The World Bank reported that the economic fall-out from the COVID-19 pandemic will push as many as 150 million people to the extreme poverty line in 2021; and eight in 10 of these new poor will come from middle-income countries. When more than half of the world’s population still do not have access to basic medical care, this new troubling statistic forewarns the state of global health as the crisis rages on, and that concerted commitments and new strategies need to be put in place to address the structural inequities that play a part in access to health.
The vulnerabilities faced by migrant workers and ethnic minorities around the world is a poignant case of inequality. Fierce Healthcare reported that about 77% of COVID-19 cases in Chicago comprised of people of colour even though they only make up 30% of the city’s population. This is largely attributed to the pre-existing social and environmental conditions that been exacerbated by the public health crisis. It is probably apt that COVID-19 has been dubbed as a ‘pandemic of inequality’.
If COVID-19 has a lesson for us with regards to health, it is this: our social environments matter just as much as our DNA and lifestyle choices. Experts are cognisant of the fact that joblessness, lack of education and racial inequities—and the policies that perpetuate these—are part and parcel of the problems that need to be fixed.
Social, economic and health disparities are so intertwined that changes at a whole-of-society or whole-of-system levels are required. Addressing these is not just the within the domains of national governments or civil societies. Corporations—large or small—should make health equity their business; if not for three simple reasons: productivity, the bottom line and it’s the right thing to do. After all, a healthy workforce is the foundation of a thriving business—and ultimately, a thriving economy.
So, what can companies do?
Improve inclusivity at the workplace
Businesses should look within and evaluate policies that promote diversity, equity and inclusion. Eliminating or addressing disparities can enhance employees’ opportunities for advancement and thrive. This has downstream social, economic and health impact on the the individuals and the community.
Forge partnerships to improve equity
Partnerships that promote social determinants of health from community health screenings to education to job re-skilling to food security; these are areas that businesses can get involved. Companies should identify partnerships and projects that align with their core values and missions.
Promote workplace health and wellness
As payers within the health system, employers have a role in health promotion and prevention. Developing workplace wellness programmes require taking into account the social and cultural environments. Unilever’s HIV/AIDS programme in Africa is a stellar example of a company’s considered approach to workplace health, improving health equity, and company’s bottomline.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a catalyst for change and renewal. It offers an opportunity for us to rethink and redesign how we move forward as a community and emerge out of this crisis stronger.