Last week, the WHO formally declared the Corona (Covid-19) outbreak a pandemic. The economic impact of the virus is unprecedented and dramatic. Ironically, the environmental impact of its resulting lockdowns is quite positive: lower carbon emissions, less smog, and more time for your kids and nature walks. In the longer run, however, the impact is likely to be the far opposite. With so many companies struggling to survive, all resources will be needed to repair or rebuild the business. No surplus left to spend on charity or sustainability. Still, there is reason to be hopeful as well.
In times of crisis, the number one thing people are in need of is information. That is a golden rule in crisis communications. And regarding corona, there is a lot of uncertainty. So when information is scarce, vague or biased, rumors spread fast and people may fear for the worst. Fear, however, is a poor counselor. And that is what the financial markets are, once more, experiencing. When people are in panic, stock shares can collapse like a house of cards. Sentiment overtakes rationality, and gets companies in more trouble than they already are. As a result, both investors and businesses are probably taking a much harder beating than necessary.
Questions come to mind. Is our economic system too vulnerable, and have we become too dependent on it? Could a recession be prevented? Could a virus outbreak of this magnitude have been prevented? According to a 2012 report by the World Health Organization (WHO), the awareness of the potential threat has existed since at least the 1990s. Still, it seems we aren’t well prepared after all. Although it is doubtful that Nostradamus predicted all this, Bill Gates did picture the possible impact of a pandemic in 2015. In a TED talk he stated:
“If anything kills over 10 million people in the next few decades, it’s most likely to be a highly infectious virus, rather than a war. (…) We’ve actually invested very little in a system to stop an epidemic. We’re not ready for the next epidemic. (…) Now I don’t have an exact budget for what this [preparation] would cost, but I’m quite sure it’s very modest compared to the potential harm.”
Although I don’t really believe Corona will kill so many in a short period, Bill Gates’ words are starting to become reality just five years later. We were indeed mostly unprepared. And now that Corona is here, it makes you think. What if we would have chosen different priorities? Are we doing the right thing in favor of the long run? Is Corona a wake-up call to rethink our approach to life and business?
Reflection and reconsideration
Crises can bring out both the best and the worst in us. Until now it seems to be mostly the good. Several collaboration, including the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation (CEPI), are working very hard on developing a vaccine – not for profit. Political differences are temporarily set aside, and make way for compassion and togetherness (well, maybe not everywhere). Companies are launching one creative initiative after the other to stay in business. And volunteers disinterestedly offer support to those in need. On social media, people are sharing the funniest memes of how they make the best of the current situation. I also like the #HackTheCrisis initiative in Estonia, a government endorsed hackathon that is now going international.
These extraordinary times affect all of us, and it is not unlikely that they will lead to reflection and reconsideration. Corona may encourage to once more realize what matters to us most – things like well-being, social interaction, and solidarity. The value of these aspects may put things into perspective, and make us a bit less occupied with profit margins and personal gain. Plus, Corona comes at a time that the global awareness about climate change and loss of biodiversity is increasing.
I am hopeful that Corona will inspire us to consider alternative ways in how we do business. Here are some first thoughts:
- Crises like these should make us rethink the manufacturability of life, and force us to accept that not everything can be controlled. Instead, we should be a bit more humble and respectful towards the powers of mother nature. Planet earth will outlive humanity, so we’d better appreciate its vulnerabilities and cooperate with it in a more sustainable way.
- In times of crisis, there are often business opportunities as well. One of these is building resilience through trust. Sincerely showing that you care about your customers and their interests, will pay off when circumstances improve. So be creative and find solutions that help them to cope as far as possible. They will be thankful and reward you with loyalty and long-term engagement.
- When “social distancing”, or staying indoors is required, physical shopping comes to a halt. I haven’t seen any figures yet, but I can imagine that these are golden times for e-commerce and delivery services. Why go to the supermarket when you can have your groceries delivered to your doorstep? Corona may encourage more retailers to join a platform like Amazon or AliExpress, or to partner with local delivery services. There would be at least one environmental advantage in this: instead of hundreds of cars driving to the store, there will be a single truck taking the most efficient route. This results in less traffic and lower carbon emissions.
- More than ever, people are working from home. Teachers are streaming their classes online, while Netflix is forced to reduce bandwidth demand. All this remote connectivity is pushing the limits of network capacities. As a result, Corona may very well accelerate the digital transformation, and spark new innovations in e.g. VR and video conferencing. But it may as well make some realize the advantages of working from home. Working remotely is not an option for many professions, and being physically in one room is preferred or necessary in many cases. Still there are plenty of situations where logging in remotely works equally fine. This too will result in less carbon emissions, less traffic jams, and therefore less frustration and waste of time.
- We can’t go to crowded places, but in most countries we can still enjoy the outdoors. Wouldn’t it be nice if we’d rediscover the beauty of nature, and develop a bit more appreciation for all that lives?
- Corona confronts us with the vulnerability of some very complex interdependencies. We’re starting to see a domino-effect, where hard times for one sector impact the next, and so on. A broad recession is evolving as a result. When borders close and international trade is limited, supply chains can be seriously interrupted. Smaller, local, decentralized, even circular systems, however, are less dependent on distant resources. I would be happy to see more self-sustaining partnerships developing, giving a boost to the circular economy . I can also imagine an increasing interest in 3D printing, which limits the need of physical transportation.
Of course I am not the only person thinking about Corona’s possible impact on business. McKinsey, for instance, has been publishing a series of articles about how businesses can prepare for and respond to a pandemic. And Politico.com gathered over thirty interesting ideas from some bright minds. Dutch futurist Richard van Hooijdonk is keeping a list of technological developments related to the Corona outbreak. An article in the Financial Times suggests “collaboration across supply chains and even between rivals could be one legacy of the outbreak”. Some day, when the world is evaluating the Corona pandemic, a lot more great and innovative ideas will have evolved. And although all these cannot prevent another virus outbreak, they hopefully can help reduce the negative impact, while bit by bit making the world a better place.
A copy of this article was posted on Medium .