First published by Forum tor the Future, 25th June 2020

In the fifth of our Corporate Leadership in the Time of Corona series, Jonathon Porritt explores how intricately linked climate change and public health are, and the crucial need for business to play its part in ensuring we strengthen healthcare systems in the bid to ‘build back better’ post COVID-19. This will be key to creating an overdue and just transition to a net zero economy.

As you’d expect, the response of big business to the coronavirus crisis has, in the round, been pretty impressive. There are several websites keeping a close eye on this, the most helpful in the US being Forbes Corporate Responders (providing a ranking for the 100 largest employees in the USA), CSRBox in India and www.didtheyhelp.com in the UK. With equivalent websites in other European countries.

Many companies are understandably keen to be seen to be acting responsibly and compassionately in the midst of such a crisis. Turbo-charged Corporate Social Responsibility is going on all around us – and will be needed for a long time to come.

Many corporates have also spoken out about the need for governments to learn from the crisis – from a healthcare point of view. A number of companies were part of an extraordinary appeal to the G20 Leaders from 40 million healthcare professionals all around the world, exhorting them not to waste the opportunity to rebuild healthcare systems by ensuring far greater resilience in the future – we can, after all, be pretty sure that COVID-19 is not the last pandemic we will be hammered by. More specifically, in the global garment industry, more than 100 businesses and organisations have endorsed the International Labour Organisation’s appeal to support manufacturers and protect garment workers’ income, health and employment.

All good. But CSR and advocacy of this kind only takes us so far. As the UN’s Global Compact recently pointed out, more than half of the world’s population (around 4 billion people) are not covered by any social security nets, often with access only to very minimal healthcare services. As Lise Kingo, CEO of the Global Compact said at the time: “More than half of the general population globally finds that capitalism, in its current form, does not work for them.”

It is now abundantly clear that the worst public health crisis for more than 100 years demands a different kind of truthfulness from multinational companies today, reflecting on what it has taught us over the last few months.

The truth of it is that many multinational companies have been complicit in (or at least condoned) the systematic underfunding of public health for a very long time, content to go along with the rhetoric of keeping taxes as low as possible (particularly corporation taxes), happily accepting tax breaks that directly benefitted them, and devoting considerable resources to minimising the amount of tax that they pay.

In the US, for example, very few corporates have ever stepped forward to advocate for the replacement of employment-based health insurance with a comprehensive national healthcare system – even though healthcare costs in the US are far higher than in other industrialised countries, which means that everybody suffers.

It’s a sad reflection on those in power over the last two or three decades that we should have needed a shock to the system as traumatic as the coronavirus crisis to be reminded of the consequences of neglecting public health in this way. In a world shaped so powerfully by a neoliberal view, the maximisation of profit has always taken precedence over maintaining public services and protecting ‘the common wealth’. Multinational companies have prospered accordingly, with many remaining apparently indifferent to the damage being done to the lives of countless individuals and their communities through the underfunding of public health.

By contrast, their combined leadership on racial inequality, worsening social mobility and inequality (including chronic health inequalities in life expectancy, long-term health conditions, non-communicable diseases, mental ill-health, access to health services and so on) has been – and still is – insignificant by comparison. And the fact that these things are seen as the primary responsibility of governments does not justify the corporate sector remaining disengaged – or simply going along with the status quo. It is on our collective watch that this has happened.

That has to change.

In the world of climate change, just transition to a net zero economy will need to put public health and an end to these chronic health inequalities at its very heart.

Intriguingly, we have an unprecedented opportunity to make a start on that right now, building back fairer, greener and cleaner, by eliminating the scourge of poor air quality, particularly in our towns and cities. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 100,000 US citizens die prematurely every year because of illness caused or complicated by polluted air. In the UK, it’s 40,000. In India and China, it’s much, much worse. And we now know that air pollution is inextricably linked with significantly higher death rates in people with COVID-19. .

All around the world, city mayors and municipalities are stepping up to reduce car dependency, promote cycling and walking, and improve public transport – from Milan, Lyon, Paris, Rome and London, to Bogata and Lima, to Boston, New York, Chattanooga and Portland – every week, there are more and more bold declarations. With a powerful emphasis on the need to improve public health.

This is not just something for the public domain to sort out. The private sector can do a huge amount to help drive this transformation, with a shared sense of urgency, promoting their own green (or ‘active’) travel plans and favouring suppliers prepared to do the same, incentivising employees and encouraging more flexible working arrangements to help reduce commuting, and actively promoting ‘micro-mobility’ through bike-share and e-scooter schemes.

This is not exactly revolutionary, but the combined impact of government, business and civil society working together to eliminate air pollution before the end of the decade would have a dramatic impact on people’s health – and indeed on public finances.

Healthy cities, healthy people, healthy planet – at long last, we seem to be waking up to the transformative power of thinking and acting in far more integrated ways. Last week, the World Health Organisation published its ‘Manifesto for a Healthy Recovery from COVID-19’, describing Nature as “the source of human health”.

And this just happens to be the topic of next week’s column from Sally Uren!