Social Sustainability in Face of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic: A framework to develop contingency plans with a human side

Dr. Zahid Parvez, Rector of the Markfield Institute, delivered a presentation, on Tuesday 17 March 2020, to provide guidance to community organisations in their efforts to develop contingency plans in the face of the pandemic we are facing. A summary of his four-dimensional contingency planning framework is shared below.

This concise guide offers a framework for organisations to develop their contingency plans to respond effectively with a foresight to the development of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Indeed this pandemic is a challenge to our generation and world. However, challenges, if taken positively, can bring out noble human qualities, which in turn ensures social sustainability. Contingency plans that give due consideration to care and support of staff and stakeholders would provide firmer foundations for business continuity in times of crisis.

Public and private organisations, including charities, mosques, madaris, and educational institutions need to ensure their contingency plans are not limited in scope or fail to account for indirect or less immediate issues that may impact their normal operations. The plans need to highlight how risks to the organisation, staff and beneficiaries/customers’ are to be mitigated. They need to mitigate risks to the health, safety and the wellbeing of stakeholders in everyday operations while maintaining compliance with statutory legal obligations and ensuring business continuity. In addition, Islamic value-based organisations need to pay attention to religious/fiqhi guidance related to their service delivery and business operations, displaying due regard to the social implications of drastic measures on stakeholders, including staff and beneficiaries.

The framework outlined below details four key dimensions essential to allow the identification of potential risks in a comprehensive manner:

1. Ensuring business continuity
2. Compliance to legal responsibilities and acting on medical advice
3. Considering religious/fiqhi advice on the pandemic, within specific contexts
4. Mitigating the social impact of the pandemic on stakeholders

Ensuring business continuity:

The foremost consideration when developing contingency plans in the face of pandemics is to ensure the continuity of business operations and services provided by an organisation. Short and long-term risks to people, resources, processes and service delivery need to be identified to minimise disruption and inefficiency. Organisations may face a range of issues which include high rates of staff absenteeism, disruption to business travel and supplies, a need to control the spread of infections in the workplace, and to devise alternative approaches to service delivery. The application of measures to offset falling donations to charities or reduced demand for goods and services and subsequent implications for cash flow, and so forth is also required. Approaches to mitigating identifiable risks to business continuity entail effective implementation.

Possible closure or reduction of service provision may yield a negative impact on the sustainability of an organisation as well as on the overall economy and other beneficiaries. Many staff might be single parents and/or self-employed or on zero-hour contracts, and hence business closure will also have devastating implications for them. Plans need to pay due regard to such human issues. Collapsing of businesses and service organisations would have a devastating impact on the economy – if the economy suffers then everyone would be impacted negatively.

Compliance to legal responsibilities and acting on medical advice:

Organisations share a legal responsibility to ensure the health and safety of their staff, customers, and other stakeholders. It is essential that communication and guidance from the government and related regulatory bodies (such as the Charity Commission, Companies House, Office for Students, etc.) are regularly monitored and instituted. This includes being kept updated and acting on emerging medical advice provided by official bodies.

Existing health and safety laws along with government directives issued during different phases of the pandemic must be adhered to. Staff and customers should be kept informed regarding how the organisation is planning to implement new legislation, government directives and measures related to public protection (staff, customer, and student), sanitation, travel restrictions, quarantining, self-isolation, public gatherings, etc. The health and well-being of staff, customers and stakeholders become a top priority within contingency plans.

Religious/Fiqhi considerations during pandemics:

In addition to the above two considerations which must be addressed within contingency planning, religious issues are also of paramount importance to Islamic organisations. Pandemics disrupt normal life, and hence, religious and fiqhi (Islamic jurisprudence) rulings for exceptional cases arise. Islamic organisations can greatly benefit from the knowledge formulated through contextual and critical analysis. Islamic charities, mosques, madaris (schools) and other religious institutions encounter numerous religious issues throughout their daily operation and service delivery. Consideration and application of these fiqhi solutions may enable organisations to effectively address emerging religious problems.

The objectives of the Shari’ah emphasizes the protection and preservation of human life as the most important priority. Other examples facing Islamic organisations include: To what extent people should self-isolate? What are the rulings for caring for infected people when possibly putting one’s own life at a risk? Can prayers be combined in times of pandemics? Can mosques be closed during pandemics? Can Jummah, Eid or Janazah (funeral prayers) be suspended during pandemics? Which areas of need should be prioritised for distributing Zakah and sadaqah funds during pandemics? Do normal burial processes change for people infected with the disease/virus? Contingency plans require development to comply with the relevant guidance on encountered religious and fiqhi issues.

Mitigating the negative social impact of the pandemic on stakeholders:

Contingency plans also need to account for the impact of a pandemic on the social lives of staff, beneficiaries, students/customers and other stakeholders. Enforcing social distance between people to control the spread of a disease/virus may adversely impact on mental and spiritual health and wellbeing. What could the possible impact on staffs’ mental wellbeing be when compelled to self-isolate after becoming infected or following the need to care for family members who have succumbed to infection? How would customers, beneficiaries or donors perceive or respond to the services provided in the face of a pandemic? What would the impact be of school closures on staff, particularly on single mothers forced to arrange child care at an additional cost? Thus, a range of social conundrums that arise from a pandemic deserves consideration and reflection when devising contingency plans. Considerations on what care and support should an organisation provide to the stakeholders need to be part of contingency planning.

It is not too late to plan for the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. All charities, mosques and other Islamic organisations who have not yet formulated a concerted response may wish to give serious consideration to the issues highlighted above and to use this framework as a checklist for their contingency planning.