Career & Jobs

Will Covid-19 Lead To A Greener, Fairer Society?

At the start of each year, the World Economic Forum release their global risks report, which attempts to highlight some of the primary risks the world faces in the coming year. Suffice to say, the report this year examined issues ranging from climate change to cybersecurity, all of which were widely believed to be of huge importance in the year ahead.

Of course, just as few forecasters predicted a global pandemic would tip things upside down, hindsight has not been kind to the global risks report. While the threat of a global pandemic was a regular feature in the top 5 risks in terms of both likelihood and impact a decade ago, it featured in neither in the report published this year.

Whilst they do continue to cover pandemics in the report, they do so largely through the lens of antibacterial resistance and the growing popularity of the anti-vaccination movement.  Nonetheless, the team have returned to the table with a new report that attempts to chart the spread of the coronavirus, and outline some of the implications of it for the world.

Accelerating change

While there has been much discussion around what the ‘new normal’ will look like as we emerge from the pandemic, the evidence to date suggests that the trends that were emerging before the pandemic have merely accelerated.

The survey, of nearly 350 senior risk professionals, considered 31 risks across three dimensions: most likely for the world, most concerning for the world, and most worrisome for companies. Perhaps understandably, foremost among the concerns of companies is the economic fallout of the pandemic, and the lockdown procedures countries have implemented.

For instance, roughly half identified bankruptcies and industry consolidation as a likely consequence of the post-pandemic recession, with supply chain concerns a major cause of general pessimism surrounding the ability of companies to recover. Leaders also identified the growing risk of cyberattack, and the burgeoning desire for national rather than international responses from political leaders.

“Even before the COVID-19 crisis, organizations were faced with a highly complex and interconnected global risk landscape,” the authors say. “From cyber threats to supply chains, as well as the well-being of their colleagues, businesses will now rethink many of the structures they formerly relied on. To create the conditions for a speedier recovery and a more resilient future, governments and the private sector need to work together more effectively.”

A greener, fairer world

What began as a health crisis quickly became an economic, and then an energy crisis. As society unravelled, it became rapidly apparent that there is considerable interdependence of global risks, and the scale of the crisis will largely be defined by our collective ability to understand these interdependencies, and act upon them. The issues raised in the initial global risks report, such as climate change, political and economic conflict, and cybersecurity have in many ways been exacerbated by the current crisis.

Just as a crisis can often be the genesis for change within organizations, the WEF believe that the pandemic can be a genesis for change in society. It’s an ambition shared in a new paper from the European Commission Joint Research Centre (JRC), which makes the case for a re-establishment of the human, social, and economic capital that has been eroded by the pandemic, and a chance to make society both greener and fairer.

The report urges societies not to try and return to their pre-covid state, and instead try and ‘bounce forward’ into something altogether better and more sustainable.

“The COVID-19 shock is so extreme that it is simply impossible to expect the society to absorb its effects or find ways to go back to how things were before the crisis,” the authors say. “It is also not enough to adopt simple adaptation measures to recover from this crisis. We should rather look at it as an opportunity to “bounce forward”through transformative measures that will make us more resilient to unknown future shocks.

Purposeful business

Nowhere is this more evident than in the desire for people to work for, and support, organizations with a wider social purpose. The hunt for a vaccine for the virus is a clear example of this in action. It’s a hunt that has brought together companies, universities, and governments to work collectively to try and bring a vaccine to market as quickly as possible.

It’s a hunt that is likely to require a rethink of the patent systems that traditionally allow medical researchers to profit from their work. Instead, researchers should look to technologies such as Wi-Fi that provided key, societal breakthroughs as guidance for how to proceed.

It’s common in medical research for teams to share knowledge at an early stage, before then working independently to convert this into commercial products, with patents protecting their intellectual property. It’s an approach that, despite its flaws, works reasonably well in terms of rewarding the winner of the race, but is wholly inadequate in a global public health crisis.

An alternative approach would be to wrap the vaccines in the kind of standard-essential patents (SEPs) that are designed to cover essential technologies, such as 5G or Wi-Fi. Such patents are designed to simplify the basics of a core idea so that it can be built upon by all.

Responsible actors

Such a move would go a long way towards rebuilding public trust that is at record lows in government agencies and international organizations. Now, more than ever, we need organizations to display the kind of responsible leadership the public expect from them.

“We’ve always been a business with a strong community ethos, but it’s noticeable how this has shifted since the pandemic, with neighbors supporting each other with practical things like delivering food and prescriptions, or even something as seemingly simple as a smile and friendship,” Zen Internet’s Richard Tang says. “We strive to be a strong and trustworthy part of our community and contribute positively to this newfound togetherness that has emerged.”

It’s reflected in a shift beyond shareholder primacy that had begun before the pandemic, but that is accelerating during it. For instance, BlackRock, the world’s largest investment manager, has put sustainability at the heart of its business.

The world has undoubtedly been transformed by the Covid-19 pandemic, and while many of those changes have gutted society, many others have presented a fresh and positive future we can aspire towards. As Winston Churchill famously said, you should never waste a good crisis, and the coronavirus crisis has forced us to reassess our lives like never before. Lets not return to the bad habits that should never have formed in the first place.

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