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Crisis Response Journal Crisis Response Journal

Private army battles pandemic

Posted on 16th April 2020 at 10:21am

Earlier this year, in a keynote lecture he gave to students at University College London and in his article ‘Getting the wrong people around the table’, published in CRJ 15.1, Rob McAlister referred to including cognitive diversity and different thinking styles to increase overall creativity and performance in complex crises. Here, he comments on how the private sector is stepping up to the frontline in the battle against the pandemic.

Current evidence regarding the role that the private sector is playing in the current global pandemic suggests that governments should perhaps consider involving this sector far more in strategic matters than they do already. Victory over the coronavirus pandemic will not come from governments alone. Victory will come from the efforts, sacrifices and ingenuity of private businesses and individuals.

Government tools are powerful but stay-at-home orders and shuttering businesses can only buy time for our healthcare system to respond and private labs to find a treatment.

It has become very evident during the current pandemic just how innovative, agile and creative the private sector is, with some extraordinary ideas and products coming to the fore.

From Italian students converting snorkelling masks into ventilators, to Lego making 13.000 nursing protective face shields, to Barbour and Chanel making hospital scrubs and Tesco franchises in new temporary NHS hospitals in the UK – these are just a few examples of ingenuity.

It is impressive to see this adaptability in many elements of the private sector and it shows just what can be done by incredibly innovative organisations who are creative by nature and can think differently about problem solving.

This is the case with distilleries. Instead of crafting bourbon and vodka, many are changing their schedules to produce hand sanitiser. They are giving it away for free to local communities or selling it at a lower price, which helps them hold the fort during these difficult times. Even Bacardi, a famous rum producer, is allocating alcohol to the production of more than 1.7 million ten-ounce units of hand sanitiser.

Companies that make perfume are also entering the fray. LVMH, Moët Hennessy – Louis Vuitton SE announced that it is going to convert its cosmetic factories to hand sanitiser production and distribute the product to 39 hospitals in France.

Special efforts are being made to guarantee that businesses and schools can continue their activities – at least in part. Google has made freely available features of Google Hangouts that were previously paid for, such as video meetings for up to 250 participants and the ability to record calls and save them to Google Drive.

Agility and speed of decision-making are also assisted by devolved structures that are less hierarchical and bureaucratic. This can be the Achilles heel of most governments during a fast paced or complex crisis, but is sometimes a great strength of many private businesses.

For instance, the German healthcare system, which has over 400 private clinics, did not wait for central government’s permission to test, it just got on with it. The results are evident in Germany’s pandemic death toll figures in comparison with many other countries.

Even England's Chief Medical Officer conceded that there were lessons to be learned from Germany on testing, and the UK’s government is now turning to the country's private sector, saying it aims to roll out a partnership with private firms that will help it hit the 100,000-tests-a-day target.

So, despite the frequent criticism by some regarding those who earn a living and yes, a profit through their businesses, these well-known organisations will be among the many we will thank for getting us through this pandemic.

For many private sector champions, it didn’t take governments directing them to act – they are doing it because business is never just about profit. It is also about public service, despite what the detractors would have us believe.

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