The war against COVID-19 has highlighted with exacting precision where the fault lines in our nation, cities, neighbourhoods and business systems lie. Despite there being exceptions, the vast majority of organisations have displayed stewardship to help meet society’s many challenges arising from the pandemic. The focus of this article is on some of the main areas of strength and resilience in sustaining life and tempering economic impact that have been displayed during the initial response to the crisis. 

Getting the fundamentals right

In response to the shortage of key products necessary to combat the virus, luxury fashion houses through to high tech manufacturing companies have been embracing their purpose for the social good by turning their skills to making face masks and scrubs essential for medical personnel.  The alcoholic beverage industry, in a similar gesture shifted production to help address shortages in hand sanitiser, not because demand for alcohol had fallen, far from it, but rather because it was the right thing to do. Their willingness to contribute was made possible by regulatory change that was readily forthcoming given the circumstances.  Where certain investors screen out alcoholic beverage companies as ‘sin’ sectors perhaps such investors will be more willing in the future to see them differently for the great positive impact they can have in these situations. 

When heightened public anxiety and panic buying triggered stock shortages of essential non-perishable goods the major grocery chains, with the authorisation of the ACCC, collaborated in resolving very complex supply chain issues. 

Woolworths and Coles in particular, exemplified stewardship during the crisis to reassure the general public, not just their customers about the availability of stock to reduce panic buying.  New measures were introduced as were required by the circumstances including: 

  • Proprietary supply chains have been opened up for competitors to share information and labour resources to redress bottlenecks, and more efficiently allocate resources to ensure product availability. The ACCC provided essential and timely regulatory authorisation to enable this to occur.
  • New jobs associated with the demand surge in supermarkets were fulfilled quickly by targeting other industries like airlines and tourism that have been negatively impacted.
  • Special access arrangements were introduced for vulnerable groups such as seniors and essential workers disadvantaged by the intense competition for scarce products.
  • Acknowledgment of hardship and dangers of customer facing staff, and measures to protect and reward them for their stoic commitment. This included senior executives taking reduced remuneration to indicate seriousness of situation, and burden sharing. While more needs to be done this provided some acknowledgement of the situation. 

Digital infrastructure softens hardship

Self-isolation has been difficult for everyone, but there can be no doubt that broadband access has been critical in curbing the negative impact on the economy by enabling workforce participation from home, education, e-commerce and access to health care.

There has been a massive acceleration in contactless commerce: Retail has surged on-line, and restaurants are delivering to homes.  In Italy, the take-up of electronic commerce increased by a staggering 88% in just a week. 

Despite all the difficulties experienced with the NBN roll-out in Australia, NBN has stepped up to the challenges of COVID-19 with professionalism, timeliness and diligence. Enabling additional capacity to be available at no cost for retail sellers has been excellent in helping ensure reasonable upload and download speeds to meet zoom based schooling, office and recreational traffic caused by staying at home. That is not to say there have not been problems but at least for now it has been carried out without seeking to leverage commercial advantage.

Hospital ICU Scalability

A key factor driving the unprecedented response to the pandemic was the possibility that healthcare system would be unable to cope with the flood of people requiring hospitalisation.

Many Australians are reassured to learn that there is significant scalability to enable more Intensive Care Unit (ICU) capacity. According to Medical Journal of Australia, the nation’s ICU bed capacity is about 9.4 per 100,000 of population, but could expand by over 180 per cent if required. Having in place a collaborative model with private and public hospitals has been important in rapidly adapting private elective surgery capacity to help meet demand for more intensive ICU type care.

According to same study, Australia’s ICU capacity is well above China and UK (3.6 and 4.4 per 100,000 of population respectively), but below US at 25.8. Of course, international comparisons are difficult, and there is much more to ICU than a bed, access to additional specialist staffing and equipment is key.

Airports making the best of a difficult situation

Airports have been on the economic front line of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite this they are keeping customers up to date with COVID-19 and have put in place multiple measures to ensure staff and passenger safety. While Brisbane and Sydney airports convert surplus runway space to warehouse aeroplanes no longer needed owing to collapse in demand for air travel, free car parking is offered at Melbourne airport for essential service workers. Brisbane is also helping passengers remain safe with full contactless retail.

Utilities

In the energy sector the focus has been on providing help to the financially distressed, particularly as household consumption will rise owing to home isolation.

COVID-19 has caused a significant rise in incident management for water utilities. The direct and serious consequence of panic buying and consequent shortage of toilet paper has seen households substituting wipes and other paper products that cause the sewerage system to block. These ‘fatburgs’ are blockages made up of huge clusters of fabric that bond with oil or fat in the sewers and cost millions each year to clear.

These problems may have been ameliorated at their source if the court cases relating to inappropriate marketing of ‘flushable wipes’ given their disruption to the sewerage system had succeeded.

Collaborative responses

Across the world, governments and health authorities are working together to find solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic, to protect people and get society back up and running. Since COVID-19 can be transmitted through close proximity to affected individuals, public health officials have identified contact tracing as a valuable tool to help contain its spread.

Software developers are contributing by crafting technical tools to help combat the virus and save lives. Google and Apple are collaborating to enable the use of Bluetooth technology to help governments and health agencies reduce the spread of the virus, with user privacy and security central to the design.

Similarly, Britain’s GlaxoSmithKline and China’s Clover Biopharmaceuticals are working together to accelerate the process of developing and bringing to market a COVID-19 vaccine.