“East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,” Rudyard Kipling famously said in 1889. Traditionally, businesses and social enterprise have been on opposite sides of the fence. But the times, they are a-changin’. Big businesses are not about profits alone. It’s time for corporates to stand in the frontline in the fight against social evils and to find sustainable solutions to the world’s problems. One such issue is TB or tuberculosis, a horrifying disease that has become a global pandemic, and leads to terrible suffering, deaths, social stigma and economic loss.

Today, TB is the biggest killer of all the infectious diseases. There are 9 million new cases of TB in the world annually and 2 million deaths. It’s a disease that has existed since the days of the Pharaohs. This means that it is 5,000 years old. Though fully curable, it is back with a vengeance, now in a more deadly avatar, that of drug-resistant TB. The cost of TB treatment rises with increasing resistance. Every 12 months, TB causes somewhere near $12 billion to disappear from the global economy. It is estimated that the world will lose $16.7 trillion by the year 2050 due to this one disease.

Image: TB Alliance

For decades, medical professionals, academicians, NGOs and agencies such as the WHO and the World Bank have been trying to eliminate TB. Unfortunately, all have failed. Millions of dollars have been poured into the national TB control programmes of high burden countries. All the funding seems to have gone down the drain. It’s time for corporates to enter the arena, and these are the reasons why they must do so.

1. Businesses need workers

Thirty-two-year-old Kasim has been feverish for a month. His body is racked with a persistent painful cough. He has difficulty in breathing. He has no appetite, and has lost almost 10kg in weight over the past few months. Kasim used to work as a labourer at a construction site. Can Kasim go to work now?

Health is inextricably linked to productivity and economic benefits. For decades, TB has been striking factory workers, labourers, daily wagers and miners. If we do not curb this epidemic, where will we find the people to work in factories and mines? Businesses will collapse if we do not have sufficient blue collar staff to perform labour-intensive jobs. It’s a well-known fact that TB exacts a huge economic toll on the business, most acutely in developing economies. Those who typically work with their hands are prone to suffer TB and infect others, too.

Not only is TB significantly more common in blue-collar staff, it has also been found that the age-adjusted proportionate mortality ratio is at least 125% higher in them as compared to white collar workers. At the Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos in 2008, 11,000 business leaders convened and concluded that TB will adversely affect productivity in the coming decade. Treating TB gives health and productivity. It lifts people out of poverty. It also ensures a huge healthy workforce, which, all said and done, constitute the life blood of every enterprise.

2. Corporates have the financial strength

We must allocate huge resources to fight the pandemic, and we must do it now. One man cannot move a mountain. One organization cannot eliminate TB. While multilateral and bilateral agencies, donors and foundations are all striving towards TB elimination, it is simply not enough. Rotary’s polio drive started with a funding of $1.3 billion received from businesses and private donors, then it built on the momentum to get another $10 billion from governments. Only then did it achieve success. Today corporates must use their financial might to prevent TB as was done for polio. Investment now will yield great dividends later.

3. Corporates will get access to the bottom of the pyramid

It has been estimated that emerging markets will be worth $30 trillion in the coming decade. Fighting against TB gives access to those living at the bottom of the pyramid. Companies that can capture the market early will be in a commanding position compared to their competitors. Fighting TB by using community-based models will be the best way to integrate businesses into these hard-to-reach areas to make profits and to get the benefit of being the first ones on the ground.

4. For advertisement

Forty-five-year-old Boltu is working for Operation ASHA as a TB provider. Boltu lives in a Bengali slum, a shanty town. Immigrants from the state of Bengal or nearby migrated to New Delhi in search of jobs and food, and formed a settlement. All speak Bengali. Their staple food is fish and rice. Boltu is a source of great strength to the community because she not only carries out the TB programme, she also educates the community about nutrition, sanitation, hygiene and provides basic over-the-counter drugs free of cost.

Operation ASHA trains and hires people from the communities they serve, from disadvantaged areas, to carry out TB detection and to ensure full treatment. These community health workers are the back bone of a successful TB control programme. They are given great respect by their neighbours. They are looked up to and treated almost like physicians. Their word is law. Corporates can leverage the presence and trust of these frontline health workers in order to promote products, to advertise, and to improve sales.

5. To hire and retain the best talent

Twenty-eight-years old Nina has graduated from the prestigious IIT and IIM. Companies are lining up to hire her and vying with each other to give her the best benefits. She is being wooed by promises of a handsome salary, trips abroad, medical benefits, and the works. But Nina is not lured by these seemingly attractive goodies. “I want to give back to society,” she says.

Nowadays it’s the “do-good” factor that’s most important. Investing in TB will help companies hire and retain the best talent. The new kids on the block are whiz kids, they are bright and smart, but they are no longer attracted by big pay-checks and perks alone. They want to do something more with their lives. All too often we hear of smart executives who leave their jobs to dig wells in Ethiopia, or give polio drops to children in Afghanistan, or build houses in tsunami struck areas. By working in the much neglected field of TB, companies will provide executives an opportunity to give back while retaining their jobs and staying within the corporate structure.

In Kipling’s “Ballad of East and West”, an English officer and an Afghan horse-thief discover friendship by respecting one another’s courage and chivalry. Thus two organizational groups of different strength and ability can be equal and even synergistic despite multitudinous differences in their vision and mission. Corporate houses must join hands with grassroots NGOs fighting tuberculosis. This is the only way to eradicate the centuries-old scourge. Otherwise the suffering will continue. In the next decade, 20 million will die. Millions of women will be thrown out of their homes and left to die of disease and starvation. Millions of children will be orphaned. Let us not ignore the writing on the wall.

Have you read?