The year 2020, ushering in the ‘Decade of Action’, has started with a bang, but for the wrong reason – COVID-19. The severity of the pandemic has brought into focus the negative consequences of widespread globalization, unbridled modern lifestyles, and their combined, devastating impact on the planet. Many studies and researches have highlighted that the destruction of our biodiversity and natural resources has in fact resulted in new, complex pathogens.
Despite the disastrous effect on human life and the grim economic situation the pandemic has brought about, the world stands united in action, hanging by the hope that this dystopian event will soon come to an end and we will emerge stronger. One thing is certain though - the post-COVID world will be a different place for all of us. However, we believe it will spell several positive impacts on the broader society and present extraordinary opportunities to drive sustainable development goals (SDGs).
Letting Nature Heal
As we learn from China’s journey back to normalcy, it has become amply clear that social distancing will be the new norm for social behavior. Short-term disruptions aside, governments and businesses are enabling flexible operating models like work from home, online delivery of a wide variety of services, and so on, which will see a rise in (pandemic-created) needs and requirements, that will fuel existing business and aid the creation of new ones. While only a few sectors like IT, sales, and finance were – by design – given to naturally adopt such operating models, many conventional sectors such as manufacturing, energy and utility businesses, healthcare, and education have also begun to leverage technology ecosystems and automation to implement innovative service delivery models, significantly reducing people movement. This drives down the need for travel and transportation, resulting in significant reduction of GHG emissions – in line with achieving the goals of Climate Action (SDG 13).
Bridging Inequalities in Societies
In countries like India, social distancing norms – which are paramount to controlling the ongoing crisis – have had the most severe impact on the informal sector, largely in businesses where people work in close proximity to each other, by design. The low-income group that make up the informal sector typically, is the hardest hit; small, micro businesses, and the informal labor sector have all been severely impacted by the COVID-19 induced lockdowns. While contact tracing apps are meant to be a bridge to a COVID-19-free world, these unfortunately work in a manner that causes divisiveness between social classes. It is here that governments must raise social bonds that are purpose-driven, to finance projects that bring about positive social outcomes. This will fuel economic activity and drive formal employment for people in the informal sector. Such initiatives will in turn help address inequalities in the society, as intended by SDG 1 – No Poverty and SDG 10 – Reduced Inequalities.
Protecting Fundamental Freedom
In an effort to combat the pandemic in the long run, governments implementing contact tracing measures can mandate how to resume businesses and provide services in the future. While these measures are essential in the current context, governments need to make clear how the movement and contact tracing data will be used and ensure that it doesn’t affect personal freedom or people’s privacy. In some countries, governments have ensured that the data that is being collected (health, movement, contacts, and so on) and processed during this pandemic will be used only for a fixed period and will, in no way be associated with other data of their citizens. Technically, it is possible to develop apps that enable contact tracing without affecting the privacy of the individuals and it will be the responsibility of governments to ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedom, per SDG 16.10.
Going Local to be Truly Global
Another important outcome of this pandemic will be how it affects globalization. Governments and businesses will look to be resilient and operate hyper-locally to reduce their dependency on businesses from other countries. The signs of this are already beginning to emerge in the UK and Europe. Reimagining the supply chain will be the biggest challenge in the post-COVID era. Certain sectors will get reorganized in terms of localization and automation. Local and indigenous suppliers will stand to gain from this. However, this could also lead to a state of ‘economic slack’ in certain countries, while for some others it could be an opportunity to gain an increased share of the pie.
Attaining the Right Degree of Climate Change
As most of the industries around the globe are shut and with countries under lockdown, pollution levels have decreased drastically and, in many places, animals have started returning to their old habitats. This is one of the immediate positive impacts of COVID-19 on climate change; governments and global business leaders must duly note, it is possible to bring about such a change with exponential value when emissions are reduced on a global scale. With improved international co-ordination and wholehearted participation of governments, businesses and all stakeholders, the long-term challenge of Climate Change can definitely be addressed and the Paris Climate Agreement’s goal of keeping the increase in global temperature within of pre-industrial levels of 1.5° C, is very much achievable.
Enabling Global Businesses to Keep their CSR Commitments
Another positive outcome is the way in which organizations around the globe have supported the fight against this pandemic – by extending monetary assistance to, and deploying special services for those in need. Some businesses have undertaken innovative measures such as automobile manufacturers making protective gear, ventilators, test kits and even providing make-shift hospice facilities. This gives us hope that global businesses can accomplish their corporate social responsibility (CSR) goals better and set the tone for several such positive impacts for communities and societies at large.
As Paul Polman, Vice-Chair of UN Global Compact, highlights “This (COVID-19) is a wake-up call. We must live within our planetary boundaries to avoid future pandemics”. Howsoever ironic it may sound, but the COVID-19 crisis has spelt something good for the world at large. The post-pandemic era will offer an excellent opportunity for global businesses and governments to improve health and education, reduce inequality, spur economic growth, and address climate change, thus succeeding at the world’s greatest business plan!