CEOs And Covid: Winning In The Homestretch

How business leadership can help stop a two-years global health crisis from turning into a generational one.

You’re probably tired of reading about Covid. I’m tired of writing about it. After all, there is so much more to life—and business—than what we’ve endured with this virus. And yet. For those that have led through this time, this last year will prove to be indelible. And it is not over.

In the U.S., we definitely are in the homestretch. Everything seems to be pointing that way. Nearly 50 percent of Americans have received at least one dose of vaccine. Many, many more soon will. It would seem America was well on our way to the end of this horrible time.

Kids are back in school. New York City—an early epicenter of the outbreak—will remove practically all restrictions on business in just a couple weeks. Consumer businesses are—often with more care and caution than their governments allow—rapidly reopening locations. Meanwhile, manufacturers and most white-collar companies are taking things methodically, sticking with masks, remote work or a combination. Far from the media glare, CEOs who fought hard and sacrificed over the past year to keep business going are in no rush to change plans and risk disaster just yet.

It’s a good time for business—quietly, perhaps—to take a bit of a bow. At almost every level, in almost every state, the past year has shown U.S. private enterprise to be up to the big challenge of our times. We didn’t do it alone, of course. Government action, especially a well-timed and well-sized blast of 2020 stimulus and the “Warp Speed” program for vaccine development played an essential role.

All but the most intellectually dishonest and strident anti-business voices would have to admit at this point that capitalism—yes, it’s ok to use the word—has proven to be a powerful and essential tool to combat Covid, developing vaccines, protecting workers, keeping the economy going and bringing hope to billions.

The challenge for CEOs now is to keep the effort going, starting with getting more Americans vaccinated. You seem to be in near-unanimous agreement on the importance of this effort: Our monthly gauges of optimism for our CEO, CFO and public-company director communities been on a tear for the last few months—all predicated on the success of vaccination efforts.

But the opportunity for herd immunity could be slipping though our grasp amid widespread vaccine hesitancy. There is—sadly—widespread mistrust of government and public health officials among many Americans. Who do they trust? Well, you, if polls are to be believed.

That means you can potentially make the difference at a critical time and move the needle (pun unintentional, sorry) on vaccination when others can’t. (For CEOs looking for advice on how to help get their people vaccinated, we offer some ideas in a special report we published a few weeks ago.)

As we move to this next phase of the crisis, it is also critically important for business leaders to look beyond our borders, where things are not going quite so well. Vast swaths of the world are deficient in basic Covid supplies such as oxygen, let alone vaccine. In India, in Latin America, in Africa millions and millions of people are still contracting and spreading Covid. While they wait for inoculation, the virus is mutating and threatening to turn a two-years global health crisis into a generational one.

This matters to everyone because the virus does not know national boundaries. As we’ve come to learn, the botched, fearful response of some regional government officials in China may have allowed the worst health and economic disaster of our lifetimes to occur.

What happened in Wuhan should be our guide going forward. Unlike those local apparatchiks, we should not be afraid of the truth or of the challenge ahead—or underplay it. We should channel Jim Collins and continue to “confront the brutal facts”: It will take the ingenuity, strength and generosity of America—particularly American business—to eradicate it or even control Covid long-term. We’ve been up to the challenge of the last year. We’re up to the task of the next one, too.

Dan Bigman is Editor and Chief Content Officer of Chief Executive Group, publishers of Chief Executive, Corporate Board Member, ChiefExecutive.net, Boardmember.com and StrategicCFO360. Previously he was Managing Editor at Forbes and the founding business editor of NYTimes.com.