Roughly a year ago, on the eleventh of March, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic1, and the world has not been the same since. Prior to that – things were seemingly positive – many economies were on an upward trajectory, with markets that were pushing record heights, and consumer sentiment that was broadly positive. Now, after enduring immense social, political, and economic restrictions in response to the pandemic, optimism is starting to blossom again.2

When societies will be back in ‘full-bloom’ under the new normal is up for debate among leaders. In fact, according to KPMG’s CEO Outlook Pulse Survey, only a third of respondents are optimistic that will happen soon, with 32 percent expecting a return to normality later this year, while nearly half (46 percent) see a return to ‘normal’ sometime next year. More skeptically, one in five (22 percent) of CEOs don’t ever expect to return to a normal course of business, as their businesses and operations have changed permanently.

In my view, there’s reason to be cautiously optimistic. What have we observed and heard at KPMG as contributors to the positive sentiment? From the supply chain side, the world’s capacity has improved compared to the beginning of the pandemic – including increased access to PPE, a greater portfolio of approved vaccines, and the ramp-up of approval and manufacturing of rapid antigen tests to help everyone from border agencies to workplaces in re-opening with greater confidence. What have we observed as contributors to the skepticism? Growing public weariness of COVID-imposed public health restrictions, the emergence of new variants which are more deadly and transmissible, and the poor performance of global vaccine rollouts – in particular among low-and-middle-income countries. As was asserted in a World Economic Forum Davos Agenda session I attended – “no one’s safe until everyone’s safe”; and I agree with that – the quickest path to global recovery is vaccine equity. The longer we let inequity persist – it creates greater opportunity for variants to emerge, and more room for new local lock downs and thus economic disparity – threatening the epidemiological and geopolitical stability of the world.

While there’s reason to be impressed with the world’s fastest development and rollout of vaccines – we can still do better to provide access to vaccines for those that want them. And that’s a concern shared by the business community. Results from the KPMG CEO Outlook Pulse Survey reveal that more than half (55 percent) of business leaders are concerned that not all of their employees will have access to a COVID-19 vaccine, which could put certain markets and parts of companies’ operations and supply chains at a disadvantage. As corporate leaders generally have the responsibility to provide a safe and healthy workplace for their employees, these concerns are valid and significant.

There’s a multi-pronged approach that is emerging, to get closer to safe and healthy workplace conditions – namely increased rapid testing in parallel with increased vaccination and having this demonstrated and documented in a verifiable and trustworthy way. The re-opening of societies and communities can be fundamentally accelerated if we manage to create what some are calling a ‘digital green pass’ that documents evidence of one of three things: vaccination, recent testing, or recovery from COVID. The extent to which we manage to create cross-regional and cross-border compatibility between these green passes will determine the degree in which we can re-open whole regions and increase the size of 'safe bubble zones’. Also, in that aspect COVID-19 has taught us the importance of cross-border cooperation and coordination. Trust is the critical denominator in this issue. As we’ve seen with the EU Commission’s proposed Digital Green Certificate3, to the International Air Transport Association’s Travel Pass Initiative.4 These two examples alone illustrate the need for a unified, globally recognized way to be able to trust peoples’ health status.

To undertake that type of harmonized approach, it takes the efforts, trust, and capacity held only by governments. Through the pandemic, we’ve learned about the importance of public health, regulatory bodies, and political leadership in coordinating the response – and with re-opening economies, it is no different. According to the CEO Outlook, three quarters (76 percent) of CEOs see government direction as the nod they’re looking for to return to ‘normal’; beyond that, 61 percent of global executives say that they will also need to see a successful COVID-19 vaccine rollout in key markets (with over 50 percent of the population vaccinated) before taking any action toward returning staff to offices. This makes the case for solutions that are universally recognized, demonstrate trust and provide people comfort in that leaders are facilitating a safe workplace.

In this trust and comfort corporate leaders might face a dilemma. In healthcare, we know that data protection is paramount for the individual – accessing someone’s health information needs to be done securely and, on a need-to-know basis. In addressing data protection, organizations need to weigh the public perception, political, financial, and ethical risks. Understandably, the CEOs surveyed by KPMG say they want confidence in not only that their employees but their visitors (clients and customers) are safe too – 90 percent say they want to know whether their workforce has been vaccinated; a fifth of respondents even say that they will ask visitors and clients to disclose their vaccination status.

The resolution of this dilemma asks for a deliberate approach, and KPMG firms are helping governments and healthcare providers around the world to manage vaccines and develop programs that allow for the safe re-opening of economies. So, what if I was putting myself into the shoes of the corporate leaders who are trying to navigate this? I’d ask myself a few questions:

  • How do I fulfill my first duty – to create a safe and healthy work environment?
  • In the age of COVID, how can I find a trust-based way that people can return safely without putting colleagues and customers at risk? 
  • How do I build this process, so people don’t feel challenged, but instead trusted, engaged, and involved?

The above challenges aren’t small, nor are they the responsibility of a single CEO – it takes a concerted effort from government, healthcare providers, and employers to elevate the vaccination rollout and safe re-opening of societies. As much progress as we’ve made thus far, COVID-19 will have a long-tail, and we need to be flexible, agile, and proactive in anticipating challenges. As we work with clients on doing this, we are doing the same in the more than 150 countries and territories in which we operate. But we debate, navigate, and build solutions.

For CEOs and other business leaders, I think it’s important to keep in mind that we are also “dealers of hope” for the people we lead. This was a difficult year for all of us, but I approach my work every day armed with cautious optimism and hope you can too.

Footnotes:

1 World Health Organization. (2020 March 11). WHO Director-General's opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19 - 11 March 2020. https://www.who.int/director-general/speeches/detail/who-director-general-s-opening-remarks-at-the-media-briefing-on-covid-19---11-march-2020

2 Ipsos. (2021 March 17). Global consumer confidence getting closer to pre-pandemic level.
https://www.ipsos.com/en-ph/global-consumer-confidence-getting-closer-pre-pandemic-level

3 European Commission. (2021). COVID-19: Digital green certificates. https://ec.europa.eu/info/live-work-travel-eu/coronavirus-response/safe-covid-19-vaccines-europeans/covid-19-digital-green-certificates_en

4 International Air Transport Association. (2021). IATA Travel Pass Initiative.
https://www.iata.org/en/programs/passenger/travel-pass/

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