Ripples of the Future

What will be our COVID-19 legacy?

In our 2021 predictions, we highlighted how COVID-19 has become the prism through which the future of risk is seen. Amid a global pandemic, bad news is easy to come by. But what will be the positive impacts, if any, on the world in years to come?

In this article, we explore how our 2021 predictions have transpired and what progress has been made against the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Organisations are getting ‘future ready’. Is yours?


Like a stone dropping into a pond, COVID-19 is creating ripples of the future:

In the centre of the above model, we can see our five predictions for 2021 – as the ripples flow outward the positive impacts are depicted. In the outer ring, the correlation to the relevant SDGs is mapped.


PREDICTION: The growing infodemic will increase demand for trusted sources of health & security information and advice

Communication with employees is improving

68% of CEOs say that communication with employees has improved during the pandemic (KPMG CEO Outlook). Which in turn can improve employee awareness and education in the context of the pandemic. A third of organisations find communicating during a crisis a top operational challenge (International SOS Risk Outlook 2021). This is a perennial challenge that surfaces in our Risk Outlook research, so improvements here could stand to reduce the impact of future crises or, indeed, make a significant change to current pandemic risks.



Public & private sector collaboration shows signs of improving information collection and sharing

Collaboration between the private and public sectors has worked well in some cases during the pandemic. For example, in March 2020, the World Economic Forum launched the COVID Action Platform and communicated weekly updates from governments, the World Health Organization, and vaccine manufacturers with more than 1,800 executives and leaders. The platform has helped channel the supply of essential equipment through the Pandemic Supply Chain Network.


PREDICTION: Ecopolitical turbulence will exacerbate tensions, civil unrest and crime

COVID-19 could strengthen overall resilience of countries, businesses & the international community

There is growing awareness that governments, organisations, and the community at large need to anticipate the next crisis. Using the learning from this crisis to enhance risk processes, capabilities and culture.

WEF outline four governance principles: (1) formulating analytical frameworks that take a holistic and systems-based view of risk impacts; (2) investing in high-profile 'risk champions' to encourage national leadership and international co-operation; (3) improving risk communications and combating misinformation; and (4) exploring new forms of public-private partnership to enhance risk preparedness. (WEF, Global Risks Report 2021).



Corporate commitment to positive societal change has been reinvigorated by the pandemic, despite an economic downturn

Despite the economic challenge most organisations have been presented with, CEOs are still very much engaged with the ESG (environment, social and governance) agenda, and in particular the social element:

Around two-thirds of CEOs (65 percent) say that the public is looking to businesses to fill the void on societal challenges. At the same time, 76 percent said they had a personal responsibility to be a ‘leader for change on societal issues’. For example, following the George Floyd protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, 81 percent either publicly announced new anti-racism measures in 2020 or plan to do so in the near term.

Businesses will continue to help governments with COVID-19

Many private organisations are among the companies offering the US government assistance with logistics and operations (New York Times). One major coffee brand is assigning workers from its operations and analytics departments to help design vaccination sites, donating the labour to the same state while continuing to pay employees.



Governments are calling upon the support of organisations/business to support vaccine distribution

Private / government partnerships (logistics, warehouse and IT companies, etc.– new in the field of health). Will it lead to long-lasting positive improvements? Could it be used as an agent for global health equality e.g. fair distribution of other vaccines and preventative health initiatives (e.g. malaria, HIV); partnership for the goals. Could competitive pharma companies work together to produce vaccines, as a consortium of companies buying vaccines for their use and for redistribution? The crisis has generated new ideas for partnerships to tackle a common threat.



PREDICTION: Mental health issues will be a primary productivity disruptor

Mental health stigma has decreased

A third of organisations now see mental health issues as an operational challenge (International SOS Risk Outlook 2021). This is a consistent view, across the globe. The acceptance of mental health issues on this scale is unprecedented, and the stigma associated with it has been somewhat diminished.

However, there are concerns about how countries will be able to cope with growing demand for support. A survey conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO), found that COVID-19 is causing major disruptions to critical mental health services in most countries. The WHO has previously highlighted the chronic underfunding of mental health: prior to the pandemic, countries were spending less than 2 per cent of their national health budgets on mental health, and struggling to meet the needs of their populations.


Corporate wellness spending is growing

In light of public health bodies lacking funds to increase mental health services, corporates are bridging the gap already: the global corporate wellness market size is expected to reach USD 87.2 billion by 2027 (Grand View Research): The market is expected to expand at a CAGR of 5.4% from 2020 to 2027.

Employers have started offering some fitness programmes for the purpose of disease prevention and improved productivity. According to a study conducted by Harvard economists, absenteeism costs fall by USD 2.7 for every dollar spent on fitness programmes. Therefore, employees need to be encouraged to adopt a healthier lifestyle to improve their performance.

Employers providing corporate fitness programmes have noticed a significant rise in productivity and a decline in sickness absence and attrition. In addition, for companies in the UK, the government initiated the Fit for Work service, which offers a tax benefit of USD 663.3 per year for occupational health provision.


PREDICTION: Pandemic borne crisis management teams will redefine Duty of Care practices

The legitimacy of employers to address employees’ health has increased

The COVID-19 pandemic has shed a new light on how employers have become relevant to tackling employee health issues, beyond the traditional fields of occupational health. Employers had to implement health interventions far beyond usual limits and into the lifestyle of employees, such as organising their personal lives, healthy behaviours, etc. This was welcomed by most.

