Op-Ed by Scott C. Ratzan MD, Executive Director of Business Partners for Sustainable Development
Earlier this month, nearly 500 experts in public health, law and human rights wrote an open letter to U.S Vice President Mike Pence to act swiftly, fairly and effectively, warning that “the COVID-19 outbreak is unprecedented in recent American history, and there is no playbook for an epidemiological event of this scope and magnitude.”
Yet, just weeks later, we all are living with unprecedented turmoil from this novel coronavirus, COVID-19.
While the virus was named a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) by the World Health Organization (WHO), this is the seventh time we have had such a proclamation in the last two decades. H1N1 influenza, polio, ebola in West Africa and in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zika, all abated and did not cause as much havoc. Financial markets are on a roller coaster, planes grounded and many of us sheltering in place or in a self-imposed or government-recommended quarantine.
The future of our public health and economy depend on how government officials, policymakers, leaders and our fellow citizens react.
This includes honest, coherent, transparent, and timely communication while providing adequate funding and support for the response. The health care system needs immediate resources for equitable and effective infection control and the means to effectively manage the disease.
As 24/7 news, interactive websites, social media and alerts fill our day, the virus continues to spread. Unfortunately, without a clear treatment or cure, fear and uncertainty results in a rich environment for misinformation and misguided actions.
COVID-19 is a test of our system’s ability to address a legitimate public health threat with an unknown trajectory. Multiple sectors must leverage knowledge, expertise, networks and resources to produce better public health outcomes. Being prepared with a plan and being proactive is the name of the game in prevention, mitigation and management of risk and the adverse consequences of any threat.
Business must play a critical role in planning, implementing and adapting to this crisis due to its wide reach, resources and impact on employees, partners and markets.
Communication from employers on coronavirus is the most credible source of information, according to a recent Edelman ten-country study (March 6-10). This is consistent with a 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer, which showed that “my employer” is the most trusted institution by 18 points over business in general and NGOs, and by 27 points over government and media.
Employers are central in communicating the response. The public needs the assurance that as more is learned, information will be shared accurately and clearly from sources they trust.
This emergent threat challenges our society to cooperate amongst all sectors, including government, media, technology platforms and the private sector.
We know that large scale communication campaigns that employ behavioral economics, health literacy and communication levers (mass and social media) can drive citizens toward healthier decisions. As COVID-19 continues to spread, the business sector’s historical hallmarks of innovation, efficiency and management can help address the challenge we face today.
There are some promising examples:
- A COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator supported by Mastercard will join with the WHO, government and private sector funders and organizations to speed the response to the COVID-19 epidemic by identifying, assessing, developing and scaling-up treatments.
- The USCIB is leveraging existing networks to catalyze partnerships to address challenges, such as COVID-19. This includes working with the International Organization of Employers (IOE) and the International Labor Organization (ILO) to distribute WHO guidance on simple and low-cost measures for creating a healthier and more productive workplace.
- The International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) and Business at OECD (BIAC) are also working on the design of an action plan to reach millions of businesses with recommendations to help governments deal with the threat to the global economy.
- The Global NGO Business Fights Poverty is collaborating with Business Partners for Sustainable Development (BPSD) to develop an online “challenge” discussion on how business should tackle the coronavirus challenge.
- NBCUniversal, Viacom/CBS, iHeartMedia, The Atlantic, Disney/ABC Television and the Ad Council will donate advertising inventory for campaigns that will advise consumers about social distancing, steps that can be taken to protect the public and more.
While the WHO was established to advance “informed opinion and active cooperation on the part of the public” we have now learned that health issues are not confined to one organization or sector.
Only by working together, with the public and private sectors, we can advance a society where our livelihoods are not threatened by similar future outbreaks and create a resilient society capable of responding to any future threat we may face.
Scott C. Ratzan MD is Executive Director of Business Partners for Sustainable Development. He is Former Senior Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government.