Expert Speak Health Express
Published on Apr 11, 2020
Redefining the development narrative during Covid-19: The private sector perspective The Covid-19 outbreak is unlike anything experienced by humankind in the recent past. Since December 2019, the disease has grabbed headlines around the world as a successor to its cohorts in the coronavirus family, like the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). The disease, now classified as a pandemic by the WHO, has afflicted over 90% of all nations, with rapidly shifting epicentres. From a governance perspective, however, the Covid-19 episode seems to be a crisis of anticipation by the global citizenry. But it's not that we have been without warning. In 2009, in its State of the World 2025, the CIA predicted that densely populated areas in China and Southeast Asia, featuring close cohabitation of human and livestock, could be the hotbeds for future pandemics. More recently, in 2015, a renowned member of the global business leadership forum urged the world to learn from the Ebola crisis. He observed that although Ebola afflicted the remote and unconnected regions of West Africa, it allowed a window for adequate intervention through the creation of silos. The next blow may not be that conveniently positioned, risking millions of lives and a world-wide social and economic implosion. For global geopolitical decision-makers managing their economies in the face of a surging isolationist wave, policy myopia has been a poster child. Ironically, existential threats like climate change and the proliferation of pathogens do not share the same levels of urgency with their cohorts in the political dossier—the rise of religious radicalism or border-related disputes. As the grim onslaught of Covid-19 continues, leaving shattered societies and broken economies in its wake, we see a consensus – form around a collective strategy to address the threat, with the private sector taking the lead. Indeed, the development is in line with the findings of Edelman's 2020 Trust Barometer, which acknowledges the competency and ethical standing of businesses for spearheading social interests. Perhaps we find the culmination of this sentiment in COVID Action Platform, a joint task force, launched by the WHO and the World Economic Forum. It brings together the best corporate minds on the planet to probe some of the most pertinent questions related to the coronavirus outbreak: its effect on the global trade and supply chain, financial markets, and workforce; how to limit the spread of infection; and finding a proper antidote. In a high-entropy environment characterised by the status quo, even as 82% of the CEOs are expecting a decline in revenue over the next two quarters, corporates are dovetailing their resources in an eager attempt to preserve order. But the moment at hand is also one of introspection. Is Covid-19 an ordinary crisis that calls for a piecemeal solution or is it time for solidarity and courageous leadership that warrants a coordinated response? How well can the global business doyens weave a strategy using the socio-economic and geopolitical threads to turn the table on this scourge of nature and set the ground rules for the game?

Empowering the global south

The Covid-19 storm is yet to hit the shores of the Global South with extreme prejudice. The high population density, limited social security, and lack of first-world administration and infrastructure will ensure that the socio-economic consequences are enormous when it finally makes landfall. With most of the sourcing and manufacturing hubs located in these regions, the Global South is essentially the nerve centre of the global business supply chains. Their disruption can trigger a domino effect, with dire aftershocks for the world economy. For instance, the catastrophic flooding in Thailand in 2011 delivered a severe blow to over 14,000 businesses dependent on regional suppliers. With there being a strong cause to intervene, companies around the world need to put their best foot forward to bolster local disaster recovery and mitigation capabilities in these resource-constrained countries. Such efforts may range from partnering with institutions on the ground, building on their rich trove of experience in combating diseases like SARS and Ebola, reinforcing healthcare systems with seed funding and technology transfer to ensure livelihood security, and post-disaster recovery assistance.

Supply chain vigilance

Diseases like Ebola, SARS, MERS, and now Covid-19, which have the potential to metastasise into epidemics and eventually pandemics, have zoonotic origins. They are the result of malpractices and evils ingrained in many countries, one such being the hunting and consumption of bushmeat. In this, global food businesses and supply chain management entities have an overarching role to play. While the reach and potency of public authorities are often limited within geographical borders or compromised through corruption, businesses must maintain a strict watch over their suppliers and sourcing agents. Violation of international statutes like the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety needs to be proactively countered with the utmost strictness. Measures may range from informing the competent authorities, imposing financial penalties or blacklisting.

Promoting mental health

Companies across continents have embraced the latest technologies and creative people management practices to balance employee wellbeing with cardinal business goals, making great strides. But the disturbing news of a German politician ending his own life over Covid-19 worries compels us to wonder whether we have been able to address all dimensions of wellness adequately. Psychological stress is an inevitable and often blindsided byproduct of catastrophes. While its intensity and extent vary across, we are all equally vulnerable. The news of a significant economic recession at the heels of the Covid-19 crisis and the ever-growing fears of job losses across sectors can wreak havoc on the psyche of the workforce, transforming the society into a psychological powder keg. In this situation, as employers, businesses need to highlight the tenets of their people-centric policies to the workforce as confidence-building measures, allaying fears and possibly avoiding further unfortunate events.

Financial services innovation

In the aftermath of Covid-19, a robust financing regime will be essential to bring the commercial ecosystems back on track. Most of the funds will be needed to water the bottom of the industrial pyramid, especially in countries like India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, where small-medium enterprises play a significant role in the national economy. It not only opens a new horizon of business opportunities for entities in the financial services sector but also ushers in a new era of service enrichment and innovation. With new products and business models, financial service providers can help in rekindling the furnace of the national economy, also ensuring the sustainability of their business in the process. This wave will also provide ample scope for fintech innovation, devising new and improved modes of contactless payments, which may be instrumental in further digitising economies and arrest the progress of Covid-19-like pandemics in the future.

Resolute CSR and community action plans

A crisis like Covid-19 calls for a penetrating response capable of reaching the socially deprived and distanced. Corporate social responsibility programmes could serve this purpose. The time is apt for businesses to retool and repurpose their programs and invest in reaching the hearts and minds of the people through targetted efforts. Community programmes must be made pliant enough to be embedded with the anti-Covid-19 mission requirements. These programs can be equipped with campaign components to create mass awareness, reaching out to communities at some of the country's remotest locations. Further, the supply chains established by these programmes can be leveraged to expand the dissemination of Covid-19 medication and vaccination coverage in the future. Several digital programmes can be leveraged to create awareness about Covid-19 through online workshops. These can be complemented by on-ground awareness camps to reinforce the need for sustained behavioral change.

Security through convergence

According to the World Economic Forum's Global Risk Report 2020, the tides of globalisation have made the world irrevocably vulnerable to socio-economic disruptions from infectious disease outbreaks. But the same dynamics have also transformed businesses into socio-economic forces. A key takeaway from the Covid-19 episode is that corporates, as conscious social vanguards, need to step into supranational leadership roles through coalitions like the UN Global Compact, with constructive dividends. Such outcomes may range from abandoning ideology-fueled trade wars, enlightening legislations, and framing global pandemic action plans customised to regional variations. With the ecological balances irreversibly altered through anthropogenic activities, the Covid-19 outbreak is unlikely to be the last such disease. Today, in this asymmetric war against nature, when governmental agencies are often found lacking on many counts, corporates—with their global footprint, vast networks, formidable resources and a finger on the pulse of the citizens — need to step forward as the sentinels for the common good.
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Akanksha Sharma

Akanksha Sharma

Akanksha Sharma is an International Development and Public Policy Specialist. She has been recognised as the 'Most Impactful CSR Leaders Globally' 'Asias Top Sustainability Leaders' ...

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