To reopen safely, the private and public sectors need to ramp up collaboration

May 8, 2020, 9:30 AM UTC

The COVID-19 pandemic constitutes a public health crisis like no other in modern history, based on the sheer reach and damage it has wreaked around the world—physically, psychologically, and economically. While the pandemic may be showing signs of decline, a full recovery is still a long distance away. And that recovery phase will require greater international coordination among governments, multilateral institutions, and businesses. 

Millions of lives and livelihoods are at stake in every corner of the world. Public health responses and economic measures to protect them need to be swift, aligned, and coordinated. While we recognize the importance of getting the economy, as well as our everyday lives, back on track, our world has forever changed, and we need to prepare accordingly. This means developing the global capacity to live with the coronavirus as a constant threat for the foreseeable future.

In recent history, the global community has managed public health challenges, in the form of MERS, SARS, and Ebola, in a way that allowed commerce to renew in hard-hit regions around the world. However, none of them were of the magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic. Optimistically, the timeframe for a vaccine ranges amongst global experts from 12 to 18 months. But consider that we have been dealing with Ebola for five years and still lack a cure. Similarly, it has been 25 years since the first outbreak of AIDS and there is still no viable vaccine.

The point is: Science takes time. In all the cases cited above, management of the crisis has required adapting our behavior—and that is what we need to do with COVID-19 as we gradually reopen. Economies and societies across the globe need to prepare for the next normal that is starting to emerge. 

Governments and lending institutions must guarantee the viability of the millions of micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises across the world, which employ more than 80% of the workforce in many countries. The injection of $5 trillion into the global economy already announced by the G20 is a good initial response, but more will likely be required. Developed countries and multilateral development banks must also step up now during this crisis to further assist governments, companies, and people in the developing world, where weak safety nets, insufficient public health infrastructure, limited fiscal resources, and high levels of foreign debt can set the stage for a humanitarian crisis. 

New trade barriers are limiting the movement of critical goods in some countries, preventing people from receiving the lifesaving products they need. Governments must ensure better coordination to guarantee that supply chains remain operational despite challenges presented by the pandemic. They should refrain from taking any protective measures (including tariffs and export restrictions) against World Trade Organization (WTO) rules that interfere with the global trade of goods and services, especially frontline medical and health care products and supplies. It also means removing tariffs on protective supplies used in the fight against COVID-19, which currently have an average tariff of 11.5%, according to the WTO. 

Getting ahead of the coronavirus is not solely the responsibility of government, and business has demonstrated that understanding. They have been agile to expand manufacturing capacity and shift supply chains to meet the increasing needs for medical supplies. Automobile and aircraft companies are producing ventilators, fashion companies are making masks, and hotels are repurposing as hospitals. The team spirit that this crisis has triggered in some companies serves as an example of the collaboration that will need to extend to the recovery phase. 

Governments and companies will find themselves collaborating globally to support the technological transformation business is undergoing. Due to the pandemic, many employers and employees have shifted to remote working in a short period of time. When countries begin to loosen restrictions and reignite their economies, the private and public sectors must work together to enable better—and equitable—access to digital infrastructure as only an estimated 53.6% of the world is digitally connected. Such uneven access to digital infrastructure must be addressed in order to mitigate the economic and societal impact of the pandemic, as well as prepare citizens for the new post-pandemic reality. This will require businesses to create affordable and secure technologies, and governments to enact legislation and incentives to connect us all. 

Finally, this pandemic has shown the need to revisit international rules for global health systems. Building the consensus to rewrite international health regulations will take a great effort from world leaders, which business leaders should also be engaged in, as appropriate. International health bodies should have more autonomy to make quicker decisions and conduct timely inquiries into countries’ health policies when needed. 

Multilateral organizations play a critical role in facilitating global coordination efforts. They can set regulatory standards for governments to implement coordinated policies that set clear rules for business and help create measures that guarantee supply chains continue flowing and critical goods have equitable global distribution at fair prices. To that end, there should be more collaboration between the UN, the World Health Organization, the G20, and the private sector, as we take steps to overcome this crisis and prepare for future ones—starting with a post-crisis dialogue. This doesn’t mean a complete rewrite of the whole system, but rather an evaluation of what has worked, viable recommendations, and new approaches.

The global community must demonstrate solidarity and cooperation to fight COVID-19 together. We can only stop the virus if we coordinate policies and approaches, ramp up testing capacity, guarantee global supply chains, and unite to support developing countries. The longer we wait to come together, the bigger the damage will be to our health, our economies, and our social fabric. 

Yousef Al-Benyan is chair of B20 Saudi Arabia, the business voice of the G20. He is also CEO of SABIC.

Dr. David Nabarro is a special envoy for COVID-19 for the World Health Organization (WHO).

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—Listen to Leadership Next, a Fortune podcast examining the evolving role of CEO
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