2021’s Top 10 Business Risks

Covid-19 Shines a Spotlight on Interconnected Risks

Insights from Aon The One Brief

With ransomware attacks filling the headlines and the Covid-19 pandemic pushing organisations to embrace remote working and online business models, cyber security has become a top-of-mind concern for many business leaders. It should come as no surprise, then, that cyber-attacks and data breaches rank first on the list of the top 10 risks in Aon’s 2021 Global Risk Management Survey.

Looking across the survey, the pandemic had a clear impact on the top concerns facing the top decision-makers Aon surveyed. Perhaps unsurprisingly, pandemic risk/health crises have moved into the top 10 for the first time to seventh place, up from 60th in Aon’s last biennial survey.

The 2021 Global Risk Management Survey drew online responses from 2 344 risk decision-makers from 16 industrial sectors, representing small, medium and large-sized companies across 60 countries. The report details the leading risks and provides guidance on addressing them.

TOP 10 RISKS

1. Cyber Attack/Data Breach

Respondents to our 2019 survey ranked cyber-attack/data breach in sixth place. Since then, they’ve come to see online attacks as an epidemic of their own.

Cyber criminals were quick to capitalise on the move to remote work and online business during the pandemic. For example, ransomware attacks grew dramatically, increasing 400 percent from the first quarter of 2018 to the fourth quarter of 2020, according to Aon’s 2021 Cyber Security Risk Report. The report suggests that business costs associated with ransomware attacks could reach $20 billion this year.

The spike in losses have pushed cyber insurers to increase their rates while reducing capacity. However, cyber insurance is just part of the solution to online attacks. Businesses must strive to keep pace with hackers and those initiating ransomware attacks, investing in cyber security and constantly assessing their potential exposures.

2. Business Interruption

Businesses around the world saw operations come to a screeching halt in early 2020 as governments imposed lockdowns and travel restrictions to combat the pandemic.

The experience — along with the increased reliance on technology and a connected world — changed the way many think about business interruption, recognising that such disruptions can be systemic and not just local events. That changed perspective drove business interruption’s jump to the second spot in this year’s ranking, up from fourth place in 2019.

As the business interruption threat evolves, organisations should strive to better understand how they might be affected by the changed threat. Then, they must build solutions to address the risk, including appropriate risk transfer and building resilience against the potential for more frequent extreme scenarios that could disrupt business.

3. Economic Slowdown

The global economy contracted 3.2 percent in 2020 due to the impact of the pandemic, and while a recovery is underway, troubling signs of volatility remain. The delta variant’s recent impact on economic activity shows that uncertainties still surround the world’s economies.

Economic Slowdown/Slow Recovery was the top risk in the 2019 survey, as business leaders eyed the possibility of an impending recession.

Faced with ongoing economic uncertainty, businesses should look for ways to maintain and increase revenue, control expenses and take steps to build resilient operations and workforces. A sound enterprise risk management programme can contribute to that resilience and help improve businesses’ competitiveness and agility.

4. Scarcity of Materials

The disruptions to manufacturing and consumer activity, along with transportation interruptions and port closures in the pandemic’s early days, led to scarcities of materials and commodities. Now, as businesses look to return to normal levels of activity, many commodity producers are unable to keep up with surging demand.

The result? Commodity Price Risk/Scarcity of Materials reached its highest level ever in our survey, up from seventh place in 2019. Meanwhile, as businesses wait for commodity supply to rebalance with demand, there is uncertainty about whether the global economy has experienced fundamental changes that will lead to permanent increases in the prices of some commodities and materials, fueling inflation.

In this risk environment, businesses will need to take such steps as implementing detailed cost tracking, examining various scenarios and taking advantage of risk analytics. Meanwhile, procurement departments should strive for agility and familiarise themselves with the full range of hedging opportunities.

5. Damage to Reputation/Brand

As the pandemic advanced, some observers suggested that it might offer a distraction from reputation-threatening events. A look at the negative fallout many businesses experienced in 2020 as a result of various events, mistakes and transgressions showed the reputation threat remained in full force.

Reputation and brand damage slipped a bit in this year’s ranking — down from second place in 2019 — but the threat is still significant. A joint Aon-Pentland Analytics study found that a major reputational crisis causes a company’s shareholders to lose an average of 26 percent of value at some point during the post-crisis year.

Given the impact of social media on the speed and spread of potential reputation-damaging news, businesses should identify their exposures and make addressing them part of their enterprise risk management programs. Scenario analysis and developing and testing response plans can also reduce the risk.

6. Legislative Changes

The global regulatory landscape for businesses grows ever more challenging. With governments around the world looking to increase their authority in such areas as public health, financial markets, climate change, taxation and technology, regulatory complexity will likely grow.

Faced with that regulatory environment, survey respondents moved regulatory and legislative changes up four spots in this year’s ranking, from 10th in 2019. As laws and regulations become both more far-reaching and detailed, the risk of non-compliance becomes more severe.

Regulatory risk should be an element of organisation’s enterprise risk management programs. Multinational organisations should develop integrated global compliance efforts that can respond quickly to the enforcement environments across various jurisdictions. And the compliance team should be involved at the product development, risk assessment and design stage to ensure compliance across various markets.

7. Health Crises

As they continue to address the broad and numerous impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, respondents to our 2021 survey clearly recognise the potential threat of pandemic risks and health crises. The peril made a massive leap in this year’s survey, finding a place in the top 10 after being ranked 60th in 2019.

The nature of the current crisis is testing business leaders in new ways. Both countries and businesses will be changed by this pandemic as consumer behaviours change, supply chains are reshaped, business models rewritten and expectations of governments shift.

For all organisations looking to deal with this risk, the pandemic has underscored the importance of four key components of resilience: leadership that provides a sense of reassurance and common purpose; accurate, honest and frequent communication; the use of available information to craft new business models, operating methods and communications channels, adjusting as needed; and the use of data to build agile and resilient workforces.

8. Supply Chain or Distribution Failure

Beyond the impact of the pandemic on supply chains, additional disruptions have resulted from climate change, natural catastrophes and even a container ship wedged in the Suez Canal. Among the results: risk decision makers moved Supply Chain or Distribution Failure into the Top 10 Risks in this year’s survey, from 12th place in 2019.

Other perils can also threaten supply chains, including cyber-attacks, political unrest, credit failure and product recalls. With consumers and governments increasing their focus on environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues, ESG risk could pose a future supply chain threat.

To lessen the impact of supply chain risks, businesses should take a holistic view of their supply chains. They should strive to understand the entire length of their supply chain and who touches what at each link on the chain. In many cases, data and sensor technology can provide insights into supply chains that were previously unavailable.

9. Increasing Competition

The risk of increased competition has long been a top 10 risk in Aon’s Global Risk Management Survey. While it slipped in this year’s ranking — down from fifth place in 2019 — that likely has more to do with respondents increasing concerns over other perils highlighted by the Covid-19 pandemic.

A number of factors can influence an organisation’s own competitive position. Its own comparative resilience, new competitors, changing consumer trends, technological advances, regulatory changes, economic trends and changing competitor strategies can all play a part.

Faced with the risk of increasing competition, organisations should identify all the factors that might result in loss of market share and take steps to address them. Having identified the areas that might affect its competitive position, a business can take steps to address those potential threats. Meanwhile, factoring those insights into the organisation’s enterprise risk management programme can contribute to increased resilience.

10. Failure to Innovate

Innovation is critical to future business success. One silver lining of the Covid-19 pandemic has been many organisations’ successful efforts to develop new products and services to address pandemic challenges — innovations that may play an important role in their businesses going forward.

Businesses clearly recognise the threat posed by a failure to innovate or keep up with customer needs. The risk has been part of the top 10 since 2011, ranking Number 9 in 2019.

Innovation involves taking a step into the unknown. Organisations must become more comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity, fundamental aspects of the innovation process. A lack of resilience, lagging digital capability or a failure to manage volatility can impair an organisation’s ability to innovate, underscoring the importance of effective and comprehensive enterprise risk management programs in helping organisations innovate successfully and anticipate and meet customer demand.

Succeeding in a World of Interconnected Risks

“The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated the interconnected nature of risk. Risk profiles have been and continue to be in a state of flux as businesses and economies emerge from the pandemic,” says Rory Moloney, COO of global enterprise clients at Aon. “As our survey shows, long-tail risks have become an important part of the risk landscape, with ripple effects already seen in heightened awareness of reputation and pandemic risk as well as cyber, which has magnified due to an accelerated reliance on technology, as well as impacts to global economics and trade as businesses all over the world went into unprecedented lockdowns.”

By highlighting the interconnectedness of a large number of risks, the Covid-19 pandemic has shown that preparing for each peril on its own is insufficient. In today’s global marketplace, a variety of perils can pose systemic threats and need to be assessed, managed and monitored in an integrated way at enterprise level.

Organisations that adopt that enterprise-level approach need to focus on three key priorities to support their decision making in managing risk: understanding new forms of volatility affecting their business, considering new capital alternatives that can support risk taking while preserving existing capital and building a resilient workforce and workplace in which employees are best prepared to address future challenges.

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How To Put It Back Together Again

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
Four-score Men and Four-score more,
Could not make Humpty Dumpty where he was before

Samuel Arnold Juveline Amusements, 1797[i]

BY LLEWELLYN VAN WYK, B. ARCH; MSC. (APPLIED), URBAN ANALYST

Humpty Dumpty is a character in an English nursery rhyme, probably originally a riddle and one of the best known in the English-speaking world. He is typically portrayed as an anthropomorphic egg, though he is not explicitly described as such. Its origins are obscure, and several theories have been advanced to suggest original meanings. I thought it particularly appropriate to describe the following article – what are the impacts on the global economy and how does it recover.

Impact and Response

Many commentators and economists are focusing on how governments go about rebuilding their national and city economies once the world has passed through what Christopher Joye calls the Global Virus Crisis (GVC).[ii] According to The Economist, policy response has generally been swift and decisive.[iii] Globally central banks have cut interest rates since January 2020 and have launched new and substantial quantitative-easing schemes (creating money to buy bonds) while politicians are opening the fiscal taps to support the economy.

In the US, America’s Congress passed a bill that boosts spending by twice as much as President Barack Obama’s package in 2009. Britain, France, and other countries have made credit guarantees worth as much as 15% of GDP, seeking to prevent a cascade of defaults. On the most conservative measure, the global stimulus from government spending this year will exceed 2% of global GDP, a much bigger push than was seen in 2007-09. Even Germany, whose fiscal rectitude is a cultural cliché, is spending more.[iv]

The analysts at The Economist caution though that to focus just on the quantitative changes misses something crucial, which is that there are important qualitative changes underway in how policymakers manage the economy—the responsibilities they have assumed for themselves, what is seen as a legitimate action, and what is not, and the criteria used to judge policy success or failure. On these measures, the analysts note, the world is in the early stages of a ‘revolution in economic policymaking’.

Central banks have in effect pledged to print as much money as necessary to keep down government-borrowing costs. The European Central Bank is promising to buy everything that governments might issue thereby reducing the gap in borrowing costs between weaker and stronger euro-zone members, which widened in the early days of the pandemic.

