• A simulation responding to a hypothetical global health emergency showed the world was unprepared.
  • We must come together for a systemic response based on facts, not fear.
  • Leaders in the private-sector have an important role to play.

Last fall, sixteen leaders from governments, businesses and international organizations gathered in New York to conduct a simulated response to a hypothetical global health emergency. We looked at the challenges that could arise in such a scenario, which was increasingly likely given the world has about 200 epidemic events per year. We could not know the exercise would become a reality just months later – but the conclusion was sobering: if it did, the global community was woefully unprepared.

A few months later, the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in China. By the end of January, more than 500 people had been infected, and Wuhan, the origin of the outbreak, had been placed under quarantine. Now, COVID-19 has spread internationally and affected more than 90,000 people, leading to more than 3,000 deaths. The OECD expects it will also cause significant economic damage: global economic growth could slow by 1.5 percent, putting the world in a technical recession.

We couldn’t have predicted this specific outbreak. But something similar was bound to happen, and if you had asked us during the exercise in New York: “Are we ready for a global health emergency?”, we would have said “no.” The simulation and our previous work had shown there was a lot more to be done to enable public-private cooperation in the face of such a threat. But there is a silver lining: it’s not too late to apply the lessons we learned in the fall. What can we do to mobilize a better global response?

Spread of COVID-19 globally.
Spread of COVID-19 globally.
Image: World Economic Forum

First, we must look beyond the immediate health impact of the COVID-19 virus and come up with a systemic response.

Our research and analysis have shown global health threats pose a significant international risk and the costs of epidemics are rising. Nothing is more important than protecting and saving lives. But we must also consider the economic and social consequences of outbreaks.

COVID-19 has illustrated again that outbreaks can affect supply chains, industries, companies, travel systems, workforces and more. The economic fallout of the virus has been felt worldwide, and the overall socio-economic impacts are still being realized. We have prioritized systems to respond to health threats, but we haven’t given nearly enough thought to managing the effects on people’s livelihoods. Now is the time to change that.

Consider how fire departments have evolved over time. Two hundred years ago, fire departments in the UK focused just on responding to the fires themselves. Until someone finally said: It’s not enough to just put the fire out; you must do so in a way that supports the people most affected and the impact on their community. Similarly, we must respond to global health threats in a systematic way that addresses the related economic and social disruptions.

Second, we must act on the facts, not on fear.

The simulation also showed the importance of elevating facts and empowering people to make evidence-based decisions. As a global community, we know the “infodemic” spreads even faster than the virus itself. But we haven’t done enough to cultivate an environment for business leaders, health ministers, politicians, or the general public to access the truth and act on it.

Right now, fear is still winning the day, and “false news” spreading faster than official WHO and authorities’ information. Many people are continuing to make the most risk-averse, and often unsubstantiated, decisions – hoard face masks, close borders, racially stigmatize Asians, for example. It leads to a race to the bottom. We must instead make it easier for people to access reliable info and feel confident in making decisions about their organizations and themselves.

The World Health Organization set the tone with its daily press briefings, and its accessible website with information for citizens, companies and governments. Since this week, it even opened a TikTok channel. Media such as Dagens Nyheter in Sweden, The Local in Europe, and The Seattle Times in the US are following its lead, opening their coverage for all and basing it on solid research, not online rumours. It’s a laudable response, that deserves to be replicated elsewhere.

Third, we must engage decision-makers in the private sector.

Governments mostly focus their communication directly to the general public. But the private sector and its leadership are a crucial piece of the puzzle as well. First, they can help share information, employing well over half the workforce in many economies. Second, they can help limit economic consequences, if they’re properly informed and kept abreast by the health and public authorities.

Companies know they can’t afford to put their heads down and hope they get it right by themselves. But they have been largely left out of crisis responses in the past, even though they are critical: For example, the effort to ensure all health care workers in the world have enough supplies requires a coordinated approach. The same is true for navigating travel and workplace policies. These challenges can’t be overcome without trust, information-sharing and engaged decision-makers.

The World Economic Forum is doing its part. In response to COVID-19, it is calling for interaction among chief executives, the World Health Organization and other top experts. The goal is to ensure that companies have continuous access to trusted information and analysis to make decisions and that private-sector assets and capabilities are mobilized to support the global response.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

Since its launch on 11 March, the Forum’s COVID Action Platform has brought together 1,667 stakeholders from 1,106 businesses and organizations to mitigate the risk and impact of the unprecedented global health emergency that is COVID-19.

The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

Finally, we must all come together to collaborate.

It’s en vogue these days to ask what the point is of international institutions or strong public response systems. This virus makes that clear: in a global health emergency, all of us are only as strong as our weakest link, whether we represent a company or an economy or a health system. COVID-19 presents a true test to see how we can come together collectively to mitigate risk and disruption in this new environment.

Many of us tend to believe that outbreaks happen in some other place, and it’s the work of others to keep them there. Not this one. COVID-19 is the whole world’s problem and the most serious threat to global health security in decades. If we don’t come together to ensure that the whole world is protected, we’ll never be protected ourselves. Together, as an informed, equipped, international community, we have an opportunity to make a difference.

We can’t afford to act alone. But if we do act together, the impact of this crisis on health, as well as social and economic life, can be mitigated, and we can become more resilient to respond to future risks.