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Can governments beat the pandemic? Not alone

Sanjay Subramanian Principal, East Region Forensic Data Analytics Leader, PwC US March 11, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has been one of the biggest challenges facing governments in decades: millions of people sick or dying, thousands of businesses shuttered and millions of workers unemployed. For the past year, governments around the world have struggled to deal with this health and economic tsunami, and the massive efforts they’ve taken have certainly helped — but it’s clear there is more work to be done.

It’s also apparent that governments can’t do everything themselves. Fortunately, the US and many other nations have private sectors that are qualified and even eager to provide assistance. And because businesses aren’t as constrained as governments, I believe they can help in a number of ways.

For example, Amazon, Microsoft and Starbucks recently offered to help the US government with vaccine logistics and operations. Amazon offered its expertise in communication and technology as well as the use of thousands of drivers to deliver vaccines. Microsoft is opening up its office campus for use as a vaccination center (part of its partnership with the state of Washington), and Starbucks assigned members of its operations and analytics teams to help design vaccination sites.

These and other large companies that have offered assistance have thousands of employees, national operations, massive warehouses and — with so many employees working from home — plenty of empty office space. Many of these businesses are also financially secure enough to support vaccination efforts, something local and state governments may be struggling to provide.

Need for public-private partnerships 

To really make a difference, I believe it’s essential for public-private partnerships to go beyond the current crisis. Though government and business may have a somewhat adversarial relationship, nations need both to help solve major issues involving education, climate change, diversity and inclusion, infrastructure and a better-educated workforce. The list goes on.

Many companies in the private sector have spent decades developing creative talent and efficient processes. They’ve built new, efficient supply chains and learned how to harness innovation and technology to quickly adapt to challenging environments. Why should governments spend time and money to replicate these capabilities when they could work alongside the private sector to help solve collective problems?

On the other hand, companies in the private sector — in spite of their resources, efficiencies and desire to address critical issues — tend to tackle problems individually with bespoke and often uncoordinated initiatives. With limited, if any, coordination, many private sector efforts have not lived up to their potential. It is here that governments could play a crucial role by adopting a more collaborative approach.

This is a watershed moment — a time to develop a different, more productive relationship between the public and private sectors. Governments shouldn’t dictate approaches to businesses. Instead, they should steer the conversation to critical areas and let business take the lead in providing needed talent and resources. 

I’m convinced that working in partnership with business is the best way — perhaps the only way — for governments to help solve major problems like the pandemic. And the private sector is eager to help. In fact, the issue of purpose is something that many CEOs and boards are advocating. Broadening the definition of what it means to be a company beyond shareholder value is very important to many businesses, their employees, customers and investors. 

Roadmap for the future

Unfortunately, I think many of the problems various levels of governments are struggling with will likely continue in the future. When you consider the huge expenses related to the pandemic — along with severely reduced income, sales and property taxes — and then add large increases in healthcare and education spending, it’s clear that governments are facing a perfect economic storm.

But we can learn a number of lessons from this crisis — lessons that can help us chart a way to help solve the other problems nations are facing.

To recover from the COVID-19 crisis, a number of critical areas — including healthcare, education, racial equality, economic disparity, environmental issues, border management, unprecedented debt levels, digitization of government services, supply/distribution chains and lack of trust in government — need to be addressed. Governments must decide which of these areas to prioritize and when and how to call on the private sector to take the lead. 

This is not a political issue. It’s an economic one. There's only so much money to spread around, and most governments don’t have as much as the private sector. However, it’s also important to recognize that not every problem can be solved by throwing money at it. 

I think it’s unlikely that governments will be able to solve these problems on their own, so the business world needs to play its part. A strong public-private partnership, with the right level of talent, can offer a way out of the current crisis and provide an invaluable framework for us to collectively solve the problems we face as a nation.

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