The analysts note that politicians, too, are ripping up the rulebook. In past recessions, enterprises could go bankrupt and people, too, become unemployed. Even in normal economic times, roughly 8% of businesses in OECD countries go under each year, while 10% or so of the workforce lose a job. Now governments hope to stop this from happening entirely. President Emmanuel Macron reflects the view of many when he vows that no firm will “face the risk of bankruptcy” because of the pandemic.

Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, contrasts his government’s response with the one during the last financial crisis: “Everybody said we bailed out the banks and we didn’t look after the people who really suffered”. Larry Kudlow, the director of America’s National Economic Council, calls America’s fiscal stimulus “the single largest Main Street assistance programme in the history of the United States,” comparing it favourably with Wall Street bailouts a decade ago.

To that end the analysts note that governments across the rich world are channelling vast sums to firms, providing them with grants and cheap loans to preserve jobs and keep their doors open. In some cases, the government is paying the wages of people who cannot work safely: the EU has embraced this policy, while the British state will pay up to 80% of the wages of furloughed workers. The American package includes loans to small businesses that will be forgiven if workers are not laid off. Households across the rich world are being given temporary relief on mortgages, other debts, rent and utility bills. In America, people will also be sent cheques worth up to $1 200.

Most economists support these measures. Nominally they are temporary, designed to hold the economy in an induced coma until the pandemic passes, at which point the world is supposed to revert to the status quo ante. But history suggests that a return to pre-Covid-19 days is unlikely.

Two lessons stand out:

1. Governmental control over the economy takes a large step-up during periods of crisis.

2. The forces encouraging governments to retain and expand economic control are stronger than the forces encouraging them to relinquish it, meaning that a “temporary” expansion of state power tends to become permanent.5

Road to Recovery

The extent of the economic damage and the time it will take for the economy to recover is subject to a high degree of speculation, and new models have been created to project a recovery trajectory. For example, the recovery can be V-shaped (after the downward fall the recovery will follow a straight line back to the original growth trajectory); U-shaped recovery (like V-shaped but with a longer turnaround period); VU shaped recovery (an initial pop, or sugar hit (the V), which is then superseded by a second, much slower growth phase (the U) due to a huge increase in debt repayment burdens and big creative destruction-induced output gaps (or excess productive capacity) as the virus forces the global economy to effectively rewire itself); Z-shaped (recovery follows the V-shaped trajectory but overshoots the original trajectory due to pent-up demand before falling back to the original trajectory); W-shaped (recovery begins buts fall back before climbing back up again); and L-shaped (growth recovers but ends up lower than that of the pre-C-19 economic growth).

In a survey of 106 economists and real estate experts conducted by Pulsenomics and Zillow, 41% of panellists expect the US recovery to follow a “U” shape, with the recession lasting several quarters before returning to growth.[vi] This prediction is in line with how the experts expect the US economy to recover overall. Forty-one percent said they think the economic recovery will follow a “U” shape, and 33% say it will be a bumpy, multi-year return to trend growth. Both patterns are characterised first by a sharp decline and then match how experts see transaction volume recovering, with the consensus generally being a more gradual journey back to normal.

Whatever the final shape may turn out to be, Eswar Prasad and Ethan Wu, writing for the Brookings Institution, warns, “The world economy is on the precipice of its worst crisis since World War II. As the newly updated Brookings-FT TIGER (Tracking Indexes for the Global Economic Recovery) makes clear, economic activity, financial markets, and private-sector confidence are all cratering. And if international cooperation remains at its current level, a far more severe collapse is yet to come.”[vii]

A wide variety of economic and survey data suggest that the economy will recover slowly even after the government begins to ease limits on public gatherings and allow certain shuttered restaurants and shops to reopen. Many economists and business owners say there will be no rapid economic rebound until people feel confident that their risks of contracting the coronavirus have fallen, either through widespread testing or a vaccine.[viii]

Prasad and Wu argue that while the current extraordinarily sharp downturn could prove to be relatively brief, with economic activity snapping back to previous levels once the Covid-19 contagion curve is flattened, there is good reason to worry that the world economy is heading into a deep, protracted recession. In their view, much will depend on the pandemic’s trajectory and whether policymakers’ responses are sufficient to contain the damage while rebuilding consumer and business confidence. They do not believe that a rapid recovery is likely due to ravaged demand, extensive disruptions to manufacturing supply chains, and a financial crisis already underway.

They, like many other commentators, draw a distinction between the 2008-09 crash, and Covid-19. Unlike the 2008-09 crash, which was triggered by liquidity shortages in financial markets, they point out that the Covid-19 crisis involves fundamental solvency issues for firms and industries well beyond the financial sector. In addition, they note, the current shock is simultaneous and universal. During and immediately following the 2008 crisis, some emerging markets, not least China, and India, continued to register strong growth, pulling the rest of the world economy along. But this time, no economy is immune, and no country will be able to lead an export-driven recovery.

Today’s collapse has increased deflationary and financial risks in the advanced economies and struck a significant blow to commodity exporters.

On top of it all, oil prices are plunging even more than they otherwise would, due in large part to Saudi Arabia and Russia flooding the market. In their view all told, the economic and financial carnage wrought by the coronavirus could leave deep, lasting scars on the global economy. While they recognise that central banks are stepping up to the challenge, they point out that central banks cannot offset the fall in consumer demand or stimulate investment by themselves. With both conventional and unconventional monetary-policy tools already stretched to the limit, fiscal policymakers will have to do more.

They suggest that well-targeted fiscal measures can soften the blow to consumers and businesses—especially small and medium-sized enterprises, which typically have minimal financial buffers—thereby helping to sustain employment and demand. In these desperate times, such measures should be fully embraced by all governments that currently benefit from low borrowing costs, even if they already have high levels of public debt.

They also emphasise that low- and middle-income countries that have inadequate health systems will need substantial support from the international community, potentially including concessionary debt relief.

But there is an elephant in the room: unfortunately, the world’s inability so far to forge a common front attests to the erosion of international cooperation, which is further damaging business and consumer confidence. They too, like many other commentators, call for this to change.

The world urgently needs honest and transparent information-sharing by national leaders, coupled with aggressive steps to contain the pandemic, extensive stimulus to mitigate the economic fallout, and a carefully calibrated strategy to restart economic activity as soon as it is safe to do so.

Christopher Joye agrees with the sentiments expressed by Prasad and Wu. Joye sees the global economy being burdened by a great deal more public and private debt because of the enormous fiscal policy responses that will need to be serviced through tax revenue and corporate/household earnings. This he argues will drag on future global growth after the initial pop in activity as businesses restart and the working-age population gets back into their day jobs.

On the matter of whether this precipitates a sovereign debt crisis, he believes that ultimately the central banks can cauterise this problem by continuing to do what they are currently doing: i.e., funding their domestic treasuries by buying government bonds via quantitative easing (QE).

After all, he notes central banks were originally created to fund governments during times of war (that term again), and that is arguably where the world finds itself now in terms of response.

On the question of inflationary shock, he expects the deflationary impulse of the GVC via the huge sudden increase in labour supply to overwhelm the inflationary impulse of the crisis over the short-to-medium term (in the next year or two) noting that the near-term inflation pressures obviously come through supply-chain rigidities as labour is taken temporarily offline.

He foresees a key consequence of the GVC as compelling much greater internalisation of supply-chains, especially those that service critical infrastructure and security-sensitive goods and services. In terms of changes, it is suggested that the GVC will result in permanent economic damage akin to a form of creative destruction where the virus kills off weak companies as well as unproductive employees. This he suggests is because many businesses will come back looking different, shedding low-quality workers, and closing unprofitable activities/subsidiaries.

Some industries will be permanently changed in both positive and negative ways, for example, entire communities are being forced to get much more comfortable with online shopping and the associated delivery process, reducing at the margin the demand for traditional retailing.

The cinema industry will be irreversibly damaged as consumption shifts away from theatres to on-demand digital platforms like Apple and Netflix, which will, in turn, allow these distributors to capture more of the value-chain in the same way Amazon did with bricks and mortar retailing. The commercial property sector is also likely to feel this change as there is a possibility of a permanent decrease in the demand for both office and retail space. Many companies may conclude they can save overhead by remaining disaggregated (not renting office space). This will result in a decline in the value of commercial properties, and the risk associated with commercial property debt could increase sharply.

Commercial property lenders’ LVRs might suddenly jump because of this. Indeed, he argues that a lot of distress in commercial property debt portfolios can be expected over the next 12 months.

The embedding of Zoom, or cheap video conference technology may dissipate the value of face-to-face meetings and result in a permanent decrease in the demand for expensive business-related travel and accommodation, adversely impacting airlines and hotels, as companies seek to enhance their operating efficiencies.

Creative destruction

All this creative destruction could result in unemployment rates not returning any time soon to their pre-GVC levels which will, in turn, place downward pressure on wages. Ultimately, he concludes that this will result in a battle between the shock of the new – a virus that derails life as we knew it – and the opportunities presented by the gigantic stimulus afforded by fiscal and monetary policy.[ix]

Some commentators are not as pessimistic: Paul Krugman, one of the world’s most influential economists and 2008 Nobel prize winner, is pretty upbeat about the economy. In a Q&A session with Noah Smith from Bloomberg, he suggests that even though this crisis is different from anything seen before, there is a rather good handle on the economics. In particular, he argues, enough is known to understand why conventional responses like stimulus or tax cuts are inappropriate, and why we should be focusing on safety-net issues.

On the issue of duration, Krugman argues that data would suggest a fast recovery once the virus is contained. But he provides some big caveats. One is that the duration of the pandemic is not known: if countries open too soon, it will extend the period of economic weakness. The second is that even if there were not big imbalances before, the slump may be creating them now. Business closures will require time to reverse. He also wonders how much long-term change will be experienced because of the virus. If there is a permanent shift to more telecommuting and less in-person retail, then there will be a shift of workers to new sectors, which will take time. All that said, he does not see the case for a multi-year depression.[x]

Analysts at The Economist believe that some economies will suffer much more than others because economic crises expose and exacerbate underlying structural weaknesses.

They argue that three factors should help separate the bad economic outcomes from the dire ones:

1. a country’s industrial structure; the composition of its corporate sector; and the effectiveness of its fiscal stimulus. Regarding the first, those countries that depend on labour-intensive activities will be harder hit. This includes countries reliant on their construction and tourism sectors. Conversely, those industrial structures that enable more people to work from home should not be hit as hard.

2. Economies with a large share of small firms are likely to be hit harder because smaller enterprises tend to have few if any cash buffers, making it difficult for them to survive a drop in revenues.

3. The ability of the country to roll out large stimulus packages. Some countries have provided significant packages while others, especially those with high debt levels, are more constrained. The design of the stimulus also plays a part: some countries are providing support directly to households while others are subsidising wages.

Post-C19 Economic Structural Reforms

Analysts do not generally support government pledges to protect jobs as it prevents workers from moving from failing sectors to new emerging ones, thereby slowing the recovery. If the lockdown ends early some economies will be able to resume production quickly.[xi]

A huge question remains however: what will be the lasting effects of Covid-19? Every day, in ways small and large, the spread of the coronavirus is reshaping politics.

John Cassidy, in a piece in Bloomberg.

As the death toll rises and the economic fallout spreads, he argues that measures once considered unthinkable are being adopted, and not just in the public-health sphere.

Analysts from The Economist believe that the size of the state will alter. In the short term, they foresee government debt rising sharply as spending jumps and tax revenues collapse. Thereafter, government attention will turn to repaying the debt.

They also see central banks’ innovations having lasting consequences. They, as do many other economists, do not see inflation rising any time soon, but do have a concern about deflation especially as central banks are pressured into lowering interest rates to zero to support government borrowing.

Then they see the possibility that this novel idea that the government needs to preserve firms, jobs, and workers’ incomes at practically any cost may become embedded in government, especially if the intervention proves successful in narrow terms. Although the policy may formally end once the pandemic has passed, political pressure for similar support schemes—from the nationalisation of tottering firms to the provision of a universal basic income—may well be higher the next time a sharp downturn comes along. If politicians can preserve jobs and incomes during this crisis, many people will see little reason why they should not try again in the next one.

In the same vein, they see calls for a more activist fiscal-monetary government coming against a backdrop of structurally higher demand for state spending. The public sector tends to provide labour-intensive services in which productivity improvements are difficult, such as healthcare and education, yet it must match the salaries of workers in other sectors to retain its own, even as they become less productive relative to the overall economy—a phenomenon which raises the cost of provision. Governments focus on social support during C-19 might raise expectations that it is the new normal, especially in the health sector. In the US, net support for Medicare for All—those who support it minus those who oppose it—has risen by nine points.[xii]

In another significant development, the mass layoffs that have resulted from the pandemic have also laid bare the iniquities of the gig economy, in which Uber drivers and other online-platform workers, temp-agency workers, and a whole variety of freelancers do not have access to health insurance, sick leave, or unemployment insurance. During an appearance on CNBC, the investor James Chanos said he was selling short the stocks of gig-economy companies because their business model, which is based on classifying workers as self-employed to avoid giving them costly benefits, is likely to be challenged by both political parties.

The Economist’s analysts believe that the likely economic effects of the pandemic reach far beyond the role of the state. Countries could become even less welcoming to immigrants based on an argument that it will reduce any likelihood of infection from foreign arrivals.

Using the same logic, resistance to the development of dense urban centres could mount, thereby limiting the construction of new housing and rising costs. More countries may seek to become self-sufficient in the production of strategic commodities such as medicines, medical equipment, and even toilet paper, contributing to a further rollback of globalisation. However, they argue that the redefined role of the state could prove to be the most significant shift noting that the rules of the game have been moving in one direction for centuries.

Their conclusion: another radical change is looming.[xiii]

Trend transformation

Scholars from the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program on the other hand believe that a major transformation is unlikely and point out instead that the Covid-19 crisis seems poised to accelerate or intensify many economic and metropolitan trends that were already underway, with huge implications of their own.[xiv]

One of those trends they foresee is automation. Mark Muro, one of the scholars, notes that while automation in the workplace has been spreading over the last decade, it will likely surge in the coming years because as firms’ revenues decline, workers become relatively more expensive. In this case, Covid-19 won’t so much change the automation trend as amplify it, increasing the vulnerability of young people, people of colour, and those with less education and further dislocating jobs in food service or cashiers as they become automated.

Another trend they ponder is whether the trauma of social distancing and the rise of telework will finally empty out the ‘superstar’ cities and lead to a decentralisation of the nation’s hyper centralised urban map. They believe this might happen.

Then there is the continuance of Big Tech itself: while it seems natural to assume that virtually every industry will be humbled by Covid-19, they think it is likely that the big tech titans—Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Apple, Netflix, etc.—will emerge from the crisis stronger than ever.

These titans previously captured dominant market shares in the decade following the last recession and are likely to further capitalise as stay-at-home workers rely on their remote work tools, video calling, e-commerce, and video streaming. They point out that these giants are sitting on huge piles of cash and will be ready to snap up any choice tech or other properties that stumble.

Tracy Hadden Liu, another team member, argues that retailers, their landlords, and suppliers were already responding to multiple industry-wide trends before the coronavirus struck, including tariffs, a shift in consumer demand from products to experiences, e-commerce, and the sharing economy. The resulting strains that were already motivating these players to innovate or exit are simply accelerating the need to be creative and embrace new models to deal with the disruption arising from the pandemic.

In the property market, it is suggested that a 10-year commercial lease in a single-use building will no longer be standard: seasonal retailers were already experimenting outside of the big box, including markets and pop-ups in flexible spaces.

So were office tenants through WeWork and other co-working spaces. In addition to new formats and lease terms, profit-sharing leases will become an increasingly important tool to help new businesses get started, survive slowdowns, and provide a return to landlords who invest in their tenants’ success.

In the food sector, convergence and hybridisation will accelerate in food retail, which will return to be a revitalising force in urban life. Liu points out that IKEA was already a furniture showroom, warehouse, and restaurant. High-end grocers were encouraging shoppers to have a beer prior to the outbreak of the pandemic.

Restaurants were increasingly not just dine-in, but fast-casual or mobile food trucks. Whether through app-based delivery or prepared food from wholesalers’ people will return to eating much of their food prepared outside the home. In 2017, jobs in leisure and hospitality (which includes all bars and restaurants) grew to outnumber jobs in retail trade.

Liu believes that for commercial real estate and local governments, food retail will continue to grow in importance. Restaurants, in whatever format, will continue to be a growing share of tenants and sales tax generators as other storefronts are impacted by tariffs and e-commerce oligopolies. And the more people eat out, the more proximity to food retail will shape office and residential tenant demand, as well as home sales. Her summation: the pandemic is a setback, but not a reset.

Another pre-Covid trend raised is the housing crisis. Martha Ross and Jenny Schuetz, two members of the team, note that in the best of times—for example, when unemployment is below 4%— tens of millions of workers still earn barely enough to live on, meaning that basic costs like housing were already a stretch for these and other workers. More than 75% of low-wage workers are ‘housing-cost burdened,’ i.e., they spend more than 30% of their income on rent. The typical low-income renter household spends more than half of its income on rent.

In the Covid-19 era—with mass layoffs in hospitality, retail, and entertainment—earnings have simply disappeared for millions of workers and many households that previously strained to pay rent will now find it impossible.

People commonly reduce housing costs by “doubling-up” with family or moving into lower-quality housing. Given the thin financial reserves held by renter households, many people will be forced into one of these options. Notwithstanding a halt on evictions in some countries, stronger and more direct financial assistance will be required for households. While the housing affordability crisis predates the current health crisis, it will worsen in the short run if governments are slow to respond.

Inequality increases among older Americans is another trend identified by Annelies Goger and Nicole Bateman. They note that 40% of workers over age 62 earn low wages. Covid-19 is likely to have eroded savings across the board which means that many older workers may have to stay in their job out of necessity. It is possible that labour outcomes could worsen for older workers who lose their jobs in the sense that it will take much longer for them to find another job, and generally that will come with a pay cut too.

Covid-19 will accelerate yet another trend namely the declines in microbusiness employment. Microbusinesses with under four employees are only half as likely to add jobs as larger businesses already. Recent statistics demonstrate how microbusinesses have been on the losing end of long-run structural shifts in the US. The team estimates that about 2.9-million microbusinesses are in industries at immediate or near-term risk from Covid-19. How many of those microbusinesses survive will depend, they think, on the duration of social distancing measures and the success of countervailing policies. They do stress that without a robust policy response to not only mitigate small business damage in the immediate term but also support entrepreneurship more robustly in the recovery, the pandemic will accelerate the structural decline in microbusiness employment.

Humpty Dumpty Economies

At a more fundamental level, Kallis G., Paulson, S., D’Alisa, G., and Demaria, F. argue that the pandemic has laid bare the fragility of existing economic systems, and what will be required to become more resilient to crises – pandemic, climatic, financial, or political – is to build systems capable of scaling back production in ways that do not cause loss of livelihood or life: “We need degrowth” they suggest. Their argument is based on the observation that current economic systems are organised around the constant circulation, where any decline in market activity threatens systemic collapse, provoking generalised unemployment and impoverishment.

While they point to commentaries made by publications such as Forbes, the Financial Times and the Spectator who have been quick to claim that the pandemic has revealed the ‘misery of degrowth’, they argue that what is happening is not degrowth, but purposefully slowing things down in order to minimise harm to humans and earth systems and to reduce exploitation. In their view, degrowth is a project of living meaningfully, enjoying simple pleasures, communing, sharing, and relating more with others, and working less, in more equal societies.[xv] 

New Green Deal

There is widespread support for the recovery spend to be used to simultaneously address the other elephant in the room – climate change. Many argue that the pandemic must not be a reason to weaken the commitments to net-zero emissions. In fact, the argument is made that climate action is vital protection against further global shocks, especially as governments plan their post-pandemic stimulus packages.

It will be tempting for some governments to overlook the climate change challenge in the rush to restart the economy. Anna Skarbek cautions that some governments are already eyeing the fossil fuel sector as a beneficiary of any post-Covid-19 stimulus. Not all governments have responded to a rising chorus of voices demanding a green economic recovery.

The International Monetary Fund has been tracking national stimulus and economic recovery plans. So far, only a handful of them directly targets climate change, the IMF reports. On the contrary, some spending is headed in the opposite direction through government fuel subsidies and other fossil fuel-friendly measures. The IMF’s Covid-19 recovery tracker notes a lot of global spending on electricity cost relief. Other measures the IMF has noted include fuel price discounts for aviation. Some governments are buying fuel for their fishing fleets, while others are extending economywide fuel subsidies instead of eliminating them as the United Nations’ top leadership has called for.[xvi] The energy minister in Australia is flagging gas-fired power to stimulate the economy.[xvii]

There is particular concern over how China will design an overall economic recovery plan. Following the global financial crisis of a decade ago, Beijing launched a massive round of infrastructure spending that saw its greenhouse gas emissions soar to new heights. China is now by far the world’s largest producer of heat-trapping emissions. In a recent study published in the journal Nature Sustainability, scholars in Malaysia and Australia expressed concern over China’s vaunted Belt and Road Initiative, noting that Beijing has already directed nearly $575-billion overseas in efforts often aligned against sustainability objectives. They see more to come and are urging receiving nations and financing arms to put restrictions on the funding to ensure greater protections for biodiversity and other “indicators of environmental governance,” according to the research team, led by University of Queensland professor Divya Narain.[xviii]

For many countries, the lockdown response to Covid-19 has presented a horrific binary choice: economy at the expense of climate change, or climate change at the expense of the economy.

The socio-economic devastation the virus has inflicted is a reminder of our systemic vulnerability, and the importance of prevention and mitigation. As Anna Skarbek stresses, Covid-19 provides fresh evidence of the scale of economic shock the world faces if it fails to meet the targets of the Paris Agreement.

