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Latin America has felt the full impact of Covid-19. At the end of November 2020, Brazil was the third most affected country in the world, with Argentina and Colombia also reporting high numbers of cases. In this part of the world, access to healthcare is patchy, and poor diet, crowded cities and pervasive inequality have made the region’s population vulnerable to the virus.

Covid-19 arrived on the continent sooner than expected. “I realised it had arrived in Brazil when we had the first case in São Paulo in February 2020,” says Dr Elaine Molina, Unilever’s Director of Occupational Health for LATAM, who is based in the city. “The virus reached us faster than we could have imagined. But I knew that in a globalised world, coronavirus would inevitably become pandemic.”

Members of the public in Latin America wearing face masks

The tools and structures available in some countries to combat the virus were unfortunately absent in LATAM. Early testing, transparent communication and a good public health infrastructure would have made a great difference. In their absence, good safety practices in the private sector had a vital role to play.

With her medical qualifications and long experience of occupational health, Elaine understood the importance of preventative measures. She swiftly put in place internal safety protocols and team training to ensure everyone was up to speed. Professional medical support for employees across the region was assured.

Covid-19 is a novel virus, so it was essential for Elaine to keep abreast of medical knowledge as it evolved. “I studied the latest developments, because it was a new disease and information and knowledge are fundamental to making the right decisions,” she says.

It was also crucial to target Unilever support where it was most needed. Elaine followed statistical data from all countries within LATAM – her remit covers South America and the Middle Americas, Mexico and the Caribbean – and analysed the prevalence curves of the disease.

Helping Covid-positive employees at home

The pandemic put massive pressure on hospitals in the region, and at times they were simply overwhelmed. Patients with serious symptoms could not be guaranteed a hospital bed. “If we had done nothing, their lives would have been at risk,” says Elaine.

So she secured access to basic medical items such as portable oxygen concentrators to help patients breathe, oximeters to test oxygen levels and medications that were known to be promising. The equipment was installed in the homes of employees seriously affected by the virus.

“We set up a team of external medics and nurses who visited affected employees in their home every day until we could get a hospital bed for them,” she adds. “We were, so to speak, creating a small hospital inside the employee’s home.”

Teamwork to save lives

Across the LATAM region, there were huge differences between the countries in their ability to deal with the pandemic. Elaine ensured that the Unilever response was tailored to each location. In cases where Unilever employees were in intensive care, she kept in contact personally with hospital staff.

Her vision was to ensure the protection of employees and achieve zero deaths. But the force of the pandemic was overpowering in the region and there were a few losses among employees. “My saddest moments were when the death of an employee occurred,” she says. “Suddenly a beautiful life is interrupted, and someone who was part of our history is gone.”

Yet she is proud of her team, within and beyond the HR function, who gave of their best. “At these difficult moments, we understand the value of a talented group who are committed to what they do and have helped save lives,” says Elaine. “And I am grateful to Unilever for giving me the opportunity to take care of the health of my colleagues.”

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