COVID-19 and the Opportunity to Fix the World

Inmy book, The Gift of Crisis, I listed 10 challenges as potential “level one” global problems that could and probably would disrupt society, business, the economy, and even the course of humanity in the future.

COVID-19 was not one of them. But the pandemic has further exposed two looming challenges that I did list — access to healthcare and economic injustice. Business and societal leaders must now face these challenges head-on or risk more calamity.

Specifically, we’ve learned over the past few months:

· The economy cannot function without health security. People need to feel safe from infection before they will work, shop, fly, stay at hotels, get their hair cut, visit gyms, etc.

· The most economically vulnerable are at the highest risk for infection AND under the most pressure to work. Many are employed in “essential” services like healthcare, maintenance, food processing, etc.

Every crisis brings a gift, even COVID. We now understand the strong linkage between healthcare and the economy. We need to take this opportunity to address both forms of inequality to help the economy function again and make the world a healthier, more just, and more prosperous place.

The Health Crisis

The world needs better testing, more effective treatments, and a vaccine before we can get back to normal. But it also needs to help the most vulnerable populations, including the elderly, chronically ill, and the poor, if COVID recovery is to be sustainable.

In the US, for example, African Americans are three times as likely to get infected and six times as likely to die from COVID. Same in the UK, where ethnic-minority groups reported mortality rates 40 to 200 percent higher than those of white nationals. Researchers are still trying to figure out why. Many looked to “social determinants of health” for an answer. These account for a broad range of environmentaleconomic, and behavioral factors, ranging from air quality, to access to food and housing, and exercise. According to McKinsey, “the economic impact of better health could add $12 trillion to global GDP in 2040 — an 8 percent boost, or 0.4 percent a year faster growth”.

Interestingly, studies point out that public transportation may be one of the biggest influencers on infection rates and mortality. This is because people from disadvantaged communities don’t often have the types of jobs that make telecommuting possible, own their cars, work close to home, or have the resources to avoid work.

Affording healthcare is another problem. In the US, bills for intensive COVID treatment can run into the hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars. A basic COVID test can cost hundreds or even over a thousand dollars.

COVID did not cause these problems, it revealed disparities in health equity that have existed for decades. Life expectancy varies widely depending on where you are born and your economic status. In US cities, growing up in a poor neighborhood can mean a 15 or 20 years shorter lifespan. Around the world, life expectancy can vary by as much as 30 years depending on the economy of a country.

Below is a comparative example of the 3 countries I have lived in so far. The evolution, the dips, and the actual numbers are in sync with the history and the progression of the economies in each country.

If you combine economic factors with imminent advances in genetics and innovative treatments like organ transplants, it’s easy to see that we are headed toward a world in which some people will live very long lives (100+) while others will die young (-50).

Is that kind of inequality sustainable? How would you feel if you knew that when your children were born they are likely to die 20 years younger than children who live a few blocks away?*

The Economic Crisis

The link between health equity and economic equity means that poorer people get sick and die more frequently, but also spread infection more rapidly. Obviously, this is not good for anyone in the short run and promises long-term to further strain political and cultural tensions.

The 2008 economic crisis may seem like a blip compared to COVID but we are still feeling the consequences all over the world. The Great Recession hit banks and financial markets hard, but it hit average people even harder, decimating their retirement savings and their property values.

I saw first-hand how the austerity measures imposed on countries like Greece led to massive social unrest. In much of the world, however, dissatisfaction took time to grow. Many countries elected populist leaders who stoked resentments against global institutions and foreigners Brazil, Hungary, Turkey, India, the UK, and the USA among them.

We’re paying the price in ripped up trade agreements, abandoned international organizations like the WHO, Brexit, refugee crises, and border conflicts. Politically, the world has not felt this unstable in 30 years. The Cold War divided the world into two. Today’s world might end up becoming a map of isolated, inward-facing, ultra-nationalistic “islands”.

How do we address the problem of economic inequity today and prevent the next political or economic crisis?

Thought No 1

Put Health First. Period.

Thought No 2

(Re) consider a universal basic income provided by the government (s). Experiments around the world have shown that providing a basic income leads to better health, less stress, bigger families, and more security and that it does not discourage employment.

Of course, this raises questions: How would you finance such a scheme? How can we get global buy-in in an uncoordinated world? How can we avoid incentivizing people not to work at all and motivate people to find optimal jobs instead?

Thought No 3

Concepts such as Stakeholders Capitalism, or Purpose Beyond Profits and Impact are becoming popular today. Perhaps it’s time to walk the talk. If states don’t want to provide a basic income benefit, maybe the world’s largest global companies could instead? What if global companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook, Apple, Walmart, Unilever, Alibaba, and Tata were taxed to provide such an income?

Perhaps that tax could be lowered or eliminated if those companies hired or trained populations in need of economic support?

Thought No 4

Similarly, micro-loans have proven to be extremely successful at stimulating economic growth and alleviating poverty in developing nations. What if such loans were expanded to more people, entrepreneurs, and small businesses?

Building a Better World

Health equity and economic justice are important to all of us and should be non-negotiable. Our planet is wealthy enough to support all human beings in their basic needs. Ignoring this challenge will only make life more difficult for everyone.

Wealthy communities and nations may think they are immune to such forces, but it doesn’t matter how high the walls they build, poor people, economic problems, and pandemics will find a way in.

We also need to prepare for a world in which people who live longer need different kinds of support and opportunities over time. Once, most people experienced three phases in life — childhood and youth, professional and family life, and retirement. As old age gets extended, people are working and functioning at higher levels much later in life before sickness and disability sets in. They also need to work longer because of Pension Funds deficits. Will they have the health and economic support needed to enjoy satisfying lives?

Despite the tragedy of COVID, the pandemic has enabled us to see and understand the basics that are important in life. I hope that we can learn from the mistakes of the past and the reality of our present to avoid the worst of the crises of the future. And that is the Gift of Crisis. #

*A question, my friend Gerasimos S. asked me while waiting to get our luggage at the Athens Airport.

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