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Reflections on COVID-19 - Wendy Orr

Responding with speed to protect lives

I have learned what remarkable people the bank employs

By Wendy Orr, Group People and Culture at Standard Bank 

At the beginning of 2020, I was Head of Group Inclusion for Standard Bank Group. Although I am a medical doctor, I changed careers more than 20 years ago. While I obviously retain the sense and sensibility of what it is to be a medical practitioner, I had not really had to call on my medical expertise for all that time. 

That changed dramatically in January, when I convened a meeting of a small ‘task team’ to discuss the situation in China. A number of international assignees in the Beijing office were asking to return to their home countries, we had to consider whether we should allow travel to China, and there was talk of invoking BCM (business continuity management protocols). Of course, at that time, none of us had any idea that this would turn into a pandemic that would change our lives forever. 

Over the past seven-plus months, I have become obsessed with the WHO Coronavirus Emergency website – I spend at least an hour a day reading all the latest news and research, checking the numbers and the trends and listening to or reading the transcripts of the twice-weekly press briefings. The SA Coronavirus website also gets a daily read. One thing I absolutely don’t do is read anything about COVID-19 on social media. I also approach mainstream media with a healthy dose of scepticism. The WHO has listed “Don’t spread misinformation” as one of the critical safety behaviours for COVID-19, which is probably appropriate in the midst of a misinfodemic, which is as dangerous as the pandemic itself. 

As it became clear that COVID-19 was not going to remain confined to China, our ‘task team’ became a working group and finally a Steering Committee, with representation from key areas in the bank. It drove the bank’s overall response to COVID-19. With the safety of our employees and customers in mind, it fell to me to research and draft protocols addressing everything from self-quarantine and symptom self-checks, to protecting employees from vulnerable groups and notifying customers if an employee has tested positive. I have worked on so many other projects – the COVID-19 Connect App, setting up the COVID-19 Hub, developing online training, rolling out COVID-19 101 webinars, implementing symptom and temperature checks for employees as they enter our premises – I feel privileged to have been able to work across so many areas.  

As the first positive cases started to be reported in South Africa, and in Standard Bank, the pressure mounted, and decisions were (surprisingly) taken at lightning fast speed. Our approach was constantly adapted as we learned more about COVID-19 and responded to emerging regulations and employee needs. 

All the “firsts” required us to take agile and responsive decisions – the first positive case, the first case in a branch environment, the first death, the first case in the Data Centre. I am proud to say that the safety and wellbeing of our employees and customers have always been, and still are, the most important consideration. 

One of the “firsts” I particularly remember was the first employee in a branch who tested positive, and the conversation I had with PBB leadership about informing customers who had engaged with the individual that they may have been exposed. We were all anxious about how customers might respond – would they be angry because we had not taken due care? Would they threaten to litigate, or expect us to pay their medical expenses? Instead, our customers responded with appreciation that we had taken the trouble to contact them and advise them of the situation. I realised that perhaps we should expect the best of people, rather than the worst. 

I have been incredibly privileged to work with amazingly dedicated colleagues, most of whom I would never have connected with if it had not been for the pandemic. I have learned what remarkable people the bank employs, and what a remarkable organisation the bank is. I have never felt prouder to be a Standard Banker.