Business leadership for social and economic continuity in the new COVID reality


24 April, 2020


Insights from the CEO


The following is an opinion piece by Dr David Nabarro in his role of Special Envoy to the World Health Organization (WHO) on COVID-19 and Founder and Principal of 4SD, and Peter Bakker representing the global business leadership voice as WBCSD’s President and CEO.

Our world has a new and unwanted guest: COVID-19 – a virus that has caught us unaware. And one that will not go away soon.

The way to hold it at bay is to prevent it from being transmitted between people. And, with more than two million people having been infected, that is what the world is focusing on – through isolation of and care for infected people, increasing hospital capacity and health workers’ safety, mobilizing defenses and applying physical distancing and transmission interruption.

Some countries have responded rapidly and robustly at the start of COVID-19 outbreaks. Nevertheless, faced with a global pandemic, the “collateral damage” is massive and containment efforts have had severe consequences for people and economies.

It is expected that at least twelve months will be needed to develop, produce and evaluate safe and effective vaccines that can enable everyone to be immune to infection. A process for licensing vaccines, manufacturing vast quantities and enabling widespread immunization will then need to be established. 

As the virus will be a reality for the foreseeable future, it is vital we start tackling the challenge of living with it in our midst. In fact, it is a dangerous and stealthy foe that can be expected to turn up at any time, and that we will miss if our attention is elsewhere.

What does this mean for our safety, the way we live and the return to the “new normal” now that governments are preparing to (rel)ease lockdowns?

First: we all need to know how to defend ourselves, our families, our workplaces and our societies. People in every community will need to be on the alert and able to detect people who may have the virus (even those with mild symptoms).  

Second: we need to encourage massive reinforcement of public health services. Facilities for virus testing should be spread out everywhere and organized. Procedures for case detection, isolation, tracing of contacts and quarantine should be established and put in place immediately. New diagnostic tools and contact tracing applications should be incorporated as they become available.

Third: we need to recognize our need for health personnel – especially those who enable us to stay safe and care for us when ill. The majority are low paid and undervalued; around three quarters are women.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has called for collective action from all stakeholders, including business. We see businesses from all over the world are already contributing – from employee health protection and encouraging working from home, to offering solutions, adapting their operations and providing financial support.

However, while we must acknowledge that COVID-19 is also putting serious challenges and risks to businesses, with many, especially small and medium enterprises, struggling to survive, business leadership is now more needed given their vital role in all societies as the heartbeats of local economies. In the end, social stability and economic stability go hand in hand; business is unsuccessful when societies are unsuccessful and vice versa.  

Business has a critical role to play in the “emergence of the new normal” by ensuring employees’ health and well-being as well as business continuity. The situation urges them to work differently: partnering with authorities, pre-competitively collaborative working, and being role models for others. Expectations are high: the Edelman Trust Barometer special report on COVID-19 revealed that 78% of respondents said that the involvement of business is a critical ingredient of defenses against the virus.  

The COVID-19 crisis has made clear that business needs to focus its actions on:

  1. Ensuring that our interdependent supply chains remain effective and resilient to connect us all – business should contribute its systemic know-how to focus on short-term supply chain resilience plans in particularly for vital supply chains like food and medical supplies;
  2. Working closely together with the public health capabilities for surveillance, detection, isolation and treatment to ensure we make our society “COVID-ready” while returning to the new normal – businesses can contribute by being places that help detect people with COVID-19, as well as finding pathways to economic recovery;
  3. Recognizing that our economy and supply-chains were not shock-proof and have vulnerabilities that had not been anticipated – business must apply the lessons learned from the COVID-19 crisis to make our systems more shock-resilient. Furthermore, business must double down on making its products, processes and business models more sustainable to prevent further shocks from happening.

Let’s make sure we work together, take the initiative, and help shape the new COVID-ready reality by focusing both on social and economic recovery and resilience. Let’s make sure we follow WHO guidance, align with national and local procedures, learn from each other and apply what we learn. Let’s make sure we do what business does best: respond fast.

It’s clear. Strong public health capacity is the foundation for a robust economy. Our common future will be shaped by what we do now. Our actions make vital contributions to the resilience of societies, economies and humanity. We have no excuse not to learn from this crisis and be unprepared next time.

Dr David Nabarro is a WHO COVID-19 Special Envoy, Founder and Principal of 4SD, and Advisor to WBCSD​. Peter Bakker represents a global business leadership voice as the President and CEO of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), working together with over 200 of the leading businesses in the world.