In a major study published in Nature Communications last month the dollar value put on the cost of climate inaction was between US$150-trillion and US$792-rillion by 2100 making the global shock even more financially catastrophic than coronavirus.[xix]

Fortunately, there is a third way out of this binary choice: Don Hall posts that one of the most hopeful things he has stumbled across since this crisis began is A Green Stimulus to Rebuild Our Economy: An Open Letter and Call to Action for Members of Congress which was published by a team of 11 prominent academics, scientists, policy experts, and non-profit advocates. More than 1 800 individuals and organisations signed on within the first nine days of its release.

The overall approach of the Green Stimulus Letter is based on five main principles namely:

1) health as the top priority for everyone

2) providing economic relief to directly to people

3) rescue workers and communities, not corporate executives

4) make a down payment on a regenerative economy while preventing future crisis

5) protect the democratic process while protecting each other

These five principles are supported by four key strategies:

1) create millions of new family sustaining, career-track green jobs

2) deliver strategic investments like green housing retrofits, rooftop solar installation, electric bus deployment, rural broadband development, and other forms of economic diversification to lift up and collaborate with frontline communities

3) expand public and employee ownership

4) make rapid cuts to carbon pollution[xx]

The research published in Nature Communications also points out that limiting global warming to 1.5°C would deliver a corresponding boost, with the global economy growing by US$616 trillion compared to inaction. Skarbek notes that research undertaken at Oxford University by Nobel-prize winner Joseph Stiglitz and climate economist Nicholas Stern concluded that climate mitigation actions deliver maximum economic growth multiplier benefits from a stimulus perspective.

The study catalogues more than 700 stimulus policies and makes comparisons with the global financial crisis of 2008. In the study they compared green stimulus projects with traditional stimuli, such as measures taken after the 2008 global financial crisis, and found green projects created more jobs, delivered higher short-term returns per pound spent by the government, and lead to increased long-term cost savings. Clean energy infrastructure construction is one example, generating twice as many jobs per pound of government expenditure as fossil fuel projects around the world. Others include expanding broadband so more people can work from home.[xxi] Stern also warned that stimulating new jobs in heavily emitting sectors was short-sighted. “The jobs of the past are insecure jobs,” he said. “[To create future jobs] we need the right kind of finance in the right place at the right scale at the right price.”

Net-Zero Zero-Net future

The strategic targeting of stimulus funds is therefore critical: the greatest risk to a systemic change in consumption and production patterns is for governments to occur increasing debt through spending trillions of dollars on propping up business, as usual, leaving no economic capacity to invest in building resilient local communities and moving toward a low-carbon future.

Researchers from the University of Oxford, the London School of Economics and Political Science, Columbia University, and the University of Cambridge, undertook a survey of 231 central bank officials, finance ministry officials, and other economic experts from G20 countries on the relative performance of 25 major fiscal recovery archetypes across four dimensions: speed of implementation, economic multiplier, climate impact potential, and overall desirability. Their study identified five policies with high potential on both economic multiplier and climate metrics: clean physical infrastructure, building efficiency retrofits, investment in education and training, natural capital investment, and clean R&D.

To monitor the stimulus spend, a team of researchers from Johns Hopkins University has set out to measure what percentage of the billions of dollars that world governments are spending on the recovery might result in lasting reductions of greenhouse gas emissions. They note that studies of the impacts of past economic downturns, such as the recession of 2007 to 2009, provide scant information on what percentage of the recovery money spent delivered long-term benefits to the climate. Estimates of the 2009 recession show that somewhere between 5% and 16% had impacts on climate change-related issues.

They caution that information from the aftermath of earlier recessions shows that typically rebounds have more than offset greenhouse gas reductions from the recessions themselves and quickly surpass what might have been saved if it is not done well.[xxii]

There is precedent from targeted directing of public funds that have worked in the past: President Obama was able to introduce a stimulus package stacked with incentives for green investment and tougher environmental regulation after the economic crash of 2008.

A post-pandemic economic reconstruction based on restructuring the energy map makes sense.

Enrique Dans

But for the Covid-19 event, signs thus far are mixed. The $2.2-trillion stimulus package agreed by the US Congress may have avoided sinking taxpayers’ dollars into a rescue plan for the country’s struggling coal industry, but it also failed to make any environmental requirements on those industries, such as the aviation industry, that were bailed out. Congress members have argued that in this case the holding up a desperately needed economic-rescue package in the name of climate action was an untenable proposition. However, care must be taken to avoid using that argument again.

The renewable energy sector is one of the sectors favoured by many commentators as a prime vehicle for stimulating the economic recovery while also mitigating climate change.

One of the concerns about RE in the past was its ability to carry the electricity mix, but as Tom Andrews, a senior analyst at Cornwall Insight notes, while the generation balance is likely to return to normal as countries come off lockdown, this has demonstrated that managing a grid with high renewable penetration is feasible. This may therefore become the new normal as more renewable generation is deployed across Europe.

Renewable energy is also supported by the International Energy Agency (IEA) who, in their Global Energy Review report, supported the view that renewables are the only power generation source that is experiencing rising demand and penetration amid the slump in energy demand brought on by Covid-19 industrial shutdowns. Due to priority dispatch for renewables and lower operating costs, the IEA expects solar, wind, and hydropower to experience uplift during the public health crisis and subsequent economic recovery.[xxiii]

In a policy brief for policymakers, the IEA presents four strategic considerations:

  1. Energy efficiency actions can support the goals of economic stimulus programmes by supporting existing workforces and creating new jobs, boosting economic activity in key labour-intensive sectors, and delivering longer-term benefits such as increased competitiveness, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, improved energy affordability and lower bills.

2. Governments can deliver stimulus at scale and speed by leveraging existing programmes and standardising designs, eligibility criteria and contracts; choosing shovel-ready options for retrofits and technology upgrades, and considering how energy efficiency can be built into all government stimulus programmes.

3. Important market considerations include aiming for high energy efficiency without constraining programme delivery; setting sufficiently attractive incentives to deliver high uptake without significantly increasing program costs and risks; considering the capacity of suppliers to scale up rapidly while maintaining quality and safety of products and services; and considering the consumer motivations and demand for products and services.

4. Government can facilitate better outcomes from large-scale investment programmes by addressing unnecessary regulatory barriers; turning short-term impacts into long-term transformations by raising energy efficiency standards; and considering the resource efficiency impacts and recycling sector opportunities as part of programme design.[xxiv] It is argued that apart from the climate change benefits, solar and energy storage in particular offer swift, job-intensive opportunities for growth, with average ground-mount sites able to be built in a few months and rooftop installations often taking only a day or two.

The EU’s C-19 recovery plan aims to do just that: their €750 billion ($825 billion) recovery package for the coronavirus pandemic includes plans to address the other global crisis, climate change. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen views the proposal as a vehicle to steer the continent toward carbon neutrality by 2050, a critical deadline if the world is to avoid the worst effects of global warming. The EU plan calls for investments in clean technologies and value chains and for increasing investments in renewable energy, energy storage, hydrogen, and carbon capture as well as storage technologies. Funds under the plan would be directed toward installing 1-million EV chargers. It also proposes a renovation wave of basic infrastructure investments to create millions of jobs in construction, renovation, and other labour-intensive industries.

Most of the EU’s plan would be paid for via debt raised in capital markets, loans with very long-term maturities, by new taxes, including taxes on carbon emissions, a new carbon border adjustment mechanism, and taxes on big companies that benefit most from the single market. [xxv]

France also announced an €8 billion bailout of its automotive industry. However, the French plan is to boost domestic production of electric vehicles and see France emerge, as President Emmanuel Macron put it, “As the leading producer of clean vehicles in Europe.” The subsidy plans include exceptional support measures to help consumers purchase battery hybrid and all-electric vehicles.[xxvi]

South Korea ― the world’s seventh-largest source of planet-heating carbon dioxide ― too has set course to become the first East Asian country to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. The ruling party named its official climate manifesto the Green New Deal, becoming the biggest emitter yet to endorse moving toward the kind of industrial planning and social safety net expansion rarely seen outside of wartime. South Korea’s proposal includes ending public institutions’ financing of domestic and overseas coal projects, establishing a new program to retrain workers for green jobs, and making large-scale investments in wind and solar energy. The plan also pledges to research and consider a carbon tax.[xxvii]

As Enrique Dans put it, a post-pandemic economic reconstruction based on restructuring the energy map makes sense. We know we must do it, and we know the reason we haven’t done it so far is because it challenges the interests of a powerful few. The time has come to abandon outdated concepts, to change our mindset, and to put the use of renewables at the top of our list of priorities.[xxviii]

Some concern has however been expressed that a lack of a gender lens when designing the stimulus packages generally has favoured sectors dominated by men. In New Zealand, the Ministry for Women warned its minister that the stimulus package risked further exacerbating gender inequalities, particularly for wahine Maori, Pasifika, disabled and rural women. This is a likely unintended consequence of favouring infrastructure projects, a sector traditionally dominated by the male workforce. The ministry noted that women were just 14.4% of the construction workforce, and 24.5% of the electricity, gas, water, and waste services.[xxix]

Other industries such as retail, tourism and hospitality – also hard hit by the shutdown – employ high numbers of women. Johnston makes the argument that investing in social infrastructure such as health, caring, and education would create more jobs than the same investment in construction. It is argued that the absence of a gender lens is reflective of budgets being prepared without investigating ‘who” would benefit from the investment.

Cities are also responding to the opportunity. Amsterdam is pursuing a unique approach by adopting the so-called ‘doughnut approach’ developed by British economist Kate Raworth from Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute. This model forgoes the global attachment to economic growth and laws of supply and demand in favour of a set of minimum needs required to lead a good life as encapsulated in the UN’s sustainable development goals which include food and clean water to a certain level of housing, sanitation, energy, education, healthcare, gender equality, income, and political voice.

The model defines an outer boundary that represents the boundaries across which humanity should not go to avoid damaging the climate, soils, oceans, the ozone layer, freshwater and abundant biodiversity. What is critical about the approach Amsterdam is following is the desire to “not fall back on easy mechanisms” as Marieke van Doorninck, the deputy mayor of Amsterdam, put it.[xxx]

Raworth puts it more succinctly’ “The central premise is simple: the goal of economic activity should be about meeting the core needs of all but within the means of the planet. The “doughnut” is a device to show what this means in practice.”[xxxi]She explains, “The world is experiencing a series of shocks and surprise impacts which are enabling us to shift away from the idea of growth to ‘thriving’.” This approach, she argues, recognises that our wellbeing lies in balance, and this is the moment we are going to connect bodily health to planetary health.

In the private sector, Covid-19 appears likely to reshape sustainable investing in part, because in the aftermath of the pandemic more focus will be placed on social factors, such as health and safety, and the treatment of staff. Some asset managers think that the pandemic will become an environmental, social, and governance (ESG) litmus test. They envision interrogating firms about their actions during the crisis to gauge the businesses’ sustainability credentials.

The pandemic may also help to focus the minds of private sector investors on other threats such as the impact of climate change. Few investors or companies took the risk of a pandemic seriously at the start of the year, and the threat of devastating floods or once-a-century storms often get a similar treatment, but C-19 may just change that.

Our wellbeing lies in balance, and this is the moment we are going to connect bodily health to planetary health.

And encouragingly a remarkable list of business leaders is adding their names to a call for stimulus funding to be invested in what they refer to as “the economy of the future.”[xxxii] Chief executives, chairs and senior executives from major organisations are urging for massive investments in renewable power systems, a boost for green infrastructure and buildings, targeted support for low-carbon activities, and other similar measures.

In Europe, this call is aimed at making the European Union the ‘world’s first climate-neutral continent’ by 2050. In Australia, a leading business group is calling for the two biggest economic challenges in memory – recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic and cutting greenhouse gas emissions – to be addressed together, saying it would boost growth and put the country on a firm long-term footing. This group is among a band of community leaders and industry groups urging governments to back climate solutions in the pandemic recovery rather than projects that entrench or increase emissions. The Investor Agenda, a global group of institutional investors and managers in a statement said governments should avoid prioritising “risky, short-term emissions-intensive projects”, and that accelerating the shift to net-zero emissions could create significant employment and economic growth while improving energy security and clean air. As they put it, “The path we choose in the coming months will have significant ramifications for our global economy and generations to come.”[xxxiii]

The Australian business group has identified a number of opportunities including improving energy management in homes and buildings by plugging drafts, modernising equipment and backing local electricity generation and storage; boosting electricity networks by rolling out smart meters and moving edge-of-grid customers onto mini-grids; helping shift heavy industry to run on clean electricity and hydrogen, and supporting large and small energy storage. On transport, the group said it was an excellent time to prepare cities and major corridors for mass take-up of electric vehicles by installing or preparing charging points at service stations, in public and government car parks, and at apartment blocks. They suggest governments would have different preferences on whether to use regulatory reform, tax incentives, grants, or other approaches but, using the example of electricity, urged government to settle on a sound long-term design for market rules and climate policy could do as much to boost investment as direct public financial support.

The public too is wanting to use this moment to recalibrate the structure of the economy. Polls taken in the United Kingdom finds that most Britons want quality of life indicators to take priority over the economy. As reported by Fiona Harvey, a YouGov poll has found eight out of 10 people would prefer the government to prioritise health and wellbeing over economic growth during the coronavirus crisis, and six in 10 would still want the government to pursue health and wellbeing ahead of growth after the pandemic has subsided, though nearly a third would prioritise the economy instead at that point.

The finding comes as millions of people face economic hardship because of coronavirus and the lockdown, while some measures of the quality of life – such as air pollution and the natural environment – are showing signs of improvement.[xxxiv]

Perhaps Kallis et al (2020) summed it up best in their study when they noted: “As we move from the rescue to the recovery phase of the Covid-19 response, policy-makers have an opportunity to invest in productive assets for the long-term. Such investments can make the most of shifts in human habits and behaviour already underway.”[xxxv]

Build, Build, Build: Investing in Infrastructure

Not surprisingly, most governments are including infrastructure development as part of their recovery plans: it makes economic sense to invest in asset formation rather than encourage consumer spending. However, there are debates about what type and scale of infrastructure to invest in. Some commentators are arguing for investment in housing, while others are looking for large-scale infrastructure investments.

As the US Congress and the White House contemplate the next phase of the government response to the coronavirus pandemic and its economic toll, legislators are increasingly raising the prospect of enacting a multitrillion-dollar infrastructure plan that, they claim, could create thousands of jobs. As the novel coronavirus ravages the economy, parties appear to be coalescing behind the idea of something akin to a New Deal-style jobs program to help the nation cope with what is expected to be a deep recession.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California outlined the contours of their proposal, building off a five-year, $760-billion framework. Among the new provisions are an extra $10-billion for community health centres fighting the spread of the pandemic and a programme that would provide federal grants to pay for drinking water and wastewater utility bills in low-income households during public health crises. Democrats’ infrastructure plan includes billions of dollars to expand the country’s passenger rail network, improve Amtrak stations and services, maintain ports and harbours, increase climate resiliency and further address greenhouse gas pollution. It would also dedicate funds to expand broadband access, a response in part to the extent that millions of Americans have depended on internet connectivity while staying at home to slow the spread of the virus.[xxxvi]

It has long been argued that construction has a significant multiplier effect in terms of upstream and downstream job creation. At the same time, providing affordable housing appears to be a serious challenge for most governments. Paul Emrath marries these two issues together when he makes the case for investment in homebuilding based on the economic impact that residential construction has on the economy. The most obvious impacts of new construction, he notes, are the jobs generated for construction workers.

But, at the national level, the impact is broad-based, as jobs are generated in the industries that produce timber, concrete, lighting fixtures, heating equipment, and other products that go into a home or remodelling project. Other jobs are generated in the process of transporting, storing, and selling these products. Still, others are generated for professionals such as architects, engineers, real estate agents, lawyers, and accountants who provide services to home builders, home buyers, and remodelers. He found that in the US construction sector building an average single-family home created 2.9 jobs; an average rental apartment 1.25 jobs; and for every $100 000 spent on remodelling 0.75 jobs. The above numbers are for full-time equivalents, i.e., enough work to keep one worker employed for a full year based on average hours worked per week in the relevant industry.[xxxvii]

The British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, seems to favour a “dig yourself out of the hole” approach as well, according to The Economist. In a speech on June 30, he announced a plan to increase capital spending to 3% of GDP, the highest consistent level since the 1970s, and will speed up £5bn of repairs to roads, schools, and hospitals. But Colin Talbot of the Centre for Business Research at the University of Cambridge makes the point that calling for more infrastructure without answering the questions of why and for what makes no sense. For example, will ailing towns be best served by becoming attractive commuter hubs for neighbouring cities, or by trying to revive their industries? Henry Overman of the London School of Economics argues that what ultimately makes places prosperous is a high density of skilled workers, which means thinking hard about education, welfare, and public health.[xxxviii]

There are however concerns about the quantum of funds needed to adequately fund infrastructure backlogs, notwithstanding the impressive numbers being quoted in government budgets. The findings of National League of Cities (NLC) new Covid-19 Local Impacts Survey of 1 100 US municipalities found that critical infrastructure is a key at-risk area as 65% of surveyed cities look to delay or cancel their infrastructure projects, which could create an “economic ripple effect” if actions aren’t taken to support capital expenditures and projects. As the vice-president of NLC put it, “I hate to say it, but the latest Covid-19 financial impact data we’re sharing with you today is painting a dire picture for our infrastructure future.”[xxxix]

Conclusion

As the world tries to deal with the ongoing challenges of Covid-19, it is worth reminding ourselves that infrastructure investment and climate action are both urgently need and that with the right approach, both goals can be achieved simultaneously. This article provides some indications of what the right approach may be.

READ THE ARTICLE IN GREEN ECONOMY JOURNAL ISSUE 48

References

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[xviii] Gronewold, N. 2020. “E.U.’s coronavirus recovery plan also aims to fight climate change.” E&E News, May 28, 2020. Available from: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/e-u-s-coronavirus-recovery-plan-also-aims-to-fight-climate-change/?

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[xix] Skarbek, A. 2020. “Why it doesn’t make economic sense to ignore climate change in our recovery from the pandemic.” Available from: https://theconversation.com/why-it-doesnt-make-economic-sense-to-ignore-climate-change-in-our-recovery-from-the-pandemic-137282? Downloaded: Friday, 08 May 2020.

[xx] Hall, D. 2020. “From what is to what if: A green stimulus and the importance envisioning the ‘impossible’”. Resilience, 22 April 2020. Available from: https://www.resilience.org/stories/2020-04-22/from-what-is-to-what-if-a-green-stimulus-and-the-importance-envisioning-the-impossible/. Downloaded: Saturday, 25 April 2020

[xxi] Harvey, F. 2020. “Green stimulus can repair global economy and climate, study says.” The Guardian, May 5, 2020. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/may/05/green-stimulus-can-repair-global-economy-and-climate-study-says. Downloaded: Thursday, 28 May 2020.

[xxii] Fialka, J. 2020. “Researchers will track whether coronavirus recovery spending benefits climate.” E&E News, May 13, 2020. Available from: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/researchers-will-track-whether-coronavirus-recovery-spending-benefits-climate/?Downloaded: Thursday, 14 May 2020

[xxiii] Hall, M. 2020. “COVID-19 weekly briefing: Evidence abounds of renewable energy gains at the expense of fossil fuels as the clamor for a green recovery rises.” PV-Magazine, 6 May 2020. Available from: https://www.pv-magazine.com/2020/05/06/covid-19-weekly-briefing-evidence-abounds-of-renewable-energy-gains-at-the-expense-of-fossil-fuels-as-the-clamor-for-a-green-recovery-rises/. Downloaded: Saturday, 09 May 2020.

[xxiv] IEA 2020. “Energy efficiency and economic stimulus.” International Energy Agency, 8 April 2020. Available from: https://www.iea.org/articles/energy-efficiency-and-economic-stimulus?utm_campaign=IEA%20newsletters&utm_source=SendGrid&utm_medium=Email. Downloaded: Monday, 20 April 2020

[xxv] Gronewold, N. 2020. “E.U.’s coronavirus recovery plan also aims to fight climate change.” E&E News, May 28, 2020. Available from: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/e-u-s-coronavirus-recovery-plan-also-aims-to-fight-climate-change/?Downloaded: May 30, 2020.

[xxvi] Ibid.

[xxvii] Kaufman, A. 2020. “South Korea tackled the coronavirus. Now it’s taking on the climate crisis.” Huffington Post, May 8, 2020. Available from: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/south-korea-coronavirus-climate-crisis_n_5ea9e0d5c5b633a85444940b. Downloaded: Saturday, 09 May 2020

[xxviii] Dans, E. 2020. “In a post-pandemic world, renewable energy is the only way forward.” Forbes, May 5, 2020. Available from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/enriquedans/2020/05/03/in-a-post-pandemic-world-renewable-energy-is-the-only-wayforward/#55d0f9b517b6. Downloaded: May 6, 2020.

[xxix] Johnston, K. 2020. “Govt’s COVID-19 response slammed for ‘favouring men’.” The New Zealand Herald, 22 May 2020, A8.

[xxx] Boffey, D. 2020. “Amsterdam to embrace ‘doughnut’ model to mend post-coronavirus economy.” The Guardian, 8 April 2020. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/08/amsterdam-doughnut-model-mend-post-coronavirus-economy. Downloaded: Thursday, 09 April 2020

[xxxi] Ibid.

[xxxii] Ibid.

[xxxiii] Morton, A. 2020. “Australian businesses call for climate crisis and virus economic recovery to be tackled together.” The Guardian, 4 May 2020. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/may/05/australian-businesses-call-for-climate-crisis-and-virus-economic-recovery-to-be-tackled-together. Downloaded: Wednesday, 06 May 2020

[xxxiv] Harvey, F. 2020. “Britons want quality of life indicators to take priority over the economy.” The Guardian, 10 May 2020. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/may/10/britons-want-quality-of-life-indicators-priority-over-economy-coronavirus. Downloaded: Wednesday, 13 May 2020

[xxxv] Hepburn, C., O’Callaghan, B., Stern, N., Stiglitz, J., and Zenghelis, D. 2020. “Will COVID-19 fiscal recovery packages accelerate or retard progress on climate change?” Smith School Working Paper 20-02.

