E2SG: Business Leadership in Mitigating the Next Pandemic
By Andrew Goldberg, Matt Makovsky, Tim Orr, Senior Partners, Metropolis Group 360 and Senior Strategists.
The occurrence of more lethal and insidious pathogens, more socially and economically devastating than Covid-19, is well within the realm of probability. Corporate leaders therefore need to recognize that their responsibility playbook needs to broaden to include epidemic control, containment and mitigation. Is it not time for an expanded responsibility model that incorporates pandemic mitigation? We might describe this as E2SG, accounting for the multiplier effect of epidemiological and environmental factors.
US President Joe Biden’s administration is set to place a renewed regulatory emphasis on higher corporate standards in environmental, social, and governance policies (ESG). This factor may even trigger a US-European convergence of corporate sustainability models. Yet one major item that should be on this transatlantic sustainability agenda receives surprisingly little focus–the important role businesses can play in preparing for the next pandemic. New variants of Covid-19, for example, have been found in at least 45 countries. This is a stark reminder that we remain in an era of epidemic risk. One that won’t fade with new vaccines. One that requires robust government and business collaboration. Leaders must not slide into post-vaccine complacency. Instead, government should encourage responsible companies to seize this moment to play a more decisive role in pandemic mitigation.
Remember, the Covid-19 virus was not a black swan. The world was not short on decades of warnings and evidence of risk. Scientists and corporate luminaries such as Bill Gates, warned about the increased likelihood of pandemic breakout. The convergence of rising pathogenic frequency (SARS, MERS, ZIKA, etc.), ecosystem changes bringing animals and humans into ever closer proximity, and the tight web of urbanization, travel and transportation raised pandemic risk. Yet both government and business were insufficiently attentive, despite very public and very significant investments in other environmental initiatives.
Epidemiologists recognize that pathogenic risks aren’t going away and may yet rise. It would be a mistake of massive proportions to think we can return to a pre-pandemic culture of blindness. Some scientists estimate that there are 1 trillion species of microbes on earth. But there are only 1400 identified species of human pathogens. The occurrence of more lethal and insidious pathogens, more socially and economically devastating than Covid-19, is therefore well within the realm of probability. Corporate leaders therefore need to ask: doesn’t their responsibility playbook–and their larger social obligation–need to broaden to include epidemic control, containment and mitigation? Is it not time for what we might call E2SG- accounting for the multiplier effect of epidemiological and environmental factors?
What are some potential E2 SG action areas for corporate leaders?
Knowledge sharing: businesses have learned a great deal the hard way. Among the lessons are adequate stockpiles of PPE gear, improved air filtration and ventilation systems, safer logistics and supply management, virtual work for those who can operate remotely, and improved measures for those who cannot. Yet many crisis protocols and best practices are siloed in individual companies and industries. Forming shared, best practice mitigation communities could be a useful response. These communities could communicate across as well as within specific sectors. They could operate throughout critical supply chains. Integrating experts from the epidemiological community as advisors would add critical expertise to the mix.
Adaptive innovation: Our Covid-19 experience almost certainly sparked imaginative thinking among individuals within corporations on how to address future risks. Finding those imaginative thinkers within a firm is tough even in “normal” times. But we are no longer living with normalcy. CEOs and corporate leaders need to open lines of communication to the informal networks of innovators within their organization. Open lines of communications and positive incentives for risk mitigation are needed for the best ideas to flourish.
Corporate contributions to community medical response: Corporations often invest in surrounding communities. The pandemic experience shows that business, communities and families are symbiotic. And one of the best ways to care for all three is through investment in resilient medical care infrastructure and people. This means large local businesses contributing more toward helping to maintain better paid and better trained front-line jobs, such as emergency healthcare workers, cleaners, and care givers.
Technology and financial services sectors deploy important resources: Harnessing financial investment, AI, and big data solutions to pandemic risk management is both socially beneficial and can have a halo effect on research and entrepreneurship in multiple sectors. Vectoring investment capital into applications beyond biopharma will be important. A few items among many of interest are material sciences and nanotechnologies applied to neutralize viral transmission, advanced detection and filtration solutions, and substantially better early warning, tracking and tracing solutions.
Proactive collaboration between government and business: During the pandemic, crisis-driven cooperation between the government, pharmaceutical and health care industries worked, albeit not to everyone’s satisfaction. This type of collaboration should move from crisis to sustainment mode. In the face of crisis, companies such as General Motors moved into the manufacture of ventilators, PPE, and sanitizing agents. National security and health demands should spur even more imaginative collaborative preparations before we are consumed by the next crisis. Such partnerships may vary from one country to another, one sector to another. But CEOs should not wait for government to take the lead. It is in the self-interest of corporations to use their commercial ingenuity to offer solutions for cooperative funding by business and government.
Historical experience shows that memories—even of significant trauma—can fade or be rationalized away. It is a natural human response to want to return to the appearance stability, to business as usual. In the case of pandemic resilience this would be a fatal error. The battle between society and pathogen isn’t over. We likely cannot forecast or even prevent the next pandemic. But we do have an opportunity, by thinking in E2SG terms—to get ahead of mitigation.