Great ResignationClimate ChangeLeadershipInflationUkraine Invasion

It’s time to make public health a priority for business

March 27, 2021, 2:00 PM UTC
Commentary-Business-Communities-Public Health
Businesses should look at their corporate social responsibility efforts and determine how they can improve public health, write Pamela Hymel, William Kassler, and J. Brent Pawlecki.
Spencer Platt—Getty Images

With more than a half a million lives lost and 100,000 businesses permanently shuttered in the U.S., the coronavirus pandemic has exposed the inextricable link between healthy communities and a strong, resilient economy—and our collective failure to better prepare for this foreseeable crisis. 

The systemic health and economic disparities plaguing our country left the door wide open for COVID-19 to enter our midst, prey on our vulnerabilities, and wreak immeasurable damage upon millions of American families and businesses.

Recently, corporate America has made great strides in advancing cultures that promote employee well-being and the mantra that we can all do well by doing good. Since the pandemic began, flexible work policies and free mental health services are just a few ways that the corporate sector has stepped up to support its workforce. 

We’ve also looked beyond our front doors to help fill critical community needs. Manufacturing plants have been repurposed to produce masks and hand sanitizer. Restaurants have transformed into community kitchens. And many of us have shared our marketing, technical, and logistical expertise to support vital public health and vaccine distribution campaigns. 

These efforts are all important, but they are short-term fixes. This pandemic has brought us to a tipping point by exacerbating the deep fissures in the health and welfare of our communities, especially those that have been historically marginalized. And now, more than ever, we must come together to make these problems our most pressing business.   

Over the past several months, we’ve joined forces with more than 40 public health leaders and other corporate health executives to identify how businesses can lock arms with local, state, and national public health organizations to build stronger, healthier communities. Together, we landed on a roadmap that outlines practical solutions to not only strengthen our immediate response to COVID-19, but help alleviate America’s growing socioeconomic disparities and lift our struggling public health system into the 21st century.    

To start, business needs to build and strengthen partnerships with local public health. These partnerships have a clear mutual benefit. Business leaders can lean on trusted local public health experts to craft consistent messaging anchored in science to stem the spread of this virus. Building vaccine confidence and mask acceptance at work leads to families, friends, and neighbors following these important public health safety measures. 

Businesses, in turn, can offer their marketing expertise and IT resources to amplify public health campaigns among hard-hit communities and the general public. We don’t need to choose between protecting lives and protecting livelihoods. Both can and should be addressed simultaneously, using common sense to guide our decisions. 

The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer reveals that the public trusts the business community more than government or any other group to solve today’s problems. Our leadership matters. If we speak up forcefully in support of vaccines, masks, and social distancing, our efforts will save lives and help end the worst public health crisis in decades.   

Second, we should implement long-term solutions, not just stopgap programs. As business leaders, we need to take a hard look at our advocacy and corporate social responsibility programs and ask ourselves, “Are these ad hoc efforts or will they drive sustainable solutions to socioeconomic inequities in our communities?” 

The answer will help us achieve transformational change where we live, work, and play, and ultimately strengthen our society’s wellness and long-term economic resilience. In applying these policies and programs, we must strive to not just recover from the pandemic, but use this moment to address the longstanding racial and health inequities that have contributed to where we are today.  

Third, we must support the modernization of our public health system. In its most basic sense, public health is about taking care of our population—tracking emerging threats, monitoring at-risk populations, preventing disease, and promoting wellness within our communities. 

Yet America’s public health infrastructure needs immediate attention. Outdated public health systems and resources are no match for the virulence and lethal speed of viruses in an increasingly interconnected world. A modernized public health infrastructure will translate into healthier communities, driving lower health care costs, reducing disability payments and absenteeism, and empowering a more productive and adaptable workforce.    

As vaccine distribution efforts gain speed and urgency, we all cling to the hope that our world will soon regain some sense of normalcy. But getting back to business as usual should not be our goal. 

We must do much better than that. Together, let’s commit to a new, more courageous path forward—one that is cemented in a bedrock of health equity and economic well-being for all.    

Pamela Hymel is chief medical officer of Disney Parks, Experiences, and Products.

William Kassler is chief medical officer of IBM.

J. Brent Pawlecki is chief health officer of the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company.