As a businesswoman in Saudi Arabia with more than 25 years of experience in the education sector, and chair of the B20 Saudi Arabia Future of Work and Education Taskforce, I have not seen a more challenging time for business than what we are experiencing today. And based on my interaction with business leaders all over the world, I know I am not alone.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created a perfect storm that puts our personal and economic health squarely at its center. While the virus is an invisible enemy, its symptoms — from a health and commercial standpoint — certainly are not. Each day we watch as rising infection and death tolls stream across our computer and television screens almost in sync with the unemployment numbers, which could reach 25 million people globally according to estimates from the International Labour Organization (ILO). This is certainly uncharted waters for governments, businesses and workers in every one of the 179 countries impacted by this health and economic crisis.
To address this new reality, in alignment with the B20 Saudi Arabia COVID-19 initiative and the joint call to action with the World Health Organization and the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), my taskforce identified several key considerations for business continuity amidst this crisis as well as the future of work and education post-pandemic.
Prioritize immediate actions to overcome today’s challenges and build resilience for the future
Technology plays a vital role in the response to the crisis as many companies around the world have shifted to remote work. At the same time, it is key for students to continue with their education virtually. To enable the continuity of economic activity and education, governments must prioritize making immediately available the necessary technological infrastructure, such as clearing the path for 5G networks.
Women in particular are among those who will feel the hardest economic impact as more of them work in insecure, informal and low-paying jobs. Governments must take women into account when devising their responses to the crisis.
Uncertainty has gripped employees and employers alike. Most companies have put on hold their production or provision of services while millions of employees have lost their jobs or fear losing them. Governments must support employers so they can continue paying wages and retain talent. On the other hand, those employees who can work from home are now faced with the added responsibility of schooling and caring for their children at the same time. These workers — both male and female — need their governments to act now and enforce policies enabling flexible work arrangements.
We must take measures to protect the most vulnerable businesses, workers and students
All businesses will feel the financial pinch of the COVID-19 crisis, but none will be hit harder than the small and local businesses who are the lifeline of communities around the world. Their economic well being is critical not only to the towns and villages where they operate, but also to the supply chains of multinational corporations who are reliant on their goods and services. We must provide additional support to protect micro, small and medium businesses (MSMEs) as they are the largest employers and job creators and therefore supporting them will be critical to fight unemployment. While large companies have the financial capability to withstand this tide, MSMEs need attractive working capital to survive, revive and thrive.
Hundreds of millions of workers and people excluded from the system face serious risks due to the economic fallout of the pandemic. To avoid falling into poverty, women, students, the elderly, informal workers and the unskilled will need increased social protection from their governments. Governments must scale up the provision of health benefits and the safety net around the most vulnerable, including workers on daily wages.
Plan for the future and a healthy economy
Digital technologies and infrastructure have been put to the test with the current crisis. Businesses and education systems must fast track the adoption of digital technologies and advance the transition we had anticipated pre-pandemic to a more digitalized world. However, only 59 about percent of the global population has access to the tools needed to work from home or attend school online. We must prioritize access for all if we want to bridge this digital divide and ensure the disadvantaged are not left behind.
Some of the measures taken to cope with the current crisis, such as supporting MSMEs, enabling flexible work arrangements, taking women into account and eliminating gender-based discrimination, must be turned into permanent policies that will contribute to a resilient and healthy future economy.
We are still in the management phase of this crisis. From teleworking to social learning, we are bringing to bear all the tools available to us and are making progress despite the roadblocks in front of us. At the same time, we must look ahead at the recovery and revitalization phase which will allow countries, businesses and citizens to get back on a path of growth and development. In my role as Chair of the Future of Work and Education Taskforce, I can speak on behalf of my colleagues in the B20 Saudi Arabia network here at home and in the other G20 countries that we are confident we can navigate this current crisis and put the global economy on the path to recovery. We must, we can, we will.
Dr. Ilham Mansour Al-Dakheel is chief executive of the educational consultancy Dur Alkuttab and chair of the Future of Work & Education Taskforce, B20 Saudi Arabia.
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