[xxxvi] Cochrane, E. 2020. “Infrastructure week returns as Trump and Democrats eye post-virus jobs plan. “ New York Times, April 1, 2020. Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/01/us/politics/infrastructure-week-coronavirus.html?campaign_id=9&emc=edit_NN_p_20200402&instance_id=17271&nl=morning-briefing&regi_id=73055978&section=topNews&segment_id=23606&te=1&user_id=4c2641b64be4fbc96d3272bb1a96ae71. Downloaded: April 3, 2020.

[xxxvii] Emrath, P. “National impact of home building and remodeling: Update estimates.” NAHB, April 1, 2020. Available from: https://www.nahbclassic.org/fileUpload_details.aspx?contentTypeID=3&contentID=272642&subContentID=738975&channelID=311. Downloaded: June 16, 2020.

[xxxviii] The Economist, 2020. “Boris’s infrastructure plans.” The Economist, July 1, 2020. Available from: https://www.economist.com/britain/2020/07/01/boriss-infrastructure-plans?utm_campaign=the-economist-today&utm_medium=newsletter&utm_source=salesforce-marketing-cloud&utm_term=2020-07-01&utm_content=article-link-5. Downloaded: July 2, 2020

[xxxix] Musulin, K. 2020. “NLC: Financial impact data paints ‘dire picture’ of cities futures.” Smart Cities Dive, June 24, 2020. Available from: https://www.smartcitiesdive.com/news/nlc-financial-impact-data-paints-dire-picture-of-cities-futures/580383/. Downloaded: June 29, 2020.

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Save the date for Solar Power Africa and its exciting webinars

In light of ongoing developments around Covid-19 in South Africa, and after close discussions with event partners, associations and key exhibitors in the renewable energy sector, Messe Frankfurt South Africa has taken the decision to postpone Solar Power Africa event to 16-18 February 2022.

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Still hesitant to take the vaccine?

Our world often seems less understandable now to the non-scientist than ever before. At the same time, our senses and minds are flooded with rumours from friends and family, real-time news reports, social media postings, various videos apparently clarifying matters, and almost all the information generated by humankind available at our fingertips. Message from the National Science and Technology Forum Executive Director

No one can take in and digest so much information, even if you try to read and watch everything available on one specific topic. Making decisions about what to believe and what not becomes close to impossible. Information on Covid-19 has been posted, published and recorded, shared, retweeted and forwarded for about a year and a half now, and is accessible to all, regardless of where the information comes from. Every person reads a tiny sample of what is available, and the saying becomes true: ‘A little knowledge is a dangerous thing’1. Fake news and misguided advice are so prominent that one cannot ignore it.

I am sometimes as overwhelmed as everyone else, but I do think it helps to know what is really scientific, and what information claims to be scientific but isn’t. It helps to know which sources and news distributors are more trustworthy than others. Ask yourself: Where did this information come from? The most reliable information comes from science, in the form of talks and articles by experts who have published books and peer-reviewed articles, who have studied and have a PhD in a field related to the coronavirus pandemic. In other words, experts who have done the research and each have a large body of knowledge that they have acquired through years of study and reading. The scientific NSTF member organisations are good sources. See the list and websites here: Current NSTF Members | NSTF Awards.

Vaccine hesitancy

Vaccine hesitancy might come from not having enough knowledge, mistrusting scientific knowledge resources, and fear of the vaccines. There seems to be huge suspicion of big pharmaceutical companies. There are fears that the vaccines being manufactured will lead to horrific results – like mass murder, or that something like a computer chip will be inserted during vaccination, which will allow ‘them’ to control the masses of vaccinated people. So far, these fears have been demonstrated to be unfounded.

More than 4.54 billion doses of Covid vaccine have been injected across the world, 30.4% of the world population has received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, and 15.8% is fully vaccinated. See Coronavirus (Covid-19) Vaccinations – Statistics and Research – Our World in Data.

It would not benefit the pharmaceutical companies if the vaccines killed people. Companies care about their reputations. Without having a good reputation they cannot do good business. I have gleaned some answers to the ongoing questions about Covid-19 and the vaccines from some reputable sources, and hope that they may clarify, rather than complicate matters further. Here I summarise the answers from only two reliable sources.

The Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) is a reliable source (and an NSTF member). The members (or fellows) of the Academy are top scholars whose knowledge, insights and advice are worth reading and listening to. Another good resource is a recent article in the Daily Maverick newspaper published online on 26 July 2021: Everything you need to know about vaccines — our only viable strategy for living with Covid-19.

Again, the article is reliable because of the authors who wrote it: Lucy Allais, Shabir Madhi, Imraan Valodia, Alex van den Heever, Martin Veller and Francois Venter. (You will see what I mean if you look at the end of the article for a brief introduction to each author.) The article gives a good overview of the latest expert advice on Covid and the vaccines. Below I summarise and quote mainly from this article and refer to it as the ‘DM article’.

How do vaccines work? Are they safe?

The DM article describes vaccines as causing ‘a kind of fake infection’: “Vaccinations are a way of triggering the body to develop an immune response to a particular disease without having to actually get the disease — a kind of fake first infection.“ ASSAf explains: “Vaccines work by presenting the immune system with a readily identifiable part of a pathogen, which the immune system remembers so that it can quickly respond should it encounter that same pathogen in the future.”

In other words, the immune systems of our bodies have ‘memory’. They can fight pathogens (viruses and bacteria, e.g.) because they have fought them before. They recognise which types of cells are intruders in the body and should be attacked. Covid vaccines contain a part of the coronavirus. The immune system fights the virus parts in the vaccine, which is not difficult in this case, because the virus parts cannot multiply like the real complete virus. The immune system can then identify viruses that have the same features as the virus parts in the vaccine, and so destroy them.

This is the principle on which all vaccines work. Even the annual ‘flu shot’ works on this principle. Every year there are new strains of the flu virus, which the body might not recognise as harmful. The flu vaccine prepares the body to recognise new harmful viruses that are slightly different from the old ones with which the immune response is familiar.

The Covid-19 virus is a new (or novel) virus for humanity. For our bodies’ immune systems the Covid virus is a new unfamiliar virus, so it can ‘sneak’ into a body without being detected by the body’s defences. ASSAf says: “The advent of vaccines ranks among the most important developments in medical and veterinary science of the last three hundred years.” Vaccines have ended the spread of many deadly diseases, even to the extent of eradicating some of them completely from societies across the world.

“Vaccines are one of the most successful, and safest, interventions medicine has ever come up with. They have eradicated dangerous infectious diseases such as smallpox, have controlled polio, and have saved billions of lives from measles, tetanus, pneumonia, hepatitis and diarrhoea. They have dramatically decreased viruses responsible for some cancers. They are also safe — bad side effects are very rare and the risk of developing severe illnesses is much smaller than the bad effects of the diseases the vaccines prevent.”

Can the Covid vaccines change the DNA of our bodies?

No, they cannot change our DNA. Our DNA is contained in the nucleus of every cell in our bodies. (The nucleus is like the heart of every cell.) The virus DNA cannot get to our own DNA, which is safely inside the nucleus. The virus replicates (makes copies of itself) without needing our DNA. The virus destroys cells but does not need to penetrate the nucleus. The material in the Covid vaccines also doesn’t go into the nucleus of any cell.

The DM article explains: “The most recent mRNA [or messenger RNA] technology, which is used in some of the latest vaccines, uses genetic material that tells our bodies to produce a protein of the virus which then stimulates the immune response.”

In other words, mRNA vaccines contain some genetic material of the virus (not the whole virus, only pieces of its DNA). When the vaccines are injected into our bodies, this genetic material causes virus proteins to be made. Of course, the proteins are exactly like that of the Covid virus. The immune system is triggered and attacks it.

What is the difference between the Pfizer vaccine and the Johnson & Johnson vaccine?

The vaccines being used in South Africa at the moment are made by Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson (J&J). The DM article says that they are both excellent choices. “Don’t stress about which one is best — the best one is the first one you can get.” The J&J vaccine is taken as a single shot; the Pfizer vaccine as two doses, at least three weeks apart. Other vaccines are being studied and tested. These vaccines work in different ways. Pfizer is an mRNA vaccine and works like explained above. mRNA vaccines are easier to make and can be manufactured very quickly. It does not need live viruses to manufacture them, so it is much safer to make them.

It is difficult at this moment to compare how well the two vaccines work. They both work very well, even preventing the dangerous variants from seriously affecting people. The exact comparisons between the two will become obvious in time. Currently, they were tested on different groups of people at different places, and there are other differences too. To compare the vaccines scientifically, the tests and trials will have to be done in exactly the same circumstances.

What can go wrong?

The vaccines take time to work. It is only when two weeks have passed since taking the vaccine, that it starts to work. For Pfizer, immunity only kicks in two weeks after the first jab, and the second jab is only successful two weeks after that second dose. “Do not assume you have enhanced immunity straight after getting your jab. Continue to take precautions. Mask when indoors with people and always open windows in rooms and vehicles.” – DM article. People can catch the infection and get ill during the two weeks after getting the vaccine. They can also be infected just before getting the vaccine and become ill because the vaccine doesn’t work immediately.

People can also get ill when they are fully vaccinated, but the symptoms will pass. It is very unlikely that you will need to go to hospital, and very unlikely that you will die. It seems that most of the Covid patients who are currently filling the hospitals are those who are unvaccinated. “Severe allergic reactions are very rare, but can occur after any vaccination” – DM article.

If an allergic reaction happens, the health care worker can treat the reaction. It is highly unlikely that you will die as a result of the allergic reaction. Very rarely inflammation of the heart can happen, but it normally goes away quickly. The J&J vaccine has a very rare effect of blood clotting, and can be serious; but Covid causes clots more often than the vaccine. “…the benefits far outweigh the risks.” “Recently, the J&J vaccine has been associated with a very rare syndrome causing weakness, called the Guillain Barre Syndrome. This syndrome is also seen in patients who have had the flu and other viruses, and is treatable.”

To summarise: It is highly unlikely that you will have bad effects from the vaccines. You might have flu symptoms but they will pass quickly. Any unusual side effects (like those mentioned above) can be treated. You will not die from the vaccines.

How were the vaccines developed so quickly and should this worry me about their safety?

Coronaviruses are not new and vaccines are not new. Vaccines have been widely used for at least one hundred years. Their design and manufacturing processes are well established. The companies and industries already existed and are huge and efficient. The common cold is often caused by one of the coronaviruses. Because coronaviruses and vaccines are well understood, it was possible to develop the vaccines so quickly.

When Covis-19 started spreading across the world, it was obvious that this was an emergency situation and the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared it a pandemic. Then large amounts of funding were made available by many countries’ governments and by private industry. This is very unusual.

Normally drug development takes years, but in this case, there was an intense and concentrated effort across the world, with one goal in mind – to design and produce effective vaccines to stop the pandemic. Because various institutions, companies and countries were racing to do so and competing with each other, the vaccines were produced in record time.

The vaccines have been made by well-qualified people in well-resourced environments. They have been thoroughly tested in many trials. Now billions of people across the world have been vaccinated and the vaccines have proved themselves to be safe and effective.

