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Trey Watkins headshot

Responding to a Pandemic With Solidarity and Purpose: The Evolving Power of Corporate Responsibility

By Trey Watkins
three children - Responding to a Pandemic with Solidarity and Purpose

Solidarity is top of mind these days, a gentle reminder that, as the world struggles to respond to and rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic, we are all in this together. Our inherent interdependence has never been more apparent, transcending physical barriers  as we seek new ways to connect with each other and  stay healthy.  

This groundswell of solidarity has been gaining momentum throughout the global community in recent years. The adoption of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015 established an historically ambitious blueprint to achieve a better, healthier and more sustainable future for all. In their universality, the SDGs highlight our interconnected nature and call for a multi-sectoral response that leaves no one behind. 

Humanity has responded accordingly. According to data compiled by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), nearly 4 in 10 citizens across 16 countries believe that all governments should fund the SDGs. Ninety percent think it is important for businesses to sign on to support the goals. 

Among shifting political agendas, the world has demanded even more of its citizens. Individuals and corporations alike have been called upon to address issues like climate change, promote inclusive economies and ensure access to healthcare for all. As communities have gathered to raise a unified voice for change, inspiring young activists like Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai have challenged us to think differently about the future we are shaping for the next generation — one that includes more meaningful and transparent corporate engagement. 

A new era of corporate social responsibility

With communities and individuals taking stands, so are brands. Companies are increasingly evolving their traditional philanthropic efforts to more strategic investments and looking across the entirety of their value chains to leverage them for good. 

It has become clear that corporate responsibility is no longer a choice. In an evolving, more interconnected, globalized and informed world, companies aren’t beholden exclusively to their shareholders, but rather to their stakeholders — including citizens, consumers and employees — in a modern reimagination of stakeholder capitalism

Now, as communities around the world find themselves under lockdown, with health systems and economies struggling to withstand the pressures of the novel coronavirus, a modern sense of responsibility and solidarity is paramount. Brands across sectors are leveraging their reach and credibility to share important messages and provide hope to a society in need. Whether it’s retooling supply chains to produce face masks or an offer for free internet access to level the playing field for home schooling, a new era of corporate responsibility is upon us. And in an April user survey conducted by Twitter, 77 percent of respondents said they feel more positively about brands making an effort to support society during the pandemic. 

In a recent article, the Harvard Business Review notes that companies will be remembered for decades by their response to COVID-19. As some choose to turn inward, those that take care of their employees, customers and communities will rise above the rest. A recent poll demonstrates that the pharmaceutical industry is enjoying a particular boost in reputation due to its COVID-19 response. 

Solidarity on the frontlines

From the beginning of this pandemic, the healthcare industry has been working around the clock in hospitals and research labs. Like a modern-day Space Race, we see an unprecedented sprint for a cure led by the pharmaceutical and life sciences industry. According to publicly available data, to date, more than 130 vaccine candidates are in development, and over 200 therapeutics are under consideration. This is all in large thanks to new public-private partnerships like the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator, the National Institute of Health’s Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines, and the World Health Organization’s Solidarity Trial.

COVID-19 has also highlighted broken systems and lifted the veil on longstanding inequities in communities around the world, even in industrialized and seemingly well-prepared nations like the U.S. As the world approaches 5 million COVID-19-related cases, and more than 325,00  deaths, we know that the disproportionate burden of the pandemic is falling on already vulnerable communities, with long-term implications that will further perpetuate social disparities. 

As we emerge from COVID-19 into a world forever changed, let’s look beyond immediate recovery and instead consider the long-term, systemic changes required to build systems anchored in equity and rights. 

The future of public-private partnerships 

A revitalized sense of global cooperation and a renewed social contract will be critical to facilitating bold new ways of working together across sectors and industries. The ingenuity of the private sector has enabled us to pivot and adapt in ways never imagined so that we could respond to COVID-19. This generous spirit of corporate citizenship must now sustain us in meeting critical gaps and ensuring continuity of services — healthcare or otherwise. 

Through the development of sustainable, innovative and inclusive solutions, the private sector can play a critical role in addressing the very disparities COVID-19 has exposed. And in a time when the value of multilateralism and international institutions is questioned, multinational companies will be crucial to shoring up the systems required to ensure we are never again caught unprepared when a pandemic comes knocking. 

For all its complexities, COVID-19 has also nudged many of us into a simpler time, replacing layers of noise with quiet moments of connection with loved ones. As the pandemic recalibrates our value systems and highlights the importance of solidarity, I hope it also encourages us to reconsider our modes of collaboration so that we can one day look back on this time as a great renaissance of corporate responsibility. If you ask me, our future depends on it. 

This article series is sponsored by GCI Health and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team. 

Image credit: Hadynyah/E+ via Getty Images 

Trey Watkins headshot

Trey Watkins, MPH, is Senior Vice President of Global Health and Corporate Responsibility for GCI Health. Trey leads the global health and corporate responsibility offering at GCI Health, a global healthcare communications agency. He has a background in international health and development and has served in several capacities in the U.N. system, including with the WHO and most recently as a health adviser in the U.N. Secretary-General’s office.

Read more stories by Trey Watkins