Businesspeople in the time of epidemic

By Pham Vu Tung   February 19, 2020 | 07:43 pm PT
Somebody once said kindness is not an instinct but a choice. And choosing to be kind in chaotic times is not simple.
Pham Vu Tung

Pham Vu Tung

Normally, every time there is an epidemic, it is the economy that will be hit first, and businesspeople and company owners will be the first victims, followed by employees.

These days many friends of mine who are entrepreneurs have had to leave their businesses in a state of suspended animation.

A friend called me recently and said how sad she was. She and her team had made a lot of effort to set up a meeting with their partner in Europe, but after they flew all the way to the meeting point, their partner had listed one reason after another to repeatedly delay the meeting.

Eventually her team found out that because they came from a country that has been hit by the new coronavirus, where 16 cases of infection has been confirmed so far, no one wanted to meet face to face with them.

Left with no choice, they had to return home, empty-handed.

Back home, her company had already made plans to invite foreign experts to Vietnam for training and technology transfer, but has had to cancel them because no expert wants to come to a country where they will be quarantined for 14 days on entry.

The company has also had to either cancel or indefinitely suspend all meetings with distributors, customer conferences, staff meetings, and its annual training program for staff.

Economists and analysts said of the 23 sectors in which there are listed companies, only three are relatively unaffected, while nine and 11 are severely and moderately affected by the epidemic.

The outbreak first hampered services, tourism, hotel, food and beverages, and transportation before it began to hit the manufacturing sector.

Hotels are empty and some unfortunate ones have been turned into places to quarantine suspected cases. Restaurants and coffee shops wear a similar deserted look while aircraft with hundreds of seats have only a few seats occupied.

But those who know how to run a business are naturally quick-witted and good at turning things around. Once a crisis occurs, their brain and senses immediately begin to look for opportunities to help them survive and even make use of the circumstances to thrive.

Some coffee shops are selling face masks and hand sanitizers while restaurants are serving extra food and running promotions to attract customers.

In many cases pharmacies have even hoarded hand-wash gels and masks and later sold them at much higher prices as demand rose.

And when buyers could not afford the expensive products, they were attracted by online shops selling a slew of gels and masks no one has ever heard of before.

This was around the same time when stories were spread claiming people should prevent their throats from drying by drinking a certain drink and that they should take supplements extracted from herbs to boost their immune system.

Telling interesting stories with a proper introduction and an unusual ending to make prospective buyers trust their products has always been a special talent of smart businesspeople, and that talent has been exploited extensively during this epidemic crisis.

This has come in for trenchant criticism.

So where is the boundary between doing business in a manner acceptable to the public and strategies to make profits at any costs by creating chaos?

There is a huge difference between creating value addition for your products and services and doing dubious things like spreading fake news to scare the public and coerce them into buying your products whose prices you have already increased.

The latter is immoral.

But there are also businesspeople who have forgotten their job is to make products, sell them and earn profits: The epidemic has turned them into Samaritans.

Staff of a pharmaceutical company give away free mask for locals in Hanoi on February 12, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Phong Van

Employees of a pharmaceutical company give away free mask to the public in Hanoi, February 12, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Phong Van.

In the first two weeks since the first cases were confirmed in Vietnam a businessman friend used his connections to get tens of thousands of face masks to give away.

Another who had just opened a pharmaceutical factory decided to make only hand sanitizers to give to charity programs.

When our team went to buy his alcohol gel, also to give away, he said he would charge us only cost. But he was having difficulty finding plastic bottles partly because of the clampdown on the border trade with China.

As he wiped the sweat running down his face that cold winter day in northern Vietnam, he said with a bright smile that all he wishes for now is that the one making the alcohol would remain healthy so that he could continue making free disinfectants.

Another friend who works in the media has set up a group to fight fake news about the spread of Covid-19. That group is connected with a former reporter who is now working at the communications office of the Ministry of Health to provide up-to-date information to the public so that people will not be misled by unauthorized sources.

They have all conducted themselves as if there weren’t companies with hundreds of employees who need to earn a livelihood and as if they were social workers who only have the task of serving the community.

Many others, who are unable to do such heroic work, have decided to contribute by sharing with others and spreading kindness. Like my friend smiling at a flight attendant despite being served just a bottle of water and a wet wipe instead of a hearty meal. 

Being kind is a choice.

Those who are willing to do anything to make a profit regardless of how unethical it is do not deserve to be called or considered businesspeople.

*Pham Vu Tung is a marketing expert. The opinions expressed are his own.

The opinions expressed here are personal and do not necessarily match VnExpress's viewpoints. Send your opinions here.
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