As a corollary, some studies have shown that employees trust their employers to address health issues more than governments or health authorities. They are prepared to see their employer intervene more in their health. Increased take-up rates of seasonal flu vaccine within companies last winter (2020-2021), may reflect the level of confidence given to employers to control disease, beyond the workplace.

This crisis is an opportunity for employers to take advantage of the legitimacy they have gained to support their employees’ health, which turns out to be one of the raised expectations of the workforce.


Many primary care givers’ careers will no longer have lack of physical attendance as a barrier to progression

There is also good news for those workers who have had their home location restrict their career options in the past: 73 percent of CEOs believe that remote working has actually widened their available talent pool. (KPMG CEO Outlook)

Lockdowns are encouraging some men to take on a greater share of domestic tasks and demanding enlightened work policies: 60 per cent of men strongly agree that working remotely will improve women’s ability to advance to higher levels of business in the future. (FT / Quantum Metrics).


CEOs now perceive employee talent as the key to growth in a new reality

In the first eight months of 2020, ‘talent risk’ moved from 12th place on the CEO’s risk register to first: reflecting the conviction that talent will be key to driving long-term growth and building an organization that can thrive in a new reality (KPMG CEO Outlook). Company actions during the pandemic will undoubtedly shape the views of existing employee talent, and external reputation will be scrutinised by the talent they seek to attract.



COVID-19 is making the rich & powerful more empathetic

Major crises are often watched by wealthier nations, but rarely experienced by them. COVID-19 is different. For example, by early 2021, the UK had experienced as many deaths due to COVID-19 as civilian casualties in World War 2. Similar comparisons can be drawn in the USA. Wealthy people in both countries now have a real-life understanding of what it’s like to live somewhere with high/extreme health risks, overwhelmed public healthcare services, and hugely restricted lives (e.g. lockdown/curfews).

CEOs are no exception: they are clearly determined to learn from the pandemic and their own personal experience to recalibrate and make not only the best-informed decisions, but also the most authentic ones. Out of those who were personally affected by the health implications of the crisis, 55% percent changed their strategic response, either completely or to some degree (KPMG CEO Outlook).


Technology / TeleHealth – proven its efficacy and cost effectiveness

Accessibility has improved for some primary care needs (e.g. remote consultation with a GP). The crisis has forced an optimisation in the use of existing technology, such as telehealth, to become a must-have in the portfolio of healthcare services accessible to employees. This was particularly true for employees working in remote environments, or in locations where the level of care was inadequate or when the security implications of visiting healthcare facilities were too high. Telehealth has proven reliable, trusted, efficient, cost-saving, while ensuring the same patient experience in well-defined conditions of use. This has helped raise the profile and the confidence in the use of technology for healthcare provision by employers.

The CDC reported a 154% increase in telehealth visits in the USA during the last week of March 2020, compared with the same period in 2019.


PREDICTION: Singular focus on COVID-19 will create risk blind spots

Increased handwashing awareness could prevent infections and save lives beyond the pandemic

In addition to a greater promotion on social media platforms and other advertising outlets, the importance of handwashing is now frequently seen on daily news reports, as handwashing initiatives are taken on by service users, politicians, public figures and many others. It is commendable to see greater and more widespread efforts to raise handwashing awareness and a notable increase in people speaking up and talking about the importance of handwashing. (US National Library of Medicine).

Diarrhea and pneumonia are leading causes of death for children under the age of five. Handwashing with soap is among the most effective and inexpensive ways to prevent these diseases. This behaviour can save lives, cutting diarrhea by almost one-half and acute respiratory infections by nearly one-quarter. Handwashing with soap impacts not just health and nutrition, but also education, economics, and equity. (Global Handwashing Partnership).


Health promotion and communication improvements

COVID-19 has had a global community affect: a growth of understanding that small actions can positively impact the community in which we live. This crisis, as anticipated as it was, and as unprepared as we were, has raised the case for the upcoming ones, such as climate change. Not only has it shown that companies should review their travel patterns and policies. It has also shown that their power to educate their employees against a common threat, today COVID-19, tomorrow global warning and extreme weather, did yield results. This is an opportunity to embark with employees in shared, inspiring projects aligned with the sustainability mission and agenda of their company.


Corporate investors are making ESG go mainstream

ESG is top of mind for the executives of global institutional investing firms (HBR, The Investor Revolution). Corporate leaders will be under increasing pressure from shareholders for ESG performance.

Two thirds of CEOs believe that it is likely that managing climate-related risks will be a key factor in them keeping their job over the next 5 years.

The USA has reinvigorated hopes for climate action: almost immediately after taking office, President Biden instructed the US government to pause and review all oil and gas drilling on federal land, eliminate fossil fuel subsidies and transform the government’s vast fleet of cars and trucks into electric vehicles, in a sweeping new set of climate executive orders.


COVAX could reduce the global health inequalities that COVID-19 is exposing

Vaccine access will show the greatest divide between rich and poor. However, the WHO’s COVAX initiative – to ensure rapid and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines for all countries – could bring a health equality to infectious disease prevention, that has never existed before. Indirectly, this could also serve as a welcome reminder to wealthier nations that health equality is in all our best interests (if COVID-19 is left unaddressed, as mutation is inevitable, and if vaccine-resistant, we could find ourselves back at the beginning).

Hopes for the success of COVAX were boosted in January 2021, when the US announced it would join the initiative (FT).



Sustainability at International SOS

Discover how International SOS helps organisations to develop, grow and protect human capital at work and in life, for now and the future: