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COVID-19 lets us see the world through a different lens

A plant is seen in a burned forest at the Nembi Guasu conservation area in the Charagua, Bolivia, September 24, 2019. REUTERS/David Mercado - RC1E3F372940

Plants regrow after wildfires destroy forests. Image: REUTERS/David Mercado

Mario Greco
Chief Executive Officer, Zurich Insurance Group
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Education, Gender and Work

This article is part of: The Davos Agenda
  • COVID-19 has illuminated many underlying inequalities.
  • The speed and scale of the response highlighted the power political leaders can wield when they are convinced the challenge demands it.
  • Support packages can create a more equitable society, prioritize the health for all people, and produce a net environmental benefit.

When wildfires destroy forests, properties and livelihoods, nature reacts with a new beginning, returning nutrients to the soil and making way for young, healthy vegetation, which in turn supports wildlife and biodiversity.

Have you read?

    Like nature, we can channel the devastating impact of COVID-19 to make a fresh start, if we use the pandemic as a lens to look upon the world in a different way – and then act on what we see.

    A new lens on the world

    COVID-19 has illuminated the deprivation and the many underlying inequalities that exist within countries and between countries. It is those with least who are hit hardest.

    The crisis has forced us to work, learn, communicate and access health and financial services through digital interfaces. But we’ve learned that hundreds of millions of people do not have digital access and reliable broadband internet. And so, a new inequality has been uncovered, the digital divide. And a new sector of society in need of help, the digital underclass.

    The pandemic reminds us that we still have much work to do to close the gender gap. Female workers have suffered disproportionately, partly because of their high representation in hard-hit industries such as travel, leisure, retail and hospitality.

    It has highlighted the need for intra-generational empathy. The elderly have the greatest health risks, but it is the young that will suffer the greater social and economic consequences with challenges relating to their education, job prospects and mental health.

    A lens of clarity

    The virus’s lens has given us greater clarity on some of the global risks that we face, such as climate change, youth disillusionment and cybersecurity that are highlighted in the 2021 Global Risks Report. Now that they have our attention, the next step is to ensure we take action.

    Through COVID-19, we were given a glimpse of how things could be different. The speed and scale of the response highlighted the power political leaders can wield when they are convinced that the challenge demands it.

    It also demonstrated how effective private behaviour can be in containing a crisis. Individuals and businesses alike have practiced physical distancing, adopted the wearing of face masks and made other sacrifices that were essential to slowing the spread of the virus and to making this pandemic much less deadly than it would have been otherwise.

    The pandemic and the resulting lockdowns showed us the only way to realistically tackle climate change is to decouple CO2 emissions from economic activity. It means we need to take political and economic decisions that both protect the environment and generate prosperity and job opportunities.

    Many businesses have used the pandemic to develop new ways of working that require less travel. They could continue making a significant difference to society’s carbon footprint by committing to permanently curb business travel.

    The unprecedented fiscal stimulus and economic support packages assembled by governments also provide a unique opportunity. If done correctly, they can create a more equitable society, prioritize the health for all people, and produce a net environmental benefit.

    Not only would this enable us to recover from the pandemic, but it would promote economic growth, expand the labour force and deliver immense social benefits. The EU’s promise of a €1.8 trillion stimulus package to rebuild a post COVID-19 Europe that is “greener, more digital and more resilient” could create a brighter future for all if it is replicated globally.

    Across countries, economic-stimulus responses to the COVID-19 crisis outsize those to the 2008 nancial crisis.
    Stimulus packages can create a more equitable society. Image: McKinsey

    Preventing widespread youth disillusionment will require a similar level of political and economic will. We must create the opportunities to minimize the risk of a lost generation in a post-pandemic world. But we can make a start by simply listening to the voices of youth.

    A Herculean challenge

    It won’t be easy. Transitioning to a global economy that decarbonizes, maintains prosperity, and decreases inequality at the same time will be a Herculean challenge; but I’m optimistic.

    At Zurich, we believe that embedding green policies and promoting social cohesion can be a catalyst for economic growth, as well as having a positive impact on people and the planet. And we believe business has a key role to play.

    We continue to promote diversity and inclusion, discovering that the addition of six words to our job advertisements in the UK significantly increased female applications: “part time”, “job share” and “flexible working”.

    Despite the challenge of COVID-19, we expanded the Zurich Apprenticeship Programme in the US during 2020. Not only are we enabling young people to enter the workforce, but we are helping other businesses explore apprenticeships as part of our role as co-founder of the Chicago Apprentice Network as well as Insurance Apprenticeship USA.


    What is the World Economic Forum doing to manage emerging risks from COVID-19?

    The virus has exposed our weaknesses and highlighted the fragilities in our economies, our societies, and even in some of our political leaders. But it also reminds us of our most precious strengths, and it shines a light on the power and beauty of nature and humanity.

    Humankind has always found a way to find strength in adversity and, as demonstrated in the search for a vaccine, where there’s a will, we always find a way.

    If we show the same focus and determination in combatting climate change and other issues troubling our planet, then we can feel optimistic about the future.

    This is a new starting point for us all. We should treat this moment as nature would, as an opportunity for renewal, and to strengthen humanity and our planet’s ecosystem.

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    The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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    Forum InstitutionalEconomic GrowthStakeholder CapitalismClimate Action
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