It won’t be long before most people in the world know of a life lost, or a livelihood destroyed, by the coronavirus pandemic.
Already, too many people have a heartbreaking story to tell, whether through illness or because they are facing the social or financial consequences of the world shutting down to all but the most essential activity.
I am sure I speak on behalf of everyone at Unilever in extending our deepest sympathies to all those who are struggling. Equally, we stand in awe of, and express our gratitude to, all those working heroically at the frontline to slow down the spread of Covid-19. Every nurse, doctor, paramedic and other first responder… we salute you.
In most countries, the situation will get worse before it gets better.
And while it is difficult for even the most ardent optimist to stay positive, there are some signs that we are beginning to mobilise at the speed, and scale, required to lift ourselves out of this crisis as quickly as possible.
Social distancing is critical to slow the spread, and we must all take this seriously. But we must also remember that social distancing means physical distancing, not emotional distancing; and we should take inspiration from the millions of small acts of human kindness, ingenuity and spirit which have lit up our social media feeds in recent weeks.
Remarkably, until there is a vaccine for Covid-19, soap remains our best first line of defence.
Medical authorities are clear: washing our hands thoroughly and frequently with soap, or using sanitiser where soap and water are not available, is one of the most effective ways to arrest the spread of infection.
As the world’s biggest soap company, we have a responsibility to help. We have a social, medical and moral obligation to make soap more readily available worldwide. We have to deploy our expertise in how to teach people to handwash effectively, whichever brand they choose to use. So, today, we have announced a set of measures to support global and national efforts to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic. To protect lives and to protect livelihoods.
The actions we are taking start with our consumers and communities, to whom we have committed to provide free soap, sanitiser, bleach and food to the value of €100 million.
Around half of this will go to the COVID Action Platform of the World Economic Forum, which is supporting global health organisations and agencies with their response to the emergency. The other half will come from the many product donations, partnerships and handwashing education programmes we are putting in place at a national and local level.
Initiatives in the US, India, China, UK, Netherlands, Italy and many other countries are already well under way. Our Lifebuoy team, for example, has been working hard to manufacture and distribute millions of bars of free soap to those most in need. Thank you to the Unilever team for their selfless and tireless efforts – particularly those working in manufacturing, distribution and our R&D labs who are ensuring we can keep up supply.
But it doesn’t end there. We want to help our other stakeholders too – our customers, our suppliers and our people – who will need our support to navigate through the financial challenges that this crisis will pose.
For our customers and suppliers, we have decided to offer €500 million of cash flow relief to support livelihoods across our extended value chain. We will do this through early payment for our most vulnerable small and medium-sized suppliers to help them with financial liquidity, and extending credit to selected small-scale retail customers whose business relies on Unilever, to help them manage and protect jobs.
And for our workforce, whose wellbeing is our utmost priority, we will protect them from sudden drops in pay, as a result of market disruption or being unable to perform their role, for up to three months. We will cover our employees, contractors and others who we manage or who work on our sites, on a full or part-time basis. This will apply to workers not already covered by government plans or by their direct employer.
For the avoidance of doubt, this includes those women and men who work to keep our facilities secure, our premises clean, or who run our cafeterias; and who are so much a part of our team even if they are not directly on Unilever’s payroll.
It’s going to take action from everyone in society to overcome this challenge, and we are ready to play our part and fight this together.
Stay safe and stay well.