To be a citizen of the U.K. or the U.S. these past two or three months has been a truly humbling experience. Yes, the coronavirus has been a global phenomenon that seemed to catch most governments unawares. (That in itself is disappointing, given how many warnings about pandemics there have been. Not to mention the close calls with SARS, MERS and the rest.) But past experience suggested that — even as the situation was reaching crisis point in countries such as Italy and Spain — somehow it would not be so bad for us. And that was indeed what our leaders, full of bombast and a misplaced optimism, told us. Yet here we are, sitting on top of an ignominious table of lives lost, listening to politicians floundering in the wake of an evasive enemy and trapped in a lockdown with no obvious way out.
In the U.S., in particular, the rules have been relaxed to a greater or lesser extent in many parts of the country. But, while that has in some instances led to behavior that challenges social distancing protocols, it has also not led to the surge in pent-up economic demand that President Trump was predicting at the outset. Many restaurants and retail outlets, for instance, despite suffering a devastating couple of months, have reopened somewhat tentatively. As the columnist Dominic Lawson pointed out in yesterday’s Sunday Times, the actions of individuals are not as dependent on government dictats as is sometimes supposed. He wrote that “those who say the British government’s decision to introduce a form of nationwide house arrest has made the economy much weaker than was necessary to ‘fight the pandemic’ fail to recall what was happening before Boris Johnson pressed the panic button on March 23. The country was already putting up the shutters: businesses were already implementing more stringent policies than were then demanded by the government. Whole tranches of the retail sector were already in terminal crisis.” Similarly, people will not go out to eat or visit the theater again simply because their governments say they can but because they feel it is safe to do so. And in many cases that safety applies not just to them and their immediate families but also to the wider community — because if the lockdowns have shown us anything it is that even in the modern world people have turned out to be a lot more concerned about their neighbours than was previously imagined.
So, where do we go from here? We have been given various “road maps” and multi-stepped plans based around “the science.” But in the end, short of a vaccine, a drug that prevents some of the worst aspects of the disease and some form of testing or tracking and tracing, it all comes down to confidence. People will only resume behaving normally or in a way that sufficiently resembles normal to get the economic wheels turning again if they are confident that they are not taking too big a risk in doing so. This is surely where leadership comes in. Of course, we do not want our leaders to be too gung-ho, to put the health of the economy before that of the public, but we should want them to help us understand what the real risks are, and what we should do to mitigate them. Unfortunately, this weekend’s pantomime involving U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s key adviser Dominic Cummings and his alleged flouting of the lockdown rules — as many of Johnson’s fellow Conservative MPs acknowledge — has done nothing to help the situation.
In an ideal world, a well-respected and trusted political leader, perhaps flanked by his or her erstwhile opponents united in the belief that they had, after taking appropriate scientific advice, decided on a course of action that made sense and would work. But in its general absence, this is surely the gap that business wants to fill.
To be fair, this is happening in some places. For instance, in Houston, Texas, the fourth largest city in the U.S., the Greater Houston Partnership, a collection of 1,100 businesses that works to promote the city and its surrounding communities, has focused on ensuring companies “have the right information and resources to make smart decisions — both how to weather the crisis from an economic perspective, and how to reopen safely.” In particular, it has launched the Work Safe Company program that calls for companies to follow a set of straightforward principles for protecting the health of their employees and minimizing the risk of transmission of the virus. In addition, the partnership, which is also contending with the effects on the region — widely acknowledged to be the energy capital of the world — of the slump in the oil price, has published a report on how to reopen the city “safely, sustainably and successfully.”
In a good business, total concern for the health and welfare of its employees and customers should be beyond doubt. So it goes without saying that responsible businesses wishing to ease back into operation should be painstaking in setting out what they are doing to ensure the safety of employees and customers — in much the same way that those enterprises that have kept going through the lockdowns have claimed in notes stuck into the packages they have delivered.
Indeed, the seriousness with which companies take this should be the criterion by which we judge whether we want to do business with them in the future. For example, airline executives can complain all they like about proposals for quarantining travellers after visits overseas or for reducing the numbers of passengers they can carry. This presupposes that members of public have no choice and are so desperate to fly again that they will put up with this take-it-or-leave-it approach. No doubt, they are right about some people. But if they want to win over the waverers surely they should be promising much more in the way of health screening, disinfecting and the rest. After all, there is a view that if airlines had been a little more circumspect a few months ago the virus would not have been able to travel so far across the world so quickly.
Similarly, restaurants and bars cannot expect us all to want to crowd into them like we did before. Nor should they complain that social distancing protocols make this difficult. They should be looking at ways at adapting what they offer, to serve the needs of customers in a new situation. In recent weeks, many have done just that, providing a selection from their menus for collection by customers. It is worth remembering that many of these enterprises were struggling before the crisis. As the late great management thinker Peter Drucker said, “The purpose of business is to create and keep a customer.”
It is often said that periods of crisis create many more opportunities than more stable times. That may be true and the coming years could bring a whole cohort of enterprises supplying goods and services that we cannot currently imagine. But we also need those businesses that are around already to step up, adapt themselves if necessary and entice us to go out and be human. That is admittedly a tough challenge, requiring all those skills — vision, imagination, communication skills, empathy etc — associated with successful executives. But, in the absence of anything convincing from much of the political class, it is one they must rise too. Otherwise, the lockdowns will truly have been for nought.