevolence in business is possible, that kindness and compassion can be integrated into our lives much more readily than many thought and that, what above all is important, is our common humanity. The phrase ‘when things return to normal’ is bandied about but increasingly, many of us are realising this will be an entirely new normal, and while currently we are adapting to survive, going forward we will have to keep adapting to succeed.

Collaboration, innovation and altruism at a time when so many are anxious for their own and loved ones’ health and wellbeing, is surely reassuring for society as a whole.  We have proven much; we can respond quickly, we can innovate, and we can co–operate but more than this, when the chips are down, we have realised that we are all #InThisTogether