Herd immunity

The scientists hoped that if enough people can be vaccinated, a point would be reached where the spread of the virus is under control. Unfortunately, it has not been possible to vaccinate enough people fast enough – both in our country and across the world. The virus has mutated many times, and a variety of harmful variants have emerged. Despite the incredible speed of producing the vaccines and even the fast roll-out of vaccination of populations, it is still not fast enough to stay ahead of the virus’s mutations.

New variants like Delta are able to spread even faster than the first version of the virus. New variants also seem to be resistant to the immunity people get from being ill with Covid. There are also those that are emerging that are more resistant to vaccines.

The authors of the DM article say: “It is unlikely that herd immunity will be achieved with this virus any time soon, and it will probably circulate, mutate, and recirculate throughout our lifetime, reinfecting us several times, like all the other coronaviruses”. It is likely that everyone with any contact with other human beings will get the virus. If you get ill, the severity of the illness depends on whether you are vaccinated or not.

Practical advice

Get vaccinated as soon as you are able to. Not only will you save yourself, but you will probably save others’ lives too. “Even though it is possible to get Covid mildly once fully vaccinated, we now know that fully vaccinated people are less
likely to spread the virus.“ When you get ill with Covid you should wait for 2-3 months before getting vaccinated. Rather get vaccinated before you get ill.

What should you do to prevent getting the virus?

“Covid is an indoor respiratory virus: it is spread in the air, and it collects indoors where windows are closed. You are unlikely to get it outside, and opening windows in rooms, cars, taxis, and buses makes everyone much safer.“ It seems that keeping surfaces clean is still a good idea but perhaps less important than avoiding interaction indoors or in unventilated spaces. Masks are still very important for preventing transmission from one person to another.

Why is there so much information and everyone says something different?

We live in the age of the internet and social media. Both of these are somewhat recent developments, since only about 20 years ago. Society has not learned to make rules and agreements around the use of these. So it is left to each individual to be responsible. However, for most people, it is too much effort to google the information and ideas that are being spread through social media.

People often lack the ability to judge whether the information is reliable. Instead, they share and forward the information unthinkingly, because it is interesting, or sensational, and assumed to be true. Truth is also not always a consideration. Apparently, bad news travels faster than good news. It used to be a good thing that people pass on bad news to warn others – but not if the bad news is false. Humankind is basically not adapted to social media, to ensure that it is used for good and not for gossip. The modern ‘grapevine’ works too fast for us to handle.

In conclusion: take-home points

  • Vaccines will give you near-complete protection against severe illness and dying from Covid.
  • Vaccines are safe. All vaccines used in the vaccination programme in South Africa have undergone extensive trials and have been proven to be effective and safe.
  • The risk of serious side effects is similar to the chance of being struck by lightning, and side effects are treatable and generally go away on their own.
  • It takes time for vaccines to start working well — usually about two weeks, and their working steadily improves after this.
  • Vaccines differ in how well they protect against infection and mild Covid. Most vaccines will require at least two doses and provide good protection against severe illness from Covid two weeks after your first shot. Until you are fully vaccinated you should continue to take the same precautions as if you are unvaccinated.

The opinions expressed above are those of the Executive Director, Jansie Niehaus, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Executive Committee or members of the NSTF.

1. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing’ can be found as far back as 1774. There are earlier versions of this expression, and the idea might have originated in 1698. See The phrase ‘A little knowledge is a dangerous thing’ – meaning and origin. (phrases.org.uk).
2. More than 36 million people have been vaccinated in the United Kingdom and 150 million people in the United States are now fully vaccinated. Hardly anyone (a tiny number of people) has died as a result of the vaccines, and usually it is not clear at all whether the vaccines were the direct cause of death.

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THE NEW EQUATION = PwC+progressive strategy

PwC recently unveiled The New Equation, its new landmark global strategy, which responds to fundamental changes in the world, including technological disruption, climate change, fractured geopolitics, and the continuing effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. The New Equation is based on analyses of global trends and thousands of conversations with clients and stakeholders. It builds on more than a decade of sustained revenue growth and continued investment.

  • US$12-billion investment over the next five years, creating over 100 000 new jobs
  • Initial commitments include new ESG Centres of Excellence, leadership institutes, accelerated deployment of emerging technologies and increased investment to support audit quality
  • Strategy focuses on helping clients build trust and deliver sustained outcomes

The New Equation focuses on two interconnected needs that clients face in the coming years. The first is to build trust, which has never been more important, nor more difficult. Organisations increasingly need to earn trust across a wide range of topics that are important to their stakeholders. Success depends on fundamental shifts in the way executives think, organisational culture, systems and ambition.

The second is to deliver sustained outcomes in an environment where competition and the risk of disruption are more intense than ever and societal expectations have never been greater. Businesses need to change faster and more thoroughly to attract capital, talent and customers. Too often, however, narrowly conceived transformation initiatives do not deliver the outcomes they promise. A new approach is needed.

Bob Moritz, global chairman of PwC said: “The profound changes in the world mean that to succeed, organisations need to create a virtuous circle between earning trust and delivering sustained outcomes. By bringing our unique combination of capabilities together and matching it with serious investment and our commitment to quality, we can help them do that. In doing so, we will help clients unlock value for shareholders, stakeholders and wider society.”

PwC will expand Centres of Excellence for specialists on key ESG topics, including climate risk and supply chain, as well as create a global ESG Academy which will enable all PwC partners and staff to integrate the fundamentals of ESG into their work.

How PwC will help build trust and deliver sustained outcomes

PwC’s multidisciplinary model is the foundation for the strategy, bringing together a passionate, diverse community to help organisations build trust and deliver sustained outcomes. The model enables investment at scale in the combination of capabilities that is essential to delivering quality and impact for clients, stakeholders and society. PwC firms will invest US$12-billion over the next five years, creating over 100 000 net new jobs across PwC, as well as continuing to develop the skills of PwC’s partners and employees.

PwC’s approach to building trust is designed to meet rising expectations of transparency and stakeholder engagement. It combines expertise in audit, tax and compliance activity with an expansion of specialist capabilities including cybersecurity, data privacy, ESG, and AI. It recognises the importance of quality and that reporting and compliance are just one link in a chain that includes organisational culture, executive mindset, aligned standards, certified professionals, stringent controls, tailored technologies, and appropriate governance.

Similarly, delivering sustained outcomes requires an integrated approach. Instead of a traditional technology-driven approach to transformation, PwC’s approach is focused on the outcome that effort seeks to achieve. PwC then mobilises expertise in strategy, digital and cloud services, value creation, people and organisation, tax, ESG, deals, business recovery services, legal and compliance, amongst other areas to deliver the agreed outcomes.

Planned investments include:

  • ESG. PwC will expand Centres of Excellence for specialists on key ESG topics, including climate risk and supply chain, as well as create a global ESG Academy which will enable all PwC partners and staff to integrate the fundamentals of ESG into their work. 1 000 partners from 60 territories across the network have already completed an in-depth six-week programme focused on business issues resulting from critical global trends.
  • Quality. PwC will continue to invest to further enhance quality across its businesses. This will include US$1bn dedicated to accelerate deployment of technology that further automates the implementation of quality frameworks in audit, as well as build the delivery model for the audits of the future, which are expected to require more types of data, assess a broader range of risks and more fully integrate non-financial information. This additional technology investment builds on the ongoing focus on quality, supported by rigorous methodology and training across all lines of service.
  • Leadership Institutes. Today’s leaders need new skills to help lead through and manage uncertainty, build inclusive cultures, and support transformation. New Leadership Institutes will be created to support clients and stakeholders. The first Institute will be based in the United States and will empower more than 10 000 of today and tomorrow’s C-suite leaders, executives, and board members to build trust. Another Leadership Institute will be created in Asia-Pacific and further announcements will be made in the coming months.
  • Technology. PwC will continue its strategy of being human-led and tech-powered. It will continue to rapidly expand its use of cloud, artificial intelligence, technology alliances, virtual reality and other emerging technologies to deliver insight and drive competitive advantage for clients. In addition, PwC is accelerating the deployment of technology products, supporting seamless collaboration and enabling its people to automate processes. These products and automations will transform the client experience and allow new insights and values to emerge.

The New Equation also accelerates PwC’s growth in the Asia Pacific, with US$3-billion of the investment planned for the region, aimed at doubling its business and significantly scaling up capabilities to serve clients.

Bob Moritz continued: “We are mobilising multi-disciplinary teams, powered by technology and drawing on deep specialist expertise. We will continue to evolve our ways of working, and expand our capabilities in the areas that matter most for the future, while remaining steadfast in our commitment to quality: bringing together the unique combinations needed to help clients answer the expectations of their shareholders, stakeholders and society at large.”

Dion Shango, CEO for PwC Africa said: “PwC Africa is excited by the opportunity that The New Equation represents for our clients, employees and other stakeholders. The launch of our new global strategy comes at a time of unprecedented change – it will enable PwC teams to support clients and other stakeholders across the African continent to move toward greater sustainability and more inclusive growth, as well as to drive their digital evolution. The strategy will shape how PwC Africa develops in the coming years as we seek to deliver against our purpose in society – which is to build trust and solve important problems. As part of the strategy, we are making substantial investments to further enhance audit quality and expand our capabilities.”

Commitments in our Africa region

As part of The New Equation, PwC’s Africa region is also announcing plans to meet the specific needs of clients in our market. Here in Africa, PwC will continue focusing on the following, with plans of further commitments to be announced within the next few months:

  • PwC Africa is committed to delivering quality in everything we do, and we are making substantial investments to further enhance quality. We’re committed to driving a strong culture of quality. It’s core to our purpose – to build trust in society and solve important problems. Importantly, it’s also what our clients and stakeholders expect of us, and rightly so.
  • The New Equation will lead PwC to make the most of the multi-disciplinary model – building capabilities at the depth and scale needed to serve our clients as they seek to build trust and deliver sustained outcomes.  At a time when businesses are evolving, we are focused on providing innovative, high-quality services and solutions. The trust that our clients and our people place in PwC, and our high standards of ethical behaviour are fundamental to everything we do.
  • The new world of work will demand the development of new skills. PwC Africa is fully committed to continuing to invest in helping our clients and our people to prepare for change brought about by advances in technology and digitalisation. Digitising our business is a strategic focus for the Africa firm, including upskilling all of our people and making them more digitally astute, as well as growing their competency with the firm’s digital assets and tools to deliver services to clients.
  • To achieve this goal, we will invest some 150 000 hours in training across the continent. Through our New World. New Skills initiative we’re excited to share what we’ve learned, and we plan to help businesses, governments, local communities, and individuals accelerate their own upskilling journeys. We believe everyone should be able to live, learn, work and participate in the digital world, but that will require business leaders, governments and educators to work together to make the world a more resilient, more capable and more inclusive place.

“We are bringing the best of our people, capabilities and technology together to support our clients in building trust and delivering sustained outcomes for their businesses and society,” said Dion Shango.

Building PwC’s passionate community of solvers

The most important challenges faced by clients and stakeholders can only be met through multi-disciplinary, diverse teams. PwC is doubling down on its existing commitment to attract and equip its people to meet this need – combining human ingenuity with technology to deliver sustained outcomes whilst building trust across the value chain.

PwC cntinues to attract diverse talent, supported by expanded flexible and remote working as well as progressing the previously announced commitment to upskill its own people. The 100 000 net new jobs will be focused in emerging capability areas, from ESG to AI. In addition, PwC will continue to hire over 30 000 people into early career posts each year, providing training and qualifications that set people up for a strong career either within PwC or elsewhere.

Bob Moritz said: “We want our people to be the most sought after in the market, because they have the technical, digital and human skills needed to build trust and deliver sustained outcomes. We are proud that so many people begin their careers at PwC before moving on and are committed to continuing to support training and development for a new generation of business leaders.”

Here in our Africa region, PwC is taking further action to improve the diversity of our talent. Dion Shango elaborated:

“The diversity of our firm contributes to its growth in various ways. PwC Africa’s goal is to achieve a staff profile reflective of the demographics across the continent and to achieve equality in the workplace. Our people strategy is focused on being the leading developer of talent on the African continent. We are focused on diversity and fostering an inclusive environment.”

Delivering Net Zero, increasing transparency

In addition, the network is mobilising around the commitment made last year to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, which involves transforming its business model to decarbonise its value chain. It is submitting specific science-based targets to the SBTi, and each member firm has appointed a Net Zero leader to enable progress based on local plans.

PwC is also increasing transparency around its own operations, through expanded reporting based on the World Economic Forum/International Business Council metrics, as well as the recommendations of the World Business Council on Sustainable Development.

Bob Moritz went on to say:

“There is a strong need for stakeholders from across society to work together. Whether it’s the pandemic, climate change, social injustice or the digital divide, there is a growing expectation that businesses have a role to play in addressing broader societal issues. Our new strategy is about helping clients address their toughest challenges and delivering for society and the planet.”

Dion Shango concluded: “Our Africa firm actively supports our global commitment to become net zero by 2030. This is an ambitious target that will require the reshaping of our operations, working across our value chain and engaging in public policy discussions. We are also committed to supporting our clients in their sustainability journey. We are equipped to support organisations with insights including energy transitions, TCFD alignment, net-zero strategy and implementation, circular economic opportunities, carbon tax, carbon emissions assurance and much more.

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Vaccinate Our World call-to-action

AHF continues its global ‘Vaccinate Our World’ call-to-action urges world leaders, vaccine manufacturers, and public health organisations to ‘VOW’ to protect humanity by providing equal access to Covid-19 vaccines worldwide, particularly in lower-income countries.

While more than 1.3-billion Covid-19 vaccines have been administered worldwide, 83% have gone to a handful of wealthy nations. Low-income countries – of which many are in Africa – have received a mere 0.3%. AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) continues its global call-to-action to ‘Vaccinate Our World’ urges world leaders, vaccine manufacturers, and public health organizations to ‘VOW’ to protect humanity by providing equal access to COVID-19 vaccines worldwide, particularly in lower-income countries.

The ambitious but achievable ‘Vaccinate Our World’ call-to-action includes five primary tenets:

  • The global COVID-19 vaccination effort must secure $100-billion from G20 countries,
  • It must produce and provide seven billion vaccine doses worldwide within one year,
  • Companies and governments must waive or suspend ALL Covid-19 vaccine patents during the pandemic,
  • Countries must be 100% transparent in sharing information and data, and finally,
  • World leaders must also promote far greater international cooperation as the driving force for ending the pandemic, not continue with politics as usual.

“If vaccine procurement proceeds at the current pace, experts are predicting that most of Africa won’t begin to see sufficient quantities of Covid-19 vaccines until early 2023, which is flatly unacceptable.”

AHF South Africa Country Program Director Dr. Nduduzo Dube

“COVAX was well-intentioned, but with wealthy countries buying up enough vaccines to inoculate their citizens as much as five times over, it’s clear that it’s too little, too late. We must learn from our battle against HIV that we cannot wait for years to get lifesaving vaccines and medicines to people who need them most. It’s time that heads of government, global public health organizations, and pharmaceutical companies do all that’s necessary to ‘Vaccinate Our World’ now.”

In addition to securing adequate funding, vaccine production must be increased worldwide, which requires access to Covid-19 vaccine patents for the rapid scale-up of production. Information sharing and cooperation between nations must also be significantly increased—including removing self-imposed restrictions on vaccine exports for those countries with a surplus. Leaders from the G20 and global financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank must also VOW to step up their contributions immediately.

“If one nation has Covid-19 and no access to vaccines, all countries are in danger,” added AHF Africa Bureau Chief Dr. Penninah Iutung. “The ‘VOW’ call-to-action is about uniting advocates worldwide and shining a spotlight on the immorality of vaccine rationing. While COVAX was established to help lower-income nations – the quantities of vaccines have been inadequate and have forced developing countries in Africa to fend for themselves in securing enough vaccines to protect their citizens. Legislators and decision-makers must do more to ensure that all countries have the requisite numbers of vaccines to ‘Vaccinate Our World’ and defeat the pandemic.”

The ‘Vaccinate Our World’ call-to-action kicked off in mid-April with a global digital advocacy campaign and has continued with virtual media events in Bangkok, São Paulo, and Johannesburg.

For more information on VOW or AHF, visit https://vaccinateourworld.org/ and either www.freeHIVtest.org.za or www.facebook.com/aidshealth.org respectively.

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Paragon Interface redefines workspace planning for the office of the future

Striking a balance between working from home and returning to the workplace is likely to result in the ‘hybrid office’ of the future, according to Paragon Interface Senior Associate Kirsty Schoombie.

The ‘hybrid office’ is defined as the ideal compromise between remote working and being office-bound, as was the norm prior to Covid-19. Instead, in this ‘new normal’, employees continue to work from home while being required to be in the office on occasion. This will allow for interaction with fellow colleagues and bolster corporate culture, especially with larger companies. “Yes, there is an associated cost-saving with having your staff work remotely,” acknowledges Schoombie. However, the phenomenon dubbed as ‘Zoom fatigue’, which refers to the increased cognitive demands posed by constant teleconferencing, indicates that workers would prefer some level of human interaction as the world slowly recovers from the pandemic.

The hybrid office is defined as the ideal compromise between remote working and being office-bound.

This will also give interior architecture companies like Paragon Interface the opportunity to ‘reimagine’ the office of the future. “With social distancing, sanitising and mask-wearing likely to be with us for the foreseeable future, it is important for workspace planning to take this into account,” highlights Schoombie. This can easily be done by reducing the number of work stations and placing them further apart, while also increasing the number of couches for social seating, for example.

Wider corridors and doorways and additional partitioning will become more common, while even office furniture is likely to evolve in terms of fabrics and advances such as foldaway desks. Other features include no-touch doors, increased use of stairs to reduce crowding in elevators, and the use of materials such as silver and copper in surface finishes due to their antimicrobial properties.

Management consultant McKinsey highlights four steps to redefine workspaces post Covid-19: Optimising basic processes so that remote work is as uninterrupted and as effective as possible; redefining work roles in terms of ‘fully remote’ and ‘hybrid remote’; redesigning the workspace to foster safe collaboration; and optimising the office footprint accordingly.

Schoombie points out that the latter does not necessarily mean reducing the physical size of an office building per se, but rather using interior design to improve space utilisation and planning. Traditional layouts will have to be reconsidered, with the addition of Perspex screening now a regulatory requirement. This is likely to result in a more modular approach to workspace design. Another area likely to change significantly post Covid-19 is the office canteen or cafeteria.

“With so much time now being spent working from home, it is going to become increasingly important for people to ensure that their ‘home offices’ are comfortable and practical. This is essential for both personal well-being and productivity,” concludes Schoombie.

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98% of adults in South Africa willing to take personal action on sustainability issues

  • 81% of adults in South Africa are more mindful of their impact on the environment since COVID-19, with the trend being led by Gen Z (89%)
  • Three quarters of South African respondents (76%) say companies behaving in more sustainable and eco-friendly ways is more important than before
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Beware of Covid fatigue and complacency in the workplace

South Africans were all relieved when President Cyril Ramaphosa announced recently that the first two batches of Covid-19 vaccines had safely arrived in the country, followed by Health Minister Zwheli Mkhize’s announced that the vaccination programme is rapidly gaining momentum.

“After months of suffering through lockdowns, social distancing, isolation and sanitising, it is easy to suffer from Covid-fatigue. The temptation exists to become lax when it comes to implementing health and safety protocols in the workplace. However, it is vital to remain vigilant. Until the majority of South Africans have been vaccinated, we cannot afford to think that life and business can resume to the way it was before the virus,” warns Robert Palmer, Head of the Occupational Health Department at Afroteq Advisory – a multi-disciplinary integrated company providing advisory and training services to the built environment sector since 2000.

According to Palmer, typical short-cuts taken in the corporate environment include only sanitising or disinfecting obvious “high traffic” areas such as boardroom tables and chairs, but neglecting door handles, lift buttons, staircase bannisters, telephones etc. The improper wearing of masks, forgetting to sanitise hands, the absence of visible sanitisers and failure to enforce adequate social distancing are also frequently encountered when the company conducts their workplace audits.

Even though we have moved through the second wave, South Africa still records on average 1500 new cases more than 200 deaths per day, with almost fifty thousand people who have already succumbed to the virus.

Health experts have warned that we could see the third wave at the end of April and predict that a fourth wave could hit the country when Winter arrives.

“Finally seeing a light at the end of the tunnel makes companies believe that we are out of danger. Decision-makers think they can save money by appointing unaccredited, uncertified service providers to deep-clean and sanitise the building or by purchasing inferior quality cleaning materials and other PPE. There should be zero-tolerance for this kind of behaviour that puts profit over the well-being of people. The reality is that Covid-19 is still with us and that it will take several months for the vaccine programme to be rolled out and until the majority of our workforce can be considered safe,” he says.

A specific area concern to facility managers working in the built environment is the health and safety of construction workers. OHS officers agree that labourers not wearing their masks on-site, working in too close proximity to each other or being transported in large numbers are cause for grave concern. 

“Construction companies face harsh penalties and high fines when their projects run late. They put pressure on their teams and workers fear that they might lose their jobs should they call in ill.  By failing to disclose their symptoms to their supervisors and adhering to safety protocols, everybody on-site is put at risk,” Palmer says.

Confirming this warning, the World Health Organisation (WHO) listed occupations where workers performing mostly routine tasks, such as construction workers and cleaners that have to contend with low wages, job insecurity and a rushed return to work, as medium risk.

“As health and safety experts, we urge employers to ensure that they continue implementing the correct protocols and pay attention to potential problem areas.

Paradoxically, it tends to be the companies that have until now been largely unaffected by Covid-19 that are at the greatest risk of succumbing to complacency.

We all want to rebuild our economy, but we cannot ignore the fact that many employees are dealing with emotional battles after having lost family, friends or loved ones due to the pandemic. The world has paid a high price already, and we owe it to each other to be responsible and make the right decisions to the end. That is what true leadership is all about,” Palmer concludes.

For more information, visit www.afroteqadvisory.co.za

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