The Regeneration and Resilience series of articles contain “Forward Looking Statements”, including “future-orientated information” aimed to start new debates. These statements are formed from the beliefs and opinions of the AG team in respect of their own perspective of the future and may change over time. COVID-19 is a rapidly changing landscape and information that is published is not a guarantee of future performance, therefore undue reliance should not be placed on them due to unknown risks and changing information as we all learn more about the virus and its impacts.
Speaking as a business owner at a company which is dedicated to the pursuit of sustainable practice, resilience and the drive towards an ethical, diverse future for business, the coronavirus outbreak has been the acid test of these standards, not least the standards that we have set ourselves. Like many organizations throughout the world we have been impacted by the sudden, sharp, downturn of the market. We do not proclaim to have any scientific or medical knowledge of what has clearly become a devastating virus, and before we dive into some of the economic, social and wider industrial issues we want to make a statement, a disclaimer if you will.
Whilst we hear of the daily numbers of active cases and worse still, the numbers of deaths around the world it’s nearly impossible to comprehend the scale or the impact COVID-19 has had on so many people. Each death is someone's loved one, a friend and family member of the global community and when the numbers are distributed by the press it’s often easy to forget just how devastating this virus is on each individual.
Our perspective here should cast no dispersion on the fact that as important as these items will feel, nothing compares to the importance of saving a life - the work that the global network of healthcare professionals are doing is herculean and we all owe a huge debt of gratitude to those who put others first, often putting themselves in danger, to keep us safe. From everyone at AG, we thank all the scientists, healthcare professionals, carers and those volunteers who have committed to combat the virus directly.
The prior warnings. Signs and signals.
Whilst Bill Gates wasn’t the first to bring the concept of a pandemic to reality as he stood on the TED stage in Vancouver back in 2015, his talk was, certainly in recent memory - one of the more public reminders of the devastating impact a ‘modern’ viral pandemic could have on the world. Whilst most of us could barely comprehend of such a devastating virus, some people, including those invested in the famed ‘black swan’ fund, did consider this kind of event taking place and within a relatively short time frame. The global community and in particular, as it is the focus of our work, the business community was largely unprepared for the impact this kind of virus could have. As we rely rather heavily on multinational corporations to support jobs, and therefore the economy, those same cornerstones of our economic world have become, in some cases, unstuck. When the economic wheels start turning again, what kind of company do we want to work for? What kind of company do we want to build? And perhaps more importantly than both of those questions. What kind of work do we want to do?
Flattening the environmental curve
From the outbreak of the virus we’ve learned an entirely new vocabulary, some of which, we’ve probably never heard before. The idea of social distancing, for example, wasn’t something that the vast majority of us had ever heard of before or even been aware of. The other example of the new vernacular is the famed ‘flattening the curve’. This visualisation isn’t actually something new, it was developed by visual-data journalist Rosamund Pearce for The Economist and was then adapted by Drew Harris, a population health analyst at Thomas Jefferson University.
The graph is something that we have become used to seeing in the daily briefing slides to visualise the rate and number of active cases. The importance placed upon keeping active ICU cases, that is the number of active COVID-19 patients in intensive care, below what the health system can cope with at any given time. What it also shows, is that if the right measures are taken early in the timeline they have an exponential impact on the rate of infections later in the timeline and therefore the long term impact on the healthcare system. We can apply a similar approach to climate action. Early interventions, even relatively small interventions, can have huge impacts on the wider picture much later down the timeline.
Unlike the speed at which COVID-19 has been moving, climate action is taking place on a much slower path - but it is still a global, highly distributed problem that needs to be dealt with urgently. Early interventions to reduce the impact on the environment now have far greater impacts than large scale actions when the problem has spiraled considerably further out of our control towards more devastating impacts. If we replace the capacity of the healthcare system with the temperature of the planet we already know what that ceiling temperature looks like and we have a good idea of how great the impact will be if we exceed these temperatures. Like the virus, if we are to keep the temperature down and in fact reduce it to keep our planet safe we need to take measures today, as each day counts greatly on the wider picture of the environmental curve.
Fight Communicable Diseases
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals could not have foreseen a global pandemic, but goal number 3, Good Health and Wellbeing has a target (3.3) which is directly related to Fight Communicable Diseases. At the time that these goals and their targets were created COVID-19 simply didn’t exist, but AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and hepatitis did, and they still do.
In total the United Nations agreed to 169 targets and 231 unique indicators for the 17 Global Goals. Each target is directly linked to something that, like the virus, has tremendous potential to impact the economic, social and cultural structures that our global community has become reliant upon. As flag bearers for these Global Goals we all have a common duty to respect and respond to them - not solely for the benefit of the global community but because they represent fundamental opportunities to build a better world, to develop innovations that could turn the tide against the next generation of challenges we face in a post COVID-19 world.
Now, more than ever, businesses have an even greater responsibility to contribute towards the goals through measured actions. Whilst it feels harsh to lay responsibilities at the doors of business on goals designed for countries it’s important to recognise the impact COVID-19 has had on business, and in the few but very lucrative cases for companies that had been from the outset proactive to respond positively with the reserves required for recovery that will be resilient and could establish themselves as the new market leaders when the economy is rebalanced.
Global co-operation on systemic challenges, especially from a sustainability point-of-view, have taken too long to change gear and contribute to solving the Global Goals, whilst combatting wider societal issues in silos creates an even greater challenge when building more resilient economies. In the short term at least, the positive side effects of competition should be directed intensively at the Global Goals with a radical rethinking of what it means to be transparent so we can adequately and proactively plan, practice and mitigate the impacts of failing to achieve the Global Goals by 2030.
We wrote how the structure of leadership has changed and moreover, the power of influence in a world led by relevance and not driven by the hierarchical powers of old. At a time where the world has looked towards the state for support we are living in unprecedented times where governments are supporting businesses, jobs and in some cases paying citizens directly - the likes of which hark to the experimental potential future of the universal basic income.
At a time where the bureaucratic systems of old were threatened by the uprising of the ‘lost voices’ across Europe and in North America in particular, the nations in these continents are now propped up by the powers of democratic government. Now, perhaps more than ever in recent history, good leadership is able to inspire entire countries to take unprecedented action. When our social systems have been stressed. leadership itself has been stripped to some of the bare essential components. The ability to make informed decisions that are transparent, accommodating and articulate the nature of the problem for a broad audience can inspire people to do extraordinary things. When Donald Trump and Boris Johnson initially played down the impact of the virus, and for some time president Trump maintained the line against the scientific evidence, confidence and one of the vital components to leadership, trust, began to evaporate.
There’s no coincidence that countries who respect their leadership, trust their word and have followed scientific guidelines to the letter, to date, have responded better to the virus than those who have felt, not necessarily as a result of the virus, but systematically for some time, out of sync with the social and political systems in their respective countries. Even the famed Elon Musk, who underplayed the virus has been forced to rethink that advice to his employees and as a result Tesla have taken direct action to contribute ventilators made from the parts on their production lines. Tesla follows a huge, growing list of automobile companies who are finding ways to contribute vital life saving equipment. Boris Johnson, following the advice from the scientific experts in a United Kingdom largely disunited by the recent exit from the EU has come under much criticism and it looks ever increasingly likely that a public hearing to evaluate the response to COVID-19 will take place. It’s important to remember that Boris himself fell ill to the virus. Those individuals that have ignored the lockdown, the rules on social distancing and hoarded, unnecessarily, food and other basic items for themselves away from the most vulnerable in society have been slowly but completely ostracised by the community at large.
The importance of informed debate, that is, the ability to consider and open up discussion, as Governor of New York Andrew Cumo has achieved spectacularly, can transform the situation - it’s leaders who possess the courage to provide visibility and clarity on the true nature of the problem that have the ability to galvanise efforts to respond.