Winner – Best News Website or Mobile Service | Asian Digital Media Awards 2019

Could the coronavirus outbreak be sustainability’s big break?

The global impact of COVID-19 is still unfolding as the virus spreads. But there could be a silver lining to the outbreak for China and the world’s sustainability ambitions.

China’s sustainability journey has been one of ‘two steps forward, one step back’. While lauded for the phenomenal progress it has made in areas such as renewable energy and poverty alleviation, China’s developmental path has been riddled with challenges.

The country may be famed for ‘China speed,’ but when it comes to realising its ambitious sustainable development goals, China’s size and complexity can mean change does not come quickly.

Perhaps, like the ‘airpocalyptic’ days before the central government scrambled to tackle air pollution, what China needs is a jolt to the system, a stimulus that forces swift action.

COVID-19 could be the wake-up call China needs.

The impact of the coronavirus outbreak, which has turned China’s vibrant cities into ghost towns overnight, is now being felt globally, with supply chains disrupted for everything from iPhones to automobiles.

Already projected to have a more severe impact than the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak, China is now threading a fine line between managing a potentially deadly health epidemic, and keeping its economy afloat.

But while the business world scrambles to figure out how to keep working without the largest manufacturing economy, some positive signals have been emerging for the sustainability community. Here are six:

China’s war on wildlife trade may finally be taken seriously

China’s recent announcement to fast-track a ban on the trade and consumption of wildlife was a direct result of the Coronavirus outbreak.

Though the directive is only temporary, the gravity of the virus has shone a spotlight on China’s wildlife trade, raising important questions about the risks and morality of wildlife consumption. Even on China’s heavily censored social media platforms, a discourse on the wildlife trade is allowing for more civic society voices to be heard.

Such bans have never been known to be effective. And while China struggles to enforce restrictions on the wildlife trade, greater ground-up scrutiny may allow for China’s centuries old traditions for exotic medicines to finally be debunked. As the WildAid ad goes: When the buying stops, the killing can too.

The future of telecommuting could allow greater work flexibility across the country

While the trend for remote working has proliferated in recent years, it has largely been concentrated in a small number of sectors. The extended lockdown period, now affecting 500 million people in 48 cities, has inadvertently forced many Chinese enterprises to rethink the way they work while staying productive.

On a wider scale, the move to greater use of video and teleconferencing could help companies review their travel policies. This not only helps save on time and costs, the often overlooked Scope 3 carbon footprint goals under the widely used GHG Protocol greenhouse gas management tool, may no longer be as elusive as they seem. 

A sickly healthcare industry could be given a new lease of life 

This virus has exposed the limitations of China’s healthcare system at a time when China’s baby boomers are entering their sunset years.

Despite the media frenzy around China’s ability to build two hospitals in ten days, China’s creaking healthcare sector has long suffered from a lack of resources, especially in the rural provinces. A typical hardware versus software issue on the surface smothers a systemic problem of inequality and inefficiency that run deep in the veins of a resource intensive industry.

As Wuhan, the epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak, continues to deal with a rising number of cases week after week, severely overworked medical staff workers are being hailed as heroes from China and around the world. This will hopefully shine a light on the need for greater engagement with the doctors and nurses across China’s public health service. Feedback from healthcare workers will not only help to improve their working conditions and interests, it will be a valuable source of ideas for how to improve the system.

A boost to strategising China’s traditional philanthropy efforts

China’s roots in traditional philanthropy may have been the foundation of many companies today, but strategic giving beyond cash donations has been slow. 

Traditional forms of philanthropy may be useful, but are often diffused and unfocused. Strategic corporate giving, closely tied to well thought-out business objectives to ensure that contributions reflect the values of the organisation, deploy funds more effectively.

In the case for the COVID-19 outbreak, tech giants JD.Com and Alibaba not only doubled down on their tech capabilities to ensure communities received their much-needed food and health supplies, they announced hiring 20,000 additional workers to support those whose jobs were affected by the virus.

Prioritising an underrated issue: supply chain resilience

A study by Harvard Business Review found that 60 per cent of the 779 readers it surveyed warned that poor visibility of who they do business with is a significant source of risk. Shocks such as disease outbreaks and natural disasters often expose global companies to vulnerabilities in their supply chains. And the results to business continuity can be punishing.

China’s economy is 16 per cent of global GDP. Its electronics sector accounts for 28 per cent of the industry globally, while its share of the global textiles industry is 40 per cent. Suffice to say that when China catches a cold, the rest of the world sneezes.

This current epidemic is likely to result in companies taking a more proactive approach to managing risks in their supply chains. Identifying areas of vulnerability and ensuring potential disruptions are dealt with promptly will be taken more seriously in boardrooms. 

COVID-19: a Chinese virus? A lesson in human empathy

Perhaps the most important lesson now unravelling is one of human empathy. Previous virus outbreaks that have emerged from difference parts of the world may have triggered similar fears of simplistic ethnic associations – Ebola from Africa, or MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) from the Middle East.

COVID-19’s origin from a city in central China has raised fears of racism and xenophobia around the world. The viral nature of the coronavirus story may have contributed to fuelling sentiments of fear and hostility, but in many ways it has allowed for greater public discourse. Such discussions enable us as individuals to reflect on our own unconscious prejudices.

When China’s researchers identified the genetic sequencing of the novel coronavirus back in January 2020, they posted it online without delay. Very swiftly, scientists around the world got cracking on developing much needed test-kits and a vaccine. Such global collaboration requires governments and businesses to work together, toward one goal.

This should be the biggest lesson for us all.

Thanks for reading to the end of this story!

We would be grateful if you would consider joining as a member of The EB Circle. This helps to keep our stories and resources free for all, and it also supports independent journalism dedicated to sustainable development. For a small donation of S$60 a year, your help would make such a big difference.

Find out more and join The EB Circle

blog comments powered by Disqus

Most popular

View all news

Industry Spotlight

View all

Feature Series

View all
Asia Pacific's Hub For Collaboration On Sustainable Development
An Eco-Business initiative
The SDG Co