As the pathogen started invading the world, businesses were the principal victims alongside human beings. Countries scrambled to resuscitate businesses in tandem with a desperate rush to treat legions of infected men and women.

Saving lives is naturally the foremost concern, yet the governments spared no less attention to economic lifelines, as inter alia businesses ensured employment of millions of workers. Bailout and stimulus packages for corporate sector were rolled out on war-footing as a logical policy response.

In our part of the world, before a relief package for the businesses could have been sorted out, a few mainstream and social media sections hurried to compare what they saw as “silence” or “lukewarm” support of our business leaders with billions of dollars’ worth of pledges made by corporate moguls in other countries. Little did the critics think that alongside pledges and donations, the functioning ability of businesses was no less important in these extraordinary times for which companies’ managements should have sufficient resources compared to normal conditions.

The business sector’s request to the government for urgent risk-reducing measures that were being provided anyway by foreign governments was viewed as an attempt “by vested interests to hijack the national agenda”. Doubts were expressed on whether the business community would take actions for which it apparently sought relief packages in the form of accelerated tax refunds and customs rebates.

Amid an unprecedented health emergency, two inquiry reports were unveiled. Regardless of the validity or otherwise of the findings and irrespective of their ramifications for investors’ sentiment, the timing of these reports cast a shadow on business sector’s enthusiasm to be an active part of national drive to mitigate COVID’s socio-economic impact.

In fact, corporate Pakistan had decided around mid-March to divert its corporate social responsibility activities and budgets towards the prevention, detection, and cure of COVID-19. Generous support from companies in banking, energy, telecom, and a wide range of other sectors began to pour in along with pledges of substantial donations in funds established at the federal and provincial levels. Chairman of MCB Bank, Mian Muhammad Mansha was among the first leading business personalities to donate money and sorely-needed equipment. The millions of Rupees given by him to Jahandad Society for Community Development were utilised for distribution of food ration packs to thousands of families.

Later, the Nishat Group chief handed over Personal Protection Equipment worth Rs. 10 million for doctors and paramedical staff to Punjab Health Minister. Mansha is supporting the national effort to fight Covid-19 through other ways as his conglomerate is the largest employer in the country after Pakistan Army apart from being the biggest taxpayer in the country. Head of Dawood Hercules Corporation Hussain Dawood was another eminent business figure to announce pledge of one billion Rupees.

It is surprising that we continue to doubt the sincerity of businessmen in difficult times despite their proven and generous philanthropy all these years. For instance, apart from regular CSR initiatives in the fields of health, education and environment, Mian Mansha has always been at the forefront in extending financial support in national crises and natural calamities. His business group and MCB Bank have a track record of making substantial contributions to several charitable institutes and non-governmental organisations. Studies by the Pakistan Centre for Philanthropy reveal that CSR donations made by the corporate sector in Pakistan are showing steady increase mostly in the health and education sectors.

Accommodative fiscal and monetary measures including refinance scheme for payment of wages and salaries, policy rate cuts and package to reduce loan cost are good steps. But the government should consider more feasible options for workers’ wages and salaries including workers’ welfare fund and EOBI, as otherwise a majority of the companies could resort to massive layoffs by end May. The Pakistan Institute of Development Economics has warned that unemployment could reach over 18 million in case of a prolonged lockdown.

Our workers’ foreign remittances are likely to contract by 23 percent and FDI will also plummet in the coming months. Then there is a looming danger of thousands of layoffs of Pakistani workers and their return home once lockdown restrictions are eased. In such a scenario, the only hope will be mostly existing domestic businesses, big and small. SMEs should, of course, get more focus in relief efforts, but large businesses should not be in the blind spot of our finance managers.

The government is planning to present the “corona budget” in which all sectors are expected to get relief packages. These packages should aim not just at short-term survival of the businesses but also present a long-term strategy in the post-COVID new normal and rebooted economy. The newly-constituted think tank by the Finance Ministry will have to steer clear of discriminatory moves at the expense of managements of corporate holdings vis-à-vis workers. The biggest relief that the government can give to millions of workers in private sector is continuity of their jobs and for that it will have to listen to suggestions by business organisations, something the government has been shying away from so far.

Businessmen have always been at the forefront to support the government in national challenges. Worst-hit by crisis, businesses are still the most potent partners of the government in cushioning the crippling impact. In the past, they kept operating despite a severe energy crunch. In the current scenario, disruptions and fall in demand have not dampened their spirits to shoulder the task of tackling the catastrophic aftermath of the virus onslaught. The economy’s frontline commanders and fighters have a strong case to be taken onboard by policy makers in decision making as among other things this will help in forging a united front to combat contagion’s tectonic impact.