The COVID-19 pandemic constitutes a public health crisis like none other in modern history. Based on the shear reach and chaos – physical, psychological and economic – it has wreaked on the entire globe. The priority for governments, businesses and civil society organizations around the world should be to save lives, tackling the health crisis first and foremost.
Yet the effective economic shutdown will also have a profound and long-lasting impact on businesses and those that rely on them for the well-being of their families and loved ones. Businesses large and small – from family-owned local companies to multinational industrial conglomerates – face uncertainty in every aspect of their operations.
On April 21, leaders of the B20 Saudi Arabia hosted a panel discussion with Dr. David Nabarro, World Health Organization (WHO) Special Envoy for COVID-19, and Paul Polman, Chair of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), to examine the current global response to the pandemic, including an overview of the role of business in mitigation and recovery and how the two institutions can work together.
It is no surprise that businesses were ill prepared for this crisis and the shock has therefore been enormous. However, overwhelmingly, businesses have risen to the challenge. They have been changing the way they operate to not only accommodate our new reality, but to also provide equipment when and where they can. We have witnessed automakers race to build ventilators, hotels turn into hospitals, and health, beauty and fashion companies shift their supply chains to produce sanitation products and personal protective equipment.
We are also beginning to see trends in companies’ response to the economic crisis. Companies who pre-COVID-19 had multi-stakeholder models as opposed to being solely focused on shareholders and profits are tending to do better than those who didn’t, and consumers are taking notice. This is a valuable lesson, as three-quarters of consumers expect companies to behave consistently and responsibly. And when they don’t, there are consequences.
COVID-19 will be the catalyst for collective action and a chance to design a new and better future. There is a need to create a more sustainable, comprehensive, inclusive and robust model for this new world, and business will be central to that push.
Similar to what we are seeing in the business world, some governments are excelling in their COVID-19 response, while others are struggling. There is something to be said about experience here. Governments that experienced the outbreak of SARS in 2003 learned the hard way that if they do not pay attention as soon as they see infections start to appear in their population and take purposeful action to supress it, their society can very easily and quickly face grave suffering.
Though we can take lessons learned from past outbreaks, the reality is that COVID-19 is unlike anything we have seen before, and as such, governments need to take their response seriously.
Further, it’s important to stress cooperation between governments. Some of the most serious challenges we have encountered with this virus are the result of leaders failing to come together to devise a coordinated response. In any crisis, it is important to co-operate. But a global catastrophe of this magnitude can only be solved through international collaboration.
Together, governments, business and the healthcare community must decide what steps we follow to ease lockdowns, restart the economy safely and redesign the way we work and live. It is more important than ever that we all come together, for the sake of global humanity and our shared future.