"We started by saying that lives are important and we have to save lives. Today we are at equilibrium and we're saying lives are important, but livelihoods are also important."
That was the assessment of Piyush Goyal, India's Minister of Railways and Minister of Commerce and Industry, regarding his country's approach to containing the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, as well as the economic fallout and toll on employment. Goyal's remarks came during a virtual meeting of the Forum's COVID Action Platform on 29 April.
Launched last month, the Forum's platform aims to convene the business community for collective action to protect people’s livelihoods, facilitate business continuity and mobilize support for a global response to the COVID-19 pandemic. To date, more than 1,500 people from over 1,000 businesses and organizations have joined the platform.
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.
In addition to Goyal, participants on this week's webinar included Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Qatar; Stéphane Bancel, Chief Executive Officer of Moderna; Amanda McClelland, Senior Vice-President at Prevent Epidemics, Resolve to Save Lives; and David M. Rubenstein, Co-Founder and Co-Executive Chairman of The Carlyle Group.
Here are some key quotes from the session:
On the economic implications:
"This time I don't think we're going to go back to the normal conduct that we see after a typical recession. This time the world has been scarred by the prospect of death and a virus that we don't really know much about," Rubenstein said.
Commenting on the severity of the economic crisis caused by COVID-19, he argued: "There's a word somewhere in between recession and depression that hasn't been invented yet - but that's the word that's appropriate."
Rubenstein also noted that businesses are now in process of cutting back on costs and are going to "cut back on the number of employees they really feel they need." He added: "All the employees that have been laid off are not coming back."
“Geopolitically, I believe it’s going to be a big complication because there are a lot of implications if the economic situation is going to be affected. It means that there will be social unrest in some countries, especially those countries without fiscal capabilities," said Al Thani.
The Deputy Prime Minister suggested the Middle East would be especially susceptible to social unrest - amid high unemployment and a lack of economic opportunity - and could lead to turmoil along the lines of the Arab Spring of 2011. He called for a "rethinking about a new collaborative order" in the region.
On the search for a vaccine:
“The good news is the biology of SARS-CoV-2 [COVID-19] is not very complicated. Many of us have worked on SARS and MERS in the past...through all that has been done before, we believe we should have several vaccines," Bancel said.
Commenting on the potential of employing a vaccine before it is officially approved, Bancel noted: "What is possible – and it's going to be a country-by-country decision – is to potentially use the vaccine in an emergency-use situation, which in some countries is already written into law, and in some countries it is not."
On the challenges for developing countries:
"How do we balance what the epidemic is going to look like as it starts to gain momentum in Africa in particular, but how do we also make sure we don't cause a secondary humanitarian crisis with malnutrition and economic collapse?" McClelland asked, addressing the potentially magnified and devastating impact COVID-19 could inflict on poorer economies with weak healthcare systems